We had an impassioned response to our call for questions to the new Conservation Minister. Readers asked about topics that directly affect trampers and our natural environment. We put the best of these straight to the minister:
Many people don’t bother paying hut fees because the system is often unenforceable. What can be done to stop this that doesn’t include raising fees on tickets and hut passes for those honest trampers who do pay? – Mike McGavin
Maggie Barry: The Department’s approach relies on users understanding that their contribution is essential to maintaining these facilities, and understanding the consequences of the system. As context, the public recreation network generates $13 million in revenue each year, but it costs more than 10 times that to support it.
I am committed to investing significant taxpayer resources in the maintenance, servicing and eventual replacement of the public recreation network and am equally committed to users contributing to these costs. Without those fees, maintenance and the visitor experience would suffer.
There are opportunities to do better. For example, DOC is investigating opportunities to enable people to purchase hut tickets and passes online. This should make it much easier to pay for last minute trips, taking advantage of good weather. We need to be better at letting people know what their fees are used for and what will happen if they don’t pay. This could be something for DOC and outdoor clubs to focus on over the coming year.
We also need your support when you are in the outdoors. After all, it is your public recreation network so if you see others not paying, please encourage them to do the right thing.
How can the Government justify allowing commercial exploration of Victoria Forest Park? – Jonathan Dodd
Maggie Barry: There are strict regulations for operators who wish to operate on conservation land. They must meet criteria set out by Department of Conservation in regards to mitigating environmental impact and to access arrangements, and must also satisfy local council requirements under the RMA. If they can’t, then they will not be able to operate there.
On the West Coast, there has been minerals exploration and mining occurring on conservation land for over 100 years.
There are 52 active permits in or overlapping Victoria Forest Park, the first of which was granted in 1987. One of New Zealand’s biggest gold mines is in the forest park (OceanaGold’s Reefton Mine) and it has been one of the single largest employers on the West Coast.
There are obvious and significant economic benefits to exploration and mining, both nationally and for local regions. This Government remains committed to developing our oil, gas and mineral resources in a sensible, safe and environmentally responsible way.
What research and trials are currently underway to replace the role of 1080? How much money is invested in finding an alternative? – Gareth Nightly
Maggie Barry: DOC commits between $1-2 million each year to pest animal research. This includes work on improved trapping techniques, new toxins, and lures for the control of possums, stoats and rats. In addition, various research is being undertaken to improve our understanding of predator responses to toxins, and their interactions with devices to improve the effectiveness of all ground-based tools. DOC also supports the Predator Free New Zealand initiative.
Research initiatives underway include the development of resetting toxin-delivery devices, called Spitfires, that will deliver more than 100 doses of toxin to stoats, rats, possums and feral cats. The configuration and toxin will vary depending on the target species. There is also ongoing testing and refining of self-resetting traps for possums, rats and stoats. Research into developing lures for rats and stoats to increase trapping success is continuing.
New toxins targeting possums, feral pigs, stoats and feral cats are now available for use as a result of research and development by DOC and others.
In some areas, like Nelson Lakes National Park, wasps are present in plague proportions. What is DOC’s plan to eradicate them? – David Lloyd
Maggie Barry: DOC is aware that common wasps are among the worst of the invasive animals in New Zealand’s forests. They threaten our native birds and insects, damage our tourism industry and pose a significant threat to human health.
DOC is monitoring wasp densities in key biodiversity and recreational areas, but currently there are few tools to control wasps apart from destroying individual nests when they are a problem.
However, at Nelson Lakes DOC has been trialling and refining a bait station method to control wasps and is investigating ways to scale up this method to larger areas of conservation land in the next three years.
What are your intentions with backcountry hut passes in regards to being able to use them in all serviced huts? – Frank Guthrie
Maggie Barry: Of the 979 huts available to the public on conservation land, 909 of them are either free or can be paid for using the Backcountry Hut Pass.
Most of the 70 huts where the backcountry pass are not valid are either Great Walk or Serviced alpine huts. The Backcountry Hut Pass has never been available for these as their maintenance costs are significantly higher than for the rest of the hut network.
The majority of serviced huts remain part of the Backcountry Hut Pass system but a few have recently moved from the traditional ‘first come, first to get a bunk’ approach to ‘book in advance’.
I am happy to say that the Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand is currently working with DOC to explore issues related to the hut pass and DOC’s booking system. This work is focused on identifying improvements to the current system, which represents great value for money and is clearly the simplest, most cost effective way to pay. The goal is to improve the system so that more people buy and use the pass, and get out in the backcountry.
Can you think of any reason why the Community Conservation Partnership Fund (CCPF) wouldn’t be continued and expanded beyond its current time-frame and budget? – Sam Newton, NZ Alpine Club
Maggie Barry: The success to the CCPF will be monitored over the four years and any decision on its future to be made at a later date.
We sadly lack huts in the upper North Island – are there plans to replace damaged huts or build new backcountry huts from Waikato north? – Kristy Mcpherson
Maggie Barry: I am very aware that half the population of New Zealand lives in the upper North Island, and needs good recreational opportunities.
It is DOC’s intention to sustain and maintain its existing network of backcountry huts north of Waikato. There are no current plans to build additional backcountry huts, but, where there is demonstrated growth in demand, with a clear and demonstrable return on the investment, the department may consider adding to the existing infrastructure in future. The recent replacement of the Pahautea Hut on Mt Pirongia is an example of this.
I was heartened to hear about the tramping clubs investigating the Kaimai Ranges to improve the tramping there. Where communities and partnerships have the desire to establish a greater backcountry hut network than present, DOC will encourage and welcome such partnerships.
I’d like to say thanks for vetoing the monorail and the tunnel. But, more importantly, can you please not even consider a road from Hollyford to Jacksons Bay? – Terry Davis
Maggie Barry: Thank you for your support for the monorail and tunnel decisions. The Conservation Act requires that, as Minister, I shall consider every complete application for a concession that I receive.
A final question from Wilderness magazine: There are some big-money projects, such as the new Anchorage Hut and sealing the Tasman Valley Road, which benefit overseas visitors as much, if not more than, locals. Do you think these should be at least part-funded by tourism?
Maggie Barry: Tourism is a $24 billion industry for New Zealand. International visitors earn over $10 billion – 15.3 per cent – of New Zealand’s foreign exchange earnings. We want New Zealand to remain a world leader in tourism, so it is important that central and local government don’t shy away from investing in vital infrastructure to meet the expectations of both New Zealanders and international visitors. In some cases, joint-funded initiatives make good sense and those will be actively pursued, but the Government is keen to avoid using international visitors as cash cows when their contribution is already significant and growing.