Sarah Bond throws in a corporate career for a chance to work at DOC – doing something for the greater good, or so she believed
How does someone stuck in corporate Auckland end up working as community relations (CR) ranger in Franz Josef? The answer is a mix of despondence, escapism and happenstance.
Instead of scaling mountains after returning from overseas, I entered the corporate world, eventually becoming a national HSE/HR manager. But halfway through 2007, it was time for the madness to stop and I escaped to Arthur’s Pass to the role of hut custodian at Temple Basin.
The season was short lived and, not wanting to return to Auckland, I applied for a Department of Conservation community relations role on the West Coast. I had visited Glacier Country in the late 1990’s on ice climbing trips. However, I had not grown up on a farm, lived in a small town, or worked for the government before. This is my story about what it was like to spend two years working for DOC on the West Coast.
Some of my friends and family did not fully support my move south, although everyone agreed that it was a noble decision. Working for DOC was akin to Volunteer Service Abroad – doing something for the greater good.
As a qualified outdoor instructor and ex-ski patroller with some university education, I thought I would be a good fit for the role. In hindsight, a planning and environmental management degree would have been useful. Being able to speak fluently in three letter acronyms and United Nations-level negotiation skills would also have helped.
There are five area offices that report to the Hokitika conservancy. During my time, there was a programme manager and area manager above me. Our patch ranged from Waitaha River to the Cook Saddle. My key tasks were: 1) Writing area office reports on concession, permits and resource management applications; 2) Monitoring concessions and permits; and 3) Delivering community conservation and education programmes.
My DOC education was enhanced by visitor asset team leader Geoff Thomas, who happened to be my flatmate. During summer, Geoff and his team cut tracks, inspected structures and worked on special projects. These could be anything from assisting with bridge building to digging long drops. On the weekends, we went exploring and he patiently answered my questions about why a bridge was in a certain spot or how the track drainage system worked.
I discovered there is a lot of science behind modern huts. For every bunk there needs to be so much seating, bench and floor space – a far cry from Forestry Service days when huts were built approximately six walking hours apart. ‘Walking hours’ is a misnomer, as the distance was assessed by insanely fit forestry workers.
Administering the DOC estate is complicated. I ended up drawing endless flow diagrams and mind maps to try to understand it all. Each area has a specific land status; it could be anything from a scenic reserve or national park to a wilderness area. These designations guide how the land can be used and how it will be maintained. A good rule of thumb was ‘the more important the land status, the more paperwork there would be’.
One concession application can be subject to multiple government acts, policies and strategies. Unfortunately, the Conservation and National Park Acts, along with the Conservation Management Strategy, don’t always align. You can see this today with the issue of ‘formed roads’ in a national park. It will be intriguing to see if a road can be built as part of the Milford/Queenstown connection or up the Franz Josef Glacier Valley to the terminal face.
Assessing farming concessions was my least favourite part of the role. To me, a strainer was something you got your kayak caught in. I had no idea it was part of a fence. Yet I had to learn how to draw up fencing agreements for farmland bordering the national park and assess pasture. Grazing concessions are usually around waterways or near a stand of native trees. Often they are unmarked and in the middle of larger paddocks. The challenge was that the grazing area had to be managed according to conservation values, not farming practices.
I would head out in a DOC truck, praying I wouldn’t get stuck and have to get the farmer to pull me out. I would be careful to keep any conversations about stock units general in the hope that my ignorance wouldn’t show, smile lots and everything I wrote on a report was checked carefully.
One inspection still makes me smile. A grisly farmer had already told me he didn’t think much of DOC. We met at a farm gate, with a half hour drive ahead of us. I wondered why he had a plastic bag with a catheter hanging out of it. The farmer explained that he had a medical problem and if he had ‘a turn’ I would have to help him out. Sensing a ‘wind-up’ designed to get the ‘DOC Girl’ flustered, I told him I was a volunteer St John Ambulance officer and asked him what the catheter was for? He went rather quiet, looked sheepish and the bag was absent the next time his concession was assessed.
The Hari Hari 100th Anniversary was a noteworthy event. I was asked to design a stand celebrating the Forestry Service for the community gala day. Information boards featuring historic saw mills and forestry practices were created and a colleague from Greymouth supplied vintage chainsaws and an old Forestry Service uniform. I was extremely proud of the stand and I received lots of positive feedback. My one mistake being that I had repeatedly spelt the name Levitt incorrectly. The Levitt brothers owned one of the original saw mills in the area and were well known throughout the district.
Later on, a fellow DOC worker, who had been around since Lands and Survey times explained how Hari Hari had gone into a state of depression when the native saw mills closed down. For years, there had been simmering resentment aimed at the department. He jokingly said that 15 years ago I “probably would have been shot with a slug gun if I had stood in uniform on their rugby field”.
Whitebaiting season was a source of anxiety. The district council administered the whitebait stands and DOC looked after the whitebait huts and fishing practices. Hmm. To complicate matters, whitebaiting triggers some innate madness in the fishermen. People who were normally friends would have virulent arguments on the river bank.
If the catch was good, patrol was fine. If the catch was bad, people got bored and the fun would begin. Most whitebaiters have portable radios, so when the DOC truck turned up a call would go out along the riverbank. A favourite form of entertainment was playing ‘Dob a mate’. I remember investigating an ‘alleged infringement’, knowing full well it was a wind-up.
Assessing tourism concessions was far more enjoyable. Who wouldn’t like taking a jet boat to see white herons, quad biking, kayaking or hiking on a glacier? The people that I worked with were passionate about what they were doing and genuinely valued the environment as part of their product and their lifestyle. They found the paperwork frustrating and paying concession fees was never going to be a highpoint of their year, but they understood the value in maintaining the conservation estate.
The concession monitoring role was easy. Franz Josef Glacier Guides were the key player. Before I arrived, there had been two guiding companies and my predecessors had wasted days dealing with demarcation squabbles. A senior guide told the story of an investigation into a pile of faecal matter that had appeared on a line of steps that had been cut into the ice for clients to walk up. I’m glad that was never on my ‘to do’ list.
Working with local schools was the stand-out part of the role. The best way to teach conservation values is through the kitchen table: connect with the children and the adults will follow. West Coast kids tend to be practical, resilient and always keen to have a go. I knew very little about native flora and fauna when I arrived, but children assume that anyone in uniform knows what they are talking about. Speed reading and a diploma in eco tourism were my salvation.
The Franz Josef triathlon was my all-time favourite school event. Students from Franz Josef Glacier School kayaked on Lake Mapourika, cycled in the Okarito Forest and explored the Tatare mining tunnels. Glacier Country Kayaks and Franz Josef Glacier Guides got involved and the day was so successful that Fox Glacier School asked to have their own triathlon.
Outside of work hours could be challenging. I would get bailed up to talk about an idea for a jet boat tour while I was enjoying a beer at the pub. Or I would be standing in the supermarket and someone would rant about 1080.
The 1080 debate always stirs up deep emotions. Even within DOC, there is a range of views. I saw 1080 as the only viable option for pest management in the Okarito Kiwi Reserve. Intensive trapping had failed to protect the rowi population.
There are West Coasters who provide well-reasoned arguments against 1080. However, others, I suspect, made a lot of noise and created havoc because they were worried that the helicopters would find their marijuana patch.
Today, Geoff and I are living in Dunedin, which supports the theory that DOC on the West Coast is one of the country’s biggest dating agencies. I have returned to the world of HR and HSE. My time on the Coast was amazing and I miss my friends, working with school groups and going on backcountry adventures. I do not miss the two hour drive to town or the incessant small town squabbles.
People ask would I work for DOC again and the answer is no. I had some incredible experiences and gained skills that I still put into practice. However, a life of bureaucracy and ever decreasing budget cuts is not for me. Last year, the conservancy offices faced a round of redundancies and earlier this year it was the turn of the area offices.
DOC is the only organisation I have worked in where the employees actually live the company values. Rangers go home and recycle, compost and volunteer to count kiwis on the weekend – even though it is their day job. I’ve read a report that notes that DOC employees are the most over-educated and underpaid public servants in New Zealand. Based on my experience, I would agree. Knowing some of the people who will be affected with job cuts announced earlier this year, how dedicated and underpaid they are, I am glad that I am not there to witness who stays and who goes.
If you need to apply for a DOC permit or concession, be kind to the people you deal with because they have a thankless task. Work with them and they will help you understand how the system can work for you.
Finally, if you see a community conservation project advertised, support it. Incredible people, working with minuscule budgets, make these events happen. They need all the support they can get, especially since they soon may not have a job.
Kia kaha – Te Papa Atawhai.