The Government has failed to implement the most important recommendations for mining on conservation land, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment says.
Following mass protests and an eventual government U-turn on a plan to open schedule 4 conservation land to mining in 2010, commissioner Jan Wright recommended changing the way mining in conservation land is handled.
Now, almost four years on, Dr Wright has written an update to that report saying the Government has not made enough progress. The report points out that under the current regime it is easier to get permission to mine conservation land than to set up a low-impact tourism operation.
"In law, the difference is that the Minister of Conservation must only 'have regard' to conservation laws and the reasons the land is protected in deciding whether or not to grant access to mining operations.
"By contrast the Conservation Minister 'shall not grant' access to other businesses if doing so is contrary to the conservation laws and reasons for protection. As a result, relatively benign activities such as guided tours and adventure tourism face a tougher legal test for access to the conservation estate than mining operations."
Dr Wright is also unhappy that the Government is still allowing decisions about mining to be made jointly by the Energy and Resources Minister as well as the Conservation Minister.
"The Minister of Conservation is accountable to the public for safeguarding the conservation estate. So this joint decision-making is at odds with a basic principle of good governance, namely, that the power to make a decision should be aligned with the accountability for that decision."
Conservation Minister Nick Smith has dismissed the criticism. He said the Government wants to look after those areas which are treasured and special to New Zealand, but also want jobs and economic growth.
Mining industry says rules strict
Conservation group Forest and Bird advocacy manager Kevin Hackwell wants all plans to prospect or mine in conservation land halted until the commissioner's recommendations are implemented.
"It's the Minister of Energy and Resources' job to maximise the amount of mining done in New Zealand. Putting him in charge of deciding which parts of the conservation estate can be mined is like letting the fox decide whether his family can live in the henhouse."
But the chief executive of mining industry group Straterra, Chris Baker, said the current rules were strict enough.
"It's certainly not leading to preferential treatment for mining. It is very hard to get mining activities progressed in New Zealand, it's harder than it is in other jurisdictions ... We don't have a big rush of exploration or mining."
Jan Wright said mining can, if handled correctly, be beneficial for the conservation estate. A plan to mine the Denniston Plateu which includes a $22 million compenstation package meant the project would have a net benefit to the environment, she said.