The Steward and the Stewardship

AuthorDJ Round
PositionLecturer in Law, University of Canterbury
DJ R*
In environmental literature the word steward ship suggests serious responsibilities
to the environment entrusted to the steward’s care. In New Zealand, however,
stewardship land enjoys less permanent protection than any other category of
land administered by the Department of Conservation. e Department’s
recent attempt to revoke a higher protection status and thereby return land to
stewardship status revealed a lack of clarity as to the Conservation Act’s high
policy. After litigation, the Department’s powers are somewhat clearer and more
limited. e Department’s credibility as a conservation advocate has, however,
suered. e Conservation Act has not prevented various Departmental failures
of good stewardship, and other law changes suggest that, unless serious changes
are made, the Department may well continue to fail to live up to conservationists’
And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he
had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their
generation wiser than the children of light.
– Luke 16:81
I. S L 
On behalf of the New Zealand people, and for the purposes outlined in
the Conservation Act 1987,2 the Department of Conservation administers
1 e Holy Bible (K ing James Version) at Luke 16:8.
2 In particula r s 6(a) of the Conservation Act 1987: “to manage for conser vation purposes all
land … held for the time b eing under this Act”. “Conser vation” means “the preservat ion and
protection of natur al and historic res ources for the purpo se of maintaini ng their intrinsic
values, providi ng for their appreciation a nd recreational enjoy ment by the public, and
safegua rding the options of future ge nerations” (s 2).
* Lecturer in Law, University of C anterbury; forme r long-time chair of the C hristchurch
branch of the Native Fore sts Action Council (NFAC) and of the Nor th Canterbury branch
of the Royal Forest a nd Bird Protection Societ y; former national pr esident and long-time
national exec utive member of Federated Mount ain Clubs (FMC); former member of t he
Canterbury/Aora ki Conservation Boa rd; trustee of the Mauric e White Native Forest Trust.
86 Canterbury Law Re view [Vol 23, 2017]
some 8,600,000 hectares, roughly one third of New Zealand’s total land
area of about 26,800,000 hecta res.3
Of these 8,600,000 hectares, about 2,820,670 hectares – almost a
third and, therefore, roughly a ninth of New Zealand’s total land area – is
“stewardship land”.
Stewardship land is not the highest category of land held by the
Department, but actually the lowest. It is merely land administered by the
Department (and therefore a “conservation area”, as is all “land or foreshore
held under this Act for conservation purposes”)4 which ha s received no higher
classication and, therefore, protection.5
As explained below, the particula r label “stewardship land” arose out of
the practical political situation at the time the Department of Conservation
was established. e Act describes a very prosaic form of stewardship, just
as the dictionaries dene “stewardship” in a prosaic manner6. Nevert heless,
it is, at the least, worthy of remark that this lowest category of conservation
land bears such a promising name, for stewa rdship is sometimes spoken of
as involving lofty and importa nt duties. Environmental rhetoric sometimes
speaks of humank ind’s responsibilities to care for the earth as a ste wardship.
Section 7 of the Resource Management Act 1991 includes the “ethic of
stewardship” and “ka itiakitanga” among the matters to which all persons
exercising functions and powers under the Act sha ll have particular regard.7
Parliament could easily have used another term for this least-protected
category of conservation land. It could have spoken of interim or provisional
protection, of a land bank, or of Category A and Category B lands. e
word stewardship, although familiar to English speakers, has a slightly old-
fashioned air to it. It cannot have been an accident that Parliament chose th is
word. It is easy to imagine that Parlia ment chose it specically for its overtones
of environmental responsibility - overtones which, intentionally or not, might
actually divert at tention from that land’s more precarious conservation status .
3 e gure of 8,600, 000 appears in the Depar tment’s Annual Report for the yea r ending 30
June 2015 . However, the Parliament ary Commis sioner for the Environment, in
her August 2013 report on ste wardship land, disc ussed below, gives a total are a of 8,838,470
hectares. Ja n Wright Investigating the Fut ure of Conservatio n: e Case of Steward ship Land
(Parliamenta ry Commissioner for the Env ironment, 21 August 2013).
4 Section 2 of the Cons ervation Act 1987.
5 At s 2, “Stewardsh ip area means a conservat ion area that is not (a) a marginal st rip; or (b) a
watercourse ar ea; or (c) land held under this Act for one or more of t he purposes described in
s 18 (1) …”.
6 “Steward: A n ocial appointed to control t he domestic aa irs of a household, esp. the
supervision of ser vants and the regulat ion of household expenditure” Short er Oxford English
Dictionary (3rd Revised E dition, Oxford University Press, O xford, 1993).
7 Resource Ma nagement Act 1991 s 2 denes kaitia kitanga as “the exerci se of guardianship by
the tangat a whenua of an area in accord ance with tikan ga Māori … and [which] includes t he
ethic of stewa rdship”.

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