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Greater role for Māori in DOC’s future

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May 2021 Issue

The Department of Conservation has released its first visitor and heritage strategy in 25 years. Jacqui Gibson looks at the changes.

The Department of Conservation is calling on iwi across the country to help the agency better manage visitors and run New Zealand’s nature, culture and heritage sites.

The call is set out in a new visitor and heritage strategy, He Rautaki Taonga Tuku Iho, Manuhiri Tūārangi Hoki, launched by conservation minister Kiritapu Allan in February.

It reflects a change in direction for the department since its last visitor strategy was published in 1996.

DOC strategy and insights manager Tim Bamford says the previous plan set out DOC’s role in safely managing popular walks like the Milford Track and giving visitors improved access to DOC sites, services and information.

Today’s strategy aims to do that too, says Bamford, while also solving problems like over-tourism at specific locations such as the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the long term conservation of regions such as the Mackenzie Basin and rising visitor demand for culturally diverse nature experiences.

“A lot has changed over 25 years,” says Bamford. “In the 90s, New Zealand’s population was 3.7 million people, compared to 4.9 million today. International tourism numbers have more than doubled in that time. Visitors want more varied experiences when they head outdoors. Some want to safely get lost in nature for a week at a time. Many want a short half-day hiking experience. Others want to participate in activities that help them understand conservation from a te ao Māori perspective. On top of that, I’d say there’s a much greater expectation that tourism should contribute positively to local communities and conservation.”

Bamford says DOC wants to address the issues, in part, by working more closely with groups such as local tourism operators, councils and iwi, in particular.

“Partnership with tangata whenua isn’t new for DOC – it’s underpinned by section 4 of the Conservation Act 1987. We engage with iwi on behalf of the Crown to fulfil our Treaty settlement commitments. But with this strategy, we’re saying we want to engage more and at all levels.”

In fact, says Bamford, DOC wants iwi throughout the country involved in everything from destination management and conservation planning through to tourism business development and storytelling.

“I’m not saying all iwi will want to engage. Some will have other priorities and that’s fine. For example, we approached an iwi group recently to discuss the possibility of a Great Walk in the Far North and they said: ‘Not yet, let’s first work together to achieve our biosecurity goals.’

“Other iwi want DOC to get out of the way and simply support their conservation efforts with funding and administration help. That’s possible, too. What we want to do is sit down at the iwi, hapū and whānau levels and have those discussions.”

DOC’s director-general Lou Sanson says his staff need better skills and to improve their knowledge of the Māori world.

He says a good example of what DOC has in mind is underway in Waipoua Forest where Te Roroa runs a kaitiakitanga (guardianship) programme that blends tourism, biosecurity, pest control and scientific research, partly funded by DOC.

It started five years ago after the Northland-based iwi contacted DOC with concerns about the impact of kauri dieback on giant kauri within their rohe (area).

Te Roroa has since developed visitor signage explaining how to avoid spreading kauri dieback and employed two iwi members as walking guides.

The guides, known as Tāne Mahuta ambassadors, take visitors to New Zealand’s two largest living kauri within Waipoua Forest, Tāne Mahuta and Te Matua Ngahere. They explain what kauri dieback is, the protocols tourists need to follow and share Māori pūrākau (stories) relating to kauri and the ngāhere (forest).

Today, the iwi runs an extensive predator control programme within Waipoua Forest to manage species such as wild pigs, known spreaders of kauri dieback. Native tree planting is underway to replace 900ha of pine. A kiwi protection area has been set up to boost the survival rates of kiwi chicks as they are reintroduced to the forest.

The iwi has set up a centre of research excellence for kauri dieback, which regularly brings together scientists, DOC and other government agencies such as the Ministry for Primary Industries.

Te Roroa Development Group general manager Snow Tane says the iwi’s relationship with DOC is working well, but there’s always room to improve.

“We have great relationships at the local level. DOC staff understand how to work in partnership with iwi,” he says. “They respect our knowledge, skills and worldview. At a more practical level, we rely on each other to get stuff done. DOC’s senior leadership is excellent, too. Where you can run into trouble is at the middle management level. In my experience, they still have a lot to learn about Treaty relationships – and that’s where I worry the new strategy might fall down. Often, middle management can be locked into rigid ways of doing things and struggle to think outside of their own policies.”

Director-general Lou Sanson says DOC holds approximately 250 relationships with iwi, a number that increases every week.

He acknowledges DOC staff need better skills and to improve their knowledge of the Māori world if the relationships are to succeed long term. Yet he believes the organisation is making good ground.

“Over the past 25 years, we’ve moved from a traditional parks management model to embedding a practice of working collaboratively with tangata whenua at place. We certainly have some solid foundation blocks in place, but we need many more Māori at all levels of DOC, particularly in policy and cultural heritage management, guiding our approach.”

He says the transfer of management of the Waitomo Caves was the first sign of a complete change by DOC to a new way of working with Māori.

“Recognising landscapes as ancestral lands, we’ve been able to take Treaty settlements from an obligation to an opportunity. We have Ngāti Kuri running motor camps in the Far North. We’ve changed the way we’re treating taonga species – takahē, kākāpo, hoiho – building and delivering genuine co-management with Ngāi Tahu.

“Every inch of Aotearoa has a connection to tangata whenua, so everywhere that DOC works is an opportunity for partnership.”

DOC began rewriting the visitor and heritage strategy in 2017, consulting with iwi and other groups in 2018 and 2019. Approximately 400 people took part in 15 workshops held over nine months. The strategy will be reviewed again in 2025.