Saturday, December 2, 2023

A lifetime of fighting for the land

Neal Wallace
Eugenie Sage is retiring after a political career in which she completely changed the relationship between pastoral lessees and the Crown.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

The list was long and Eugenie Sage concedes she was not able to tick everything  off.

As a cabinet minister of both lands and conservation, she was able to introduce new policy in areas in which she was a long-time active environmentalist, including the South Island high country.

Sage is retiring at the October election, having spent three terms as a Green Party list Member of Parliament after being first elected in 2011.

Following the 2017 election, when the Greens were part of the Labour-led coalition, Sage was appointed minister of conservation and of land information. 

As conservation minister she pushed through a biodiversity strategy that she had been involved with since the 1990s when it was first mooted, and also the controversial cull of Himalayan tahr, which was eventually scaled down.

As lands minister she completely reformed the relationship between pastoral lessees and the Crown, which included ending tenure review, where farmers could freehold part of their pastoral lease for retiring land of conservation value.

She says this will see conservation values enhanced through regulation rather than the government buying land off lessees through the tenure review process.

Her approach to these portfolios is hardly surprising given her background, which includes time as a field officer for Royal Forest and Bird and an Environment Canterbury regional councillor.

During that stage of her career, she advocated for greater protection for the environment and biodiversity, especially in waterways and the high country.

Born and raised in Auckland, Sage spent her childhood playing in adjacent gullies and holidaying on a relative’s farm.

“It was a free-range childhood, an opportunity for kids to connect with nature,” she says.

At Auckland University she studied law, art and journalism, and cut her teeth as a environmental activist, protesting against the opening of New Zealand’s first McDonald’s fast food restaurant and the replacement of milk bottles by Tetra Paks.

“I was concerned about fast food and litter and the very corporate model. With Tetra Pak, it was the move away from reusable bottles.”

That commitment to environmental activism was enhanced with a short-term role with the NZ Forest Service on the West Coast, where Sage wrote articles for the media and took guided bush walks.

At that stage rimu trees were still being harvested on the coast and Sage recalls being traumatised when visiting a recently logged area near Okarito in Westland, something that would influence the direction of her career.

“It was a scene of devastation,” she says.

In 1985 she worked in the Labour Party’s Research Unit and then as press secretary to Helen Clark, who was then conservation minister in the David Lange-led Labour Government.

Soon after, Sage shifted to a field office role with Forest and Bird in Christchurch, where she worked for 13 years.

One of the projects she actively campaigned in was ending native logging on the West Coast, which was ultimately successful.

That work also introduced Sage to issues in the South Island high country, and she submitted on consents from farmers seeking to go through tenure review or to develop their land.

In 2007 she was elected to ECan but lost that role in 2010 when the government replaced elected officials with commissioners due to issues with the council’s performance.

That work enhanced her interest in biodiversity and environmental stewardship of waterways and the high country.

That time on council and in Parliament reinforced her view that NZ needs a “substantial reduction in animal agriculture”, especially dairying, saying it has especially impacted Canterbury freshwater resources.

She sees a future with more horticulture and niche industries like hemp and merino fabric.

As lands minister from 2017-2020, Sage oversaw the passage of the Crown Pastoral Lands Act (CPLA), which imposed tighter controls on what pastoral lessees can do on their farms, driven, she says, by trying to reverse what she calls a biodiversity crisis.

She makes no excuse for the CPLA, which pastoral lessees claim is overly punitive.

“There has been a huge loss of biodiversity in the high country through burning and cultivation, so we need a strong regulatory framework.

“There has been private commercial gain from the conversion of shrub land to clover and pasture at a cost to biodiversity.

“There is no point having laws if you don’t enforce them.”

The Act requires farmers to seek permission for more activities such as weed control and soil disturbance from their landlord, the Commissioner of Crown Lands, and requires Land information NZ (LINZ) staff to inspect pastoral leases more regularly.

Consideration of farmer applications now include input from iwi, an additional step some farmers fear could slow the process unless there is a legislated time frame by which views have to be lodged.

Sage says it is appropriate Ngāi Tahu has input given the cultural significance of the land.

She does not think this will lead to delays, saying Ngāi Tahu has systems in place for considering and responding to such applications.

After initial resistance to the CPLA, Sage says, there has been less pushback and she hopes it will encourage more assessment and understanding of ecological values.

She also hopes the Act will foster an improved relationship between lessees and LINZ, saying functions such as farm inspections were previously contracted out, making it a bureaucratic exercise.

“That relationship is critical and needs to be a partnership.”

She acknowledges farmers feel their efforts to protect and enhance the environment is not fully acknowledged.

But pastoral “rents are low” and she says lessees have benefited from the current model, so it is appropriate the focus shifts to biodiversity and the environment.

The end to tenure review was crucial to achieve that.

Instead of the government acquiring land for the conservation estate through tenure review, Sage says, regulations will provide a high level of protection.

“I hope those in the high country increasingly recognise the importance of landscape and habitats.”

Whether the CPLA has met its goals is still to be assessed, but it is an example of the benefits of having the same person responsible for both conservation and lands.

She did not achieve all of her goals in areas such as tighter fisheries regulation, adding new marine conservation areas and protecting native fish such as Hector’s dolphin.

As she contemplates retirement, Sage, who is “in my sixties”is looking forward to once again tramping in the back country and body surfing.

But even in retirement, she cannot see herself closing the door on a lifetime of environmental activism.

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