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July 2012 Issue
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Contradictions abound in Denniston and Milford proposals

Denniston Plateau is home to numerous native flora and fauna species - now at risk to mining. Photo: Mick Abbott
New Zealand’s economy and future energy demands are inextricably linked to the Great Outdoors

Travel up the South Island’s West Coast and you’ll come across plenty of stretches of rugged coastline beaten by the big waves that come in uninterrupted from the Tasman Sea.

Yet there’s very few spots where you can get a bird’s eye view of the coast. The mountains on one side and the ocean on the other crowd in on the narrow strip of flat land where the road, farms, lakes and settlements are all found.

Except, that is, for the tight and twisting road that climbs steeply from Waimangaroa, just north of Westport. Here, 600m above sea-level, on an eerie elevated landscape, you’ll find the start of the Denniston Plateau.

Nearly 150 years ago some of the best coal in the country was found here and in quick succession mines, townships, pubs and schools took shape on this windswept and mist-ridden place. Reading Jenny Patrick’s Denniston Rose books gives a real sense of what the place was like. Getting the coal back to the coast required a cable and pulley system to lower the fully laden carts down the 45 degree railway track known throughout the country as the Denniston Incline.

Back then, getting to Denniston involved either a long walk up the steep track or a ride on an empty cart. Now you can drive to this forgotten place. And at the end of the tarseal are pathways, old wagons, parts of workshops, stone viaducts, informative panels and a great viewing platform that together really give a sense of this slice of New Zealand’s mining history.

Bob Dickson, Penny McIntosh and the whole team at DOC’s Buller Kawatiri Office have spent the best part of three years getting things set up. Part of the experience includes downloading an iPhone app where Jenny Patrick reads relevant excerpts from her books just as you reach specific spots. There are also photos, historic video and eyewitness accounts to play as you wander around.

When the mine stopped operating people not only left the plateau but also disassembled their houses and rebuilt them down by the ocean at either Waimangaroa or Westport. Now little remains. Indeed, without DOC’s effort the plateau seems an empty place. It’s wild, unkempt and a place apart.

It’s exactly these qualities that make it ecologically unique. Forests of southern rata, at only one-metre tall, are bonsai versions of their normal form. And kiwi, kaka and koura as well as many rare species of gecko, snails, moths, velvet worms and lichen thrive on the plateau. A recent ‘bio blitz’ found more than 500 native species make this place home.

The likes of Rod Morris, Sir Alan Mark and Brian Patrick all call for its preservation. They consider, given just how unique its flora and fauna is, the plateau a national treasure.

But an Australian multinational has other plans for this unique spot. Bathurst Resources is currently proposing to set up a giant open cast mine here. Their application calls for an area of 200ha to be strip-mined or cleared for facilities so 90,000,000 tonnes of coal can be trucked or transported on an aerial system down to Westport or Lyttelton for export.

Forest and Bird consider such plans only the beginning. They point to the nearby Stockton Mine, and its ever expanding programme, as an example of what is likely to occur. That’s why the organisation is calling for DOC to reject Bathurst’s consent applications and instead set up a 5900ha reserve.

Just several hundred kilometres down the coast are glaciers that stretch from New Zealand’s highest mountains all the way to the sea. The ice of the Franz and Fox Glaciers as they plunge through the forest are simply spectacular. It’s not hard to realise why for more than 100 years these glaciers have been a major tourism attraction. And it’s these same walls of ice that are the home to a unique species of kiwi – the rowi – as they survive in the virtual island that’s been created by the glaciers and the wild rivers that flow from them.

Yet there’s strong evidence that these won’t be a permanent feature. NIWA has reported that New Zealand’s 12 biggest glaciers are losing their ice at a rapid rate – and climate change will see our glaciers almost disappear. The fundamental reason for the change is people’s need of fossil fuels, of which coal is arguably the dirtiest. According to NASA scientist James Hansen “coal is the single greatest threat to civilisation and all life on our planet”.

At some point New Zealand, and not just DOC or the government, is going to have to make the connection that exporting climate-warming coal is not in our best interests. It simply doesn’t make sense to export a fuel that more than any other is making sure our glaciers will disappear. Renewables are where we need to be heading. As well as threatening our coastlines, burning coal will wreak havoc on our public conservation lands and the many unique birds, insects and plants that can only find a home in very specific ecosystems. And it’s these species and places that are not only the backbone of our tourism industry but also the way we market to the world our milk, wine and woolly jumpers.

That’s why it’s important to ensure the Denniston Plateau’s left as it is.

However there’s a flip-side to all this. As readers of Wilderness will know there are separate proposals afoot to build a tunnel and monorail into Fiordland National Park area. There are many valid arguments for opposing these developments. But what’s been missing from the debate is working out what would be the most environmentally responsible way of transporting the 500,000 people who every year want to visit Milford Sound.

For if the choice was between a diesel powered bus taking the long way round, or a diesel powered monorail following a 30km clear-felled road through conservation lands, or an electric-powered (from wind or hydro) light rail solution that utilised the tunnel, which then would we choose to consent?