Forest & Bird remains opposed to the swap of 22 hectares of Ruahine Forest Park for 170 hectares of private land - needed for the controversial Ruataniwha Dam to go ahead -  saying it will not result in a "net gain for conservation" as stated by the Department of Conservation.

The investment arm of Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, the Hawkes Bay Regional Investment Company, applied to DOC for the land exchange required for its controversial Ruataniwha Water Storage scheme - a 7km long dam which will be able to irrigate 25,000 hectares of land. The application was granted on Monday by DOC’s Director General Lou Sanson.

Forest & Bird Legal counsel Peter Anderson says there were two critical issues at play.

"Firstly we have the legal issue of whether an area legally protected by the Conservation Act and deemed a Forest Park can be demoted to stewardship land, to allow it to be removed from the Park. Secondly, there is the ecological argument that the land already protected and part of Ruahine Forest Park has far greater value than the land it’s being replaced with."

Peter Anderson says the 22 hectares is a lowland riverine ecosystem that contains significant and distinct wetlands, a section of rare braided river, shrublands and forest that contains specific habitats for threatened species such as long tailed bat, New Zealand falcon, North Island fernbird, red mistletoe and indigenous fish species.

The land being exchanged is a poor cousin with less distinct wetlands, no braided river systems and is less likely to contain diversity of threatened fish.

"There is no legal justification for the land swap. If it were to proceed we will lose a threatened environment with rare ecosystems and species and be replacing it with land of far lesser ecological value and diversity," said Peter Anderson, who was also reported as saying his group would be considering the decision closely before deciding whether to take legal action.

 In a statement, DOC Director General, Lou Sanson said he approved the land exchange because it would result in a "net gain for conservation."

The decision means that the Department of Conservation will receive approximately 170 hectares of private land containing beech forest and regenerating native bush, in return for 22 hectares of the Ruahine Forest Park, which will be flooded if the dam is built.

“The public will gain three times the area of black beech forest under this proposal, plus the new land will extend and complement the adjacent Gwavas Conservation Area,” Sanson said.

The 170 hectare exchange block also includes two additional wetland sites, and is promising habitat for skinks and geckos, he says.

“On the other hand, the 22 hectares to be removed from the Ruahine Forest Park has been heavily logged in the past, is partly infested with weeds such as willow and Darwin’s barberry and contains a former house site,” Sanson said.

Mr Sanson says the decision follows a thorough and open public process and the careful assessment of the ecological values of both sites. 

The Director General has decided to revoke the protected status of the 22 hectares of Ruahine Forest Park to enable the exchange to take place.

Under the Conservation Act, proposed land exchanges must result in an overall conservation gain for public conservation land and promote the purposes of the Act.

“I believe this land exchange well and truly meets that test,” he says.

Sanson said the land exchange is conditional on the Hawke’s Bay Regional Investment Company undertaking extra conservation programmes to help eradicate wilding pines from the exchange land and to restore whio/blue duck habitat.

The exchange is also conditional on the Ruataniwha water storage scheme going ahead. The regional council has agreed to commit $80million of ratepayers money to the project, subject to a number of conditions being met. Some of those have been satisfied but more farmers need to sign up for water contracts by November before it can progress further.

In a separate decision, the Hawke’s Bay Regional Investment Company will be required to trap and transfer native fish species present at the dam site.

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