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Calls for flight restrictions over Wilderness Areas

En route to the Garden of Eden Wilderness Area where natural quiet is meant to be protected

Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) is calling on the government to regulate flights over Wilderness Areas, saying it has failed to protect the areas’ natural quiet for decades.

There are 11 Wilderness Areas in the country which are designated as places to be protected in the most natural state possible, devoid of development like huts, tracks, road access or helicopter landings.

FMC began a campaign to have Wilderness Areas instated in NZ in 1981 and the first was designated in 1988. 

But FMC said scenic flights are beginning to erode the wilderness experience and it is asking DOC and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to establish restricted flight zones.

FMC president Jan Finlayson said DOC’s visitor and conservation management strategies state that it will work with the CAA to protect the airspace over Wilderness Areas, but so far there has been no progress.

“DOC’s refusal to address low overflights of gazetted Wilderness Areas continues to be frustrating,” Finlayson said. “The noise and intrusion disrespect the mana of the land and its wilderness status.

“There’s a clear mandate to get restrictions in place.”

She said FMC had met with DOC multiple times to raise the issue, however, it had been “repeatedly stonewalled”.

“Come on DOC, get low overflights out of Wilderness Areas.”

There are no specific restrictions in place for Wilderness Areas, but aircraft must maintain a minimum height of 500ft (152m) over any area outside of a town. FMC is calling for this to be increased to 3500ft (1067m).

A recent report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment recommended DOC have more tools ‘to address the loss of wildness and natural quiet at some of Aotearoa’s most spectacular natural attractions’.

DOC director of heritage and visitors Steve Taylor said it preferred to work with aircraft operators to encourage them to avoid Wilderness Areas, or to fly in ways that reduce the impact of noise.

“We work proactively with concessionaires who have lodged applications to overfly Wilderness Areas in order to minimise the impacts, and on the occasion we have had complaints from users of Wilderness Areas regarding low-flying aircraft DOC has investigated and followed up with the companies,” Taylor said.

But Finlayson said “voluntary restrictions don’t work”.

“We know this based on decades of experience.”

A CAA spokesperson said it had not yet received a formal request to introduce restrictions around Wilderness Areas.