The Department of Conservation describes itself as “the Government agency charged with conserving New Zealand’s natural heritage”.

Which is why New Zealanders are scratching their heads over the department’s decision to fight a court ruling that … conserves New Zealand’s natural heritage. 

A bit of background for those not familiar with the case. At the end of August, the Court of Appeal ruled in Forest and Bird’s favour that a land swap (involving parts of the protected Ruahine Forest Park) to allow the Ruataniwha Dam to proceed, was unlawful.

The land, which borders the Makaroro River and Dutch Creek, has high conservation values, but DoC downgraded it so that it could be swapped and the area flooded for the dam.

Er, no, said the Court of Appeal, that’s not how it goes. 

(the land in question)

But yesterday DoC sought leave to appeal the Court of Appeal's decision. In other words, the Minister of Conservation intends to use taxpayers’ money to go to the Supreme Court to get specially protected conservation land forsaken for a giant polluting irrigation dam.

Veering this much from brief would get most people sacked. What's more, it’s part of a pattern. Forest and Bird’s lawyer has expressed frustration at the extent to which DoC is increasingly at odds with environmentalists. She told Checkpoint yesterday “more often than not we are finding ourselves on the other side of the table to the Department...this is not the way things used to be”.

We get it. The Government is desperate for the Ruataniwha dam to go ahead. It’s big irrigation’s poster child;  the pastoral equivalent of Simon Bridge’s drilling programme. But John Key should stand warned. New Zealanders don’t like their protected conservation land being confiscated for mining. “Large-scale irrigation” is just a gentler way of saying water mining.  

(In 2010, more than 40,000 people marched against the Govt's plans to mine conservation land)

If they can rip the Ruahine Forest Park out of public hands for the sake of an industrial irrigation scheme, it sets a dangerous precedent.

Meanwhile, the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council’s investment company (HBRIC) has joined the Minister in applying for leave to appeal the Court of Appeal’s ruling.  And just incase that appeal doesn’t work, it’s also leaving open the nuclear option - getting the land forcibly removed under the Public Works Act. 

This is a hugely controversial, Muldoon-esque move.  If HBRIC goes ahead with this, there’s going to be a massive public outcry. Apart from anything else, they should not be trying to remove public land for a private irrigation scheme that will benefit 192 private landowners. 

To conclude: our land and water is under attack, in large part by the people duty bound to protect them.

We need to fight back. If you haven’t already, please sign our petition to stop large public subsidies for large-scale irrigation. If you live in Hawke’s Bay, make sure you vote in the local elections (after finding out where your candidates stand on the dam), because the outcome of the election could really matter. And if you live elsewhere in New Zealand and are worried about the impact of irrigation on our waterways, click this link to make sure there’s not a dirty big scheme planned near you.