By Karl Beckert, Manager in Planning Permissions and Land, DOC

What is stewardship land? Many readers of FMC’s Backcountry will be familiar with its now 30-year long history, and the ins and outs of what stewardship land is and isn’t. Really though it’s quite simple. Stewardship land is conservation land. Nothing more, nothing less.

Yet the rather banal title ‘stewardship land’ does not often reflect the conservation or cultural values of the whenua, which is exactly why DOC has a regulatory role to reclassify these lands.

Stewardship land is conservation land that hasn’t been classified for a specific purpose.

By reclassifying stewardship land, we are signalling the purpose for which land is managed much more clearly. A Recreation Reserve or National Park tells you something a bit more about the values present on the whenua and helps focus the land’s management.

It’s worth having a quick recap on the history of stewardship land, which makes up one tenth of New Zealand, and almost a third of conservation land.

Most stewardship land was allocated to DOC when it was formed in 1987. It includes former state forests and other crown lands with conservation value. Over time other land has been added to the pool through the Nature Heritage Fund.

At the time DOC was created, it was intended that stewardship land would be systematically reclassified to reflect its values. And DOC was given a regulatory role to reclassify this land in the interests of conservation.

Over the years, working out how to do this systematically has been difficult. It’s a complex and time-consuming process because of the sheer amount of land and the process involved. There are around 2,500,000 hectares of stewardship land, split into around 3,500 parcels nationally.

There has been some progress. Recent work to reclassify lands included Aotea (2015), Oteake (2010), and the Ka Whata Tu O Rakihouia (2009) Conservation Parks.

Significant additions have also subsequently been made to Kahurangi National Park – Mōkihinui catchment (2019), Ahuriri Conservation Park and Korowai/Torlesse Tussocklands Park (both 2018), and to Hakatere Conservation Park (2008).

And since 1987, DOC has reclassified well over 100,000 hectares. Now we’re looking to come up with better and more streamlined ways of doing this work, and are exploring a few ideas about how to speed up this process.

In 2019 that means a new approach. DOC has a clear obligation under the Conservation Act but also as part of the Crown to work in partnership with Māori. We must consider participation, partnership and protection.

For the stewardship land work, this means DOC plans to work first with mana whenua in their rohe/takiwā to explore interest in reclassification.

Once we find common ground, we will seek to co-design reclassification processes with Treaty Partners, with information and guidance from conservation boards. We want to ensure good public processes that will include values assessments, notifications, submissions and hearings. Because of this, reclassification processes won’t always look exactly the same in each region – but the broad approach will be similar.

We have started engaging with mana whenua in the Queenstown/Kawarau area for example. Once and if we agree on an approach, there will be a clear public process for all interested parties, like FMC and individual members, to have their say as well.

Kōrero with our Treaty Partners about what values are present in stewardship lands will be especially important. In the southern South Island, stewardship land is in Ngāi Tahu’s takiwā. Recent publications such as Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu’s online cultural atlas – Kā Huru manu – have provided a great resource that demonstrates the depth and spread of the cultural associations that Ngāi Tahu have over much of the South Island. Other iwi will have their own kōrero. And DOC is here to listen.

Many stewardship areas have important recreational, landscape and historic heritage values. New Zealanders value these lands for their natural beauty and the opportunities they provide for climbing, tramping, kayaking, hunting and fishing and much more. All these values of the land will form part of the evidence base to consider when looking at reclassification options.

Stewardship land is often thought of as being of lesser value than other conservation areas. That’s plain wrong. Significant swathes of stewardship land are home to threatened species and high-priority ecosystems. And there are often deep connections to the whenua.

Working with mana whenua to get this process right and enabling all New Zealanders to have their say on these lands is important. The stewardship whenua is the raw material from which we can build new recognition, both conservation and mana whenua’s values – and that will lead to better management and conservation for everyone.

This article is excerpted from the November 2019 edition of Backcountry Magazine titled “Forgotten Lands.” For more information or to subscribe to Backcountry, please visit