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December 2012 Issue
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Aura of Denniston Plateau under threat

Denison Plateau
As the Australian-owned Bathurst Resources application to mine the Denniston Plateau wends its way through the Environment Court, local tramper Pete Lusk decries the miner’s bully-boy tactics restricting public access to conservation land

More and more people are using the Buller Coal Plateau for recreation. Years ago it was just a few hunters and the boy scouts from the coal towns of Denniston and Burnetts Face. Now there’s a maze of stunning mountain bike trails and tramping tracks spread all over the place.

What I love about the plateau is the unimpeded views. South lies the Paparoa Range, east is the Southern Alps and north are the peaks of Kahurangi National Park. And let’s not to forget the Tasman Sea tucked in below.

Normally you need to be on a mountaintop to get such wonderful panoramas, but the plateau is unusually bare of trees and that’s its secret. Trees struggle to grow on the poor soils, which are saturated for much of the year because just below the surface are great plates of sandstone that don’t let the deluge of annual rainfall through. Consequently, most of the plateau is covered in tussock grassland, herb fields and stunted manuka that hugs the ground. Then there are areas of rocky pavement, rather like bitumen on a road.

All up, it’s a wonderful place for walkers, bikers, history buffs and nature lovers. About 20 years ago it was designated as public conservation land to balance up the all-out mining that was happening at the other end of the plateau. It did not get a special classification such as national park or ecological area, but conservationists and recreationists thought it secure from mining.

But this is now changing because under the plateau is a seam of very valuable coal. For about 100 years miners worked underground to get at the coal, with little or no damage to the surface. Nowadays, with the advent of big machinery, the coal is open-casted using explosives and huge diggers to scoop up the broken rock and coal. Even the old workings are exposed to get the considerable tonnages of coal left behind by the miners of yesteryear.

The northern end of the plateau has largely been destroyed by Solid Energy’s huge Stockton Mine. Now Australian-owned Bathurst Resources plans to mine the southern end, centred on Denniston. Bathurst has gained resource consent to mine, but this is currently being appealed to the Environment Court by Forest and Bird and West Coast Environmental Network.

Bathurst also needs DOC permission to access the land but all indications are the department will be told by the government to let Bathurst in.

Setting aside the biggest issue – climate change from the burning of the coal – we will see dramatic changes on Denniston if the mine goes ahead.

Worryingly all indications are that public access will be restricted. A barrier arm has just gone up at Burnetts Face near the start of Myra’s Track which winds to the summit of Mt William. This won’t stop you walking the track, but you can’t take your vehicle any further along the road. It beats me how it can be legal to block a road that winds through public conservation land.

If Bathurst is anything like Solid Energy, it’ll send security guards to photograph and check on you, even when you’re far from the mine boundaries and on public land. I was tramping here a year ago and was followed by a guard who wanted our names and approximate return time even though we were on a public easement near Stockton Mine and heading away from the mine onto conservation land. On another occasion on the Denniston Plateau, club members were followed by a helicopter. Guards jumped out and videoed them and told them to go no further up the valley. Yet the trampers were on conservation land well away from the mine. Intimidated, they turned back despite the fact they’d done nothing wrong. At the time, Solid Energy was under steady pressure from environmental campaigners, but it just shows how such surveillance can inconvenience others.

Sadly, the Denniston Plateau will ultimately lose its wonderful views if the mine goes ahead and the pits are back-filled and re-vegetated. The ground will become free draining so even if tussock and low-growing shrubs are planted, the long term result will be tall forest over much of the plateau.

I’m supporting Forest and Bird’s 5900ha reserve for the Denniston Plateau. The West Coast needs sustainable industries like tourism in the form of historic mine tours and the promotion of outdoor activities like tramping and mountain biking. Coal mining is the dead opposite of sustainable.

The Denniston Plateau took millions of years to evolve. It’s too good to lose for just a few decades worth of export coal.

– Pete Lusk is a long time West Coast tramper and a member of the Federated Mountain Clubs executive. He is also a member of Forest and Bird and has a special interest in coal mining.