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December 2011 Issue
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Fostering income on public conservation lands

Photo: Geoff Spearpoint

Will DOC allow business growth to erode wilderness values?

In recent years there has been such a strong push towards supporting tourism and making money within the Department of Conservation that one could be forgiven for thinking the aim of the Conservation Act is to facilitate business partnerships and generate income.

But let’s be clear: after the preservation of native species, the priority of the 1952 National Parks Act is to foster recreation. Likewise, in the 1987 Conservation Act the aim is to ‘foster the use of natural and historic resources for recreation and to allow their use for tourism’.

Where income can be generated while staying true to the department’s responsibilities under the Conservation Act that is all good, but some recent events have left me thinking DOC’s judgement is becoming clouded.

Zoning of land by the Conservation Department to provide for a wide range of activities is usually done through the Recreational Opportunity Spectrum (ROS).

ROS allows DOC to clearly manage land for a range of experiences, offering high quality benched tracks and huts for some users and Wilderness and Remote Areas with neither huts nor tracks for other users seeking isolated travel. Each zone has been discussed, consulted on and boundaries defined.

Whilst I have niggles with some decisions, I also respect the overall planning philosophy, which has mostly worked well. However, in the brave new world where making money seems paramount, DOC is in danger of setting aside some of these principles. It is not hard to see how and why. If I was given a budget of less than half of one per cent of government expenditure to manage a third of New Zealand and its conservation, recreation and tourism interests, I too would have my vision warped towards diving for every dollar.

What I support is a wide range of recreational zones covering the ROS spectrum, allowing for a whole range of outdoor opportunities. That doesn’t mean making every kind of recreation available to everyone, everywhere. Some recent decisions seem to be headed down that track, though.

Helicopters have been landing on the Franz Josef and Fox Glacier névés for many years. There have been issues, but most people support this, including me. However, the operators began flying from the Whataroa Valley next door. This crept in quietly years ago: a sign by the main road, a roughly marked place to fly from at the road end. That isn’t something I want to oppose if it is managed to keep operating levels low – after all, hunters and climbers have been able to make the odd fly-in to isolated places in the valley for remote experience trips.

Kept at a low level, that is fine and increases opportunities to experience the area without compromising the experience the area is zoned to offer.

But business, by its nature, is about growth, adding value and increasing income. Sightseeing operators now want to land in the Remote zoned upper Whataroa, from the Whataroa Glacier to Tatare Range.

The application discussion document noted there was a right to land in Remote Zones and suggested that 15 landings per day for sightseeing at several sites should therefore be fine. If the integrity of zoning is to have any meaning, DOC must stop this sort of zone-creep and support the purpose for which an area is zoned.

A second issue is heli hunting offered by ‘professional’ guides to rich people who have largely lost the ability to walk, or apparently don’t have time to. The shooters fly from a comfy base and burn up as much fossil fuel as suits them in the pursuit of bagging a trophy. A sort of real life video game in which animals are chased and abused for the thrill of joy stick riders until the chosen animal is so stuffed it can hardly move.

I’m not a hunter, but as a New Zealander it’s not the sort of sporting principles I want any government department to foster. It is the ultimate in elitist activities, destroys natural quiet and affronts the sense of fairness New Zealanders have. It is very poorly regarded by authorities overseas and could well end up with the department in breach of international agreements. Again, concession money seems to have clouded judgement.

Some in DOC suggest such activity should be allowed in Wilderness Areas, but the Wilderness Policy doesn’t allow flying and landing as a recreational activity. The Wilderness Policy was drawn up in the early 1980s by a government-appointed Wilderness Advisory Group that included Lands and Survey and the New Zealand Forest Service. DOC has used it as a wilderness management tool since its inception.

To circumvent that policy, it is being suggested heli hunting isn’t recreation at all, but wild animal recovery. To fudge it further, the suggestion is for six nanny tahr to be shot for every trophy bull taken. Is some rich shooter really going to fly around chasing nannies after they have bagged their trophy and it’s time to get back to the lodge for drinks? Who will police it, anyway? It’s a crock – DOC simply wants the concession money; the guides want the business. And by advocating for heli hunting in Wilderness both groups trash wilderness values.

It seems DOC is even checking whether it ever adopted the Wilderness Policy. If it hasn’t, it would certainly make it easier to issue guiding concessions and heli hunting access. Les Molloy was the director for advocacy in the department in the first three years of DOC’s establishment and a major architect of the policy itself. It was always Molloy’s understanding that the department had adopted the policy – it is quoted in DOC’s 1996 ‘Visitor Strategy’ and appended to DOC’s 2001 publication ‘The State of Wilderness in New Zealand’.

Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson, who comes from a farming background, intimated in a talk I attended that if the land isn’t producing a return something has to be done about it. Our conservation lands produce a very rich return, including economic benefits. The danger is in thinking that the economic benefits are more important than the objectives of the Conservation Act. We all share this land and the responsibility to look after our natural heritage. Through taxes we should all pay.

While business donations and volunteers contribute, you won’t hear politicians suggesting the Beehive or Treasury rely on charity instead of taxation to fund their branches of government. Neither should conservation.

We are in straightened times, but it says a lot about our priorities that only 0.5 per cent of government expenditure is allocated for indigenous species work and managing the conservation estate. I want to follow others advocating for our commitment to conservation and recreation through raising DOC’s budget to one per cent of total government expenditure. That way the department can manage its responsibilities with a little more integrity.

I would like to think DOC’s Director General, Al Morrison, would advocate strongly for that on behalf of the department. Alternatives, such as trading off sound recreation management for increased concession money, or negotiating the drowning of valleys like the Mokihinui, diminish, not benefit, our conservation heritage.

The 1997 Kahurangi Draft Management Plan states: ‘Remote and wilderness recreation are becoming rare opportunities in an ever developing world, so it is important to protect those opportunities which remain.’

With DOC seeking to attract more business funding, that statement is as true now as it has ever been.

– Geoff Spearpoint is the author of Waking to the Hills, Moir’s Guide North to the Otago Alps, Canterbury Westland Alps Climbing Guide and a life member of the New Zealand Alpine Club.