The Department of Conservation is being accused of failing in its conservation role after it made a neutral submission on a proposed West Coast coal mine.
Rangitira Developments has applied for resource consent to create an open cast coal mine on Mt Te Kuha near Westport, part of which will be on 12 hectares of public conservation land.
The Department of Conservation has made a joint submission with the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment, saying if consent is granted then sufficient mitigations must be put in place to "minimise the loss of conservation values".
The submission neither supports or opposes the mine, but the department's own expert evidence said the land was high value and home to at-risk flora and fauna.
It said despite mitigations and safeguards being proposed, there would be "notable adverse effects that could not be avoided".
That included a negative impact on several rare and threatened species, particularly bryophytes, and a vulnerable lizard species.
Senior lecturer in wildlife management at Lincoln University James Ross said the habitat was not just rare in New Zealand, but also rare in the world.
He was worried DOC's submission did not reflect the Conservation Act, which was to promote conservation of the country's natural and historic resources.
"Recovery takes a long time and once you modify habitat it never comes back to what it was before," he said.
Dr Ross described the proposal as "scary", saying he could not see any benefit for New Zealand conservation in it.
"It's going to set a precedent I think for future development," Dr Ross said.
Rangitira has also had to apply to DOC for access to the conservation land, no decision has been made on that yet, but when it is, it will be made by both the Minister of Conservation and the Minister of Energy and Resources.
Dr Ross questioned the pressure DOC might come under in terms of the decision to open up the conservation estate for mining, saying the department's funding had taken a hit when it came to advocating for conservation.
He was worried there could be conflict for the department: "It's so easy to show economic benefit but how do you value a 500-year-old tree? Or how do you value a unique ecosystem? In those kind of trade-offs, or in those kind of battles, the environment generally loses."
DOC said both it and MBIE had an interest in the proposal and there was a cabinet directive to submit together when this occurred, which often resulted in a neutral submission.
However, Forest and Bird's regional manager of Canterbury and the West Coast, Jen Miller, said the department seemed to have abdicated its advocacy role.
She pointed out the submission suggested minimising the damage to conservation values, yet DOC's own experts said the site was of high value and was significant.
"The function of the department is to advocate for the protection, not advocate for the minimisation of the destruction," she said.
DOC defends its stance
DOC said the process was still under way and refused to be interviewed.
In a statement, it said its submission identified the likely effect of the proposal on native species and it had proposed measures to mitigate the impact on biodiversity values and to maintain habitat through progressive rehabilitation of the site.
"It's not correct that DOC has abdicated its advocacy role in relation to this submission. The department has made a submission that encourages the council to consider the matters raised in it, in their decision making."
Both DOC and MBIE have asked to be heard at the resource consent hearing, a date for which has not yet been given.