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February 2016 Issue
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Highway ‘cargo cult’ thinking

The favoured route of the road would cross Little Wanganui Saddle on the Wangapeka Track. Photo: Rochelle Rafferty

Highway through Kahurangi National Park more boom and bust, argues Pete Lusk

Westport is a town that loves big projects. Especially projects that dig up the earth and blast the rock. This is not surprising when you consider the history of mining, ports, railways and big engineering works.

So when our mayor suggested a tourist highway through the middle of Kahurangi National Park, he got a lot of local backing. And it’s not just the ‘big project’ appeal of a highway that generated this support. Westport people are prone to ‘cargo cult’ thinking – that by building a jetty or an airstrip (or indeed a highway) that goods will automatically arrive on your doorstep.

Cargo cults were first recorded in Melanesia after the Second World War. Many island communities had never seen a foreigner before, they didn’t know about jeeps, uniforms or canned food. Yet suddenly these items came in abundance. After the war they disappeared just as quickly, so the islanders built jetties and airstrips in a belief the goodies would flow back.

Westport has had the experience of abundance, too. Around 15 years ago, an export market developed for the valuable coking coal that lies in the mountains behind the town. The mines boomed and so did the businesses. Miners’ wages alone brought in tens of millions of dollars each year. Contractors quickly built up a formidable array of diggers, dozers and drilling machines. Then the coal price dropped. Not an ordinary drop, but a crash to one fifth of its previous high.

To cut a long story short, the mines have gone bust, contractors are struggling, and Westport businesses face ruin.

What can save the day? What can restore business health and make use of all that idle machinery at Stockton Mine? Easy answer folks – a highway.

Connecting Karamea and Tapawera in Nelson, the Kahurangi Highway would be 56km long. The rugged, earthquake-ravaged route makes it an earth mover’s dream, with two mountain passes at 1000m and massive slips to negotiate. The project would keep contractors busy for years and according to Forest & Bird would cost $500m or more, though I reckon it would be closer to one billion. On some matters, our council has been less than forthcoming. It has kept quiet about the high passes and the quake problems, while suggesting a low price tag of two or three hundred million.

What about the environmental damage? Of course this will be huge. It’s not just the highway footprint but the side-casting of rock and the tunnels that may be required. Along the route is a rare rock wren colony – it would be cut in two. Because the highway follows the route of the Wangapeka Track, this wonderful four-day tramp would be ruined.

So should Wilderness readers be worried? I say no, because this highway will not be built. The sad thing for Westport, and its struggling economy, is the council will waste vast amounts of ratepayers’ money on consultants, surveyors, wooing politicians, and, if it goes far enough, court cases. A better alternative is to spend that money on attracting the type of tourist that likes walking, tramping, and revelling in New Zealand’s top biodiversity park with its extraordinary natural landscapes.

These are what really give the Westport district its competitive edge and the chance for a prosperous future.

– Pete Lusk lives in Westport