A new management plan for Mount Aspiring National Park that is seven years overdue has finally been approved after compromises were reached, some positive, but others uneasy.
Last month the New Zealand Conservation Authority formally approved the new plan for the management of the country’s third largest national park.
Covering about 355,500ha in Otago and South Westland, the park straddles the Southern Alps between the Routeburn Track near Glenorchy and the Haast Pass Highway.
Otago Conservation Board Chairperson and marine scientist at Otago University associate professor Abby Smith said Otago members of her Board were “ecstatic” to hear the new plan has been formally approved.
“It’s taken over 10 years and a lot of effort by a lot of different people for the Department of Conservation, the Otago Conservation Board and the Authority to complete the review of the previous park management plan,” she said.
The new plan will help DOC to manage the park over the next 10 years. It draws attention to the importance of protecting threatened wildlife like the rare Haast kiwi on the Haast Range in South Westland and the native birds in the Dart and Routeburn Valleys.
Board support officer Mark Clark said the plan is seven years late due to changes in personnel and to departmental planning methods.
“I think the board appreciates that it was worth spending the extra time to get a really thorough up-to-date plan,” Clark said. “They’re very pleased with how it has turned out.”
However, Clark also acknowledged completing the plan has required compromise on the part of different interest groups and for the Board itself.
In particular, guiding and helicopter business owners wanted greater access to more of the park, while recreation groups, such as Federated Mountain Clubs, wanted greater restrictions on commercial and aircraft access.
“The board is pleased with the reasonable compromise between conflicting uses, but no one is entirely happy in the end,” Clark said. “Some people want a remote, natural, quiet experience, others want to be able to go in with helicopters and land wherever they want.
“You’ll never entirely please both groups, but the compromise that has been reached is reasonable and workable.
“I wouldn’t say anyone is completely devastated or gutted by the result.”
The new plan breaks the park into four different zones – front country, back country, remote and wilderness – with each respective zone having more restrictions on the types of activities permitted.
Federated Mountain Clubs executive member David Barnes was involved in much of the process leading to the new plan and said it is “pretty good” and has “a lot of good principles”.
“We like the fact that it referred to the park as ‘the home of the big tramping trip’,” Barnes said.
He is also pleased guided tramping trips have been banned from entering the Olivine Wilderness Area.
Barnes said guides were taking clients into the wilderness area during the Five Pass trip.
“Commercialism does change the character of it, said Barnes. “Then you get the ratchet effect to establish routes, get greater numbers in there, one operator sees an opportunity and then there’s two operators going.”
However, despite this win for FMC, Barnes was unhappy with the decision to allow year round helicopter flights to the Bevan Col landing site for people flying in to climb Mt Aspiring.
While there is no restriction to the number of days per year flights can land there, only 150 flights per year are allowed and a maximum of four per day or up to six flights per day only twice a month.
The initial draft proposed having 18 aircraft-free days per year, but was eliminated at the recommendation stage.
FMC consulted its member clubs on the issue and found opinion to be divided, with some club members supporting helicopter flights to benefit people coming from further afield who have a limited time to climb the mountain.
Along with another group of club members, Barnes felt the 18 aircraft-free days was too little and instead advocated for a month on, month off rotating model.
“That would give people who wanted to fly a decent window and it also would mean others would get a bit of quiet in the area without crowded huts,” Barnes said.
“The first climb of Mt Aspiring was done with guides over 100 years ago so you don’t need helicopters to have a guided climb,” he said.
Another decision that frustrated Barnes was the placing of the Forbes Mountains with the backcountry zoning category even though it is surrounded by country designated as a remote zone.
“It seems a bit oxymoronic to have an area that’s not remote that you have to go through a remote zone to get to,” Barnes said. “And they’ve done that solely to allow the filming industry to make advertisements up there.”
“We fought hard on that one and we didn’t get anywhere. I called it the Forbes anomaly in the submission.”
Decisions to allow deerstalkers and kayakers to use helicopters to get into designated areas of the park only at certain times of the year are examples of positive compromises, said Barnes.
“Commercialism has got a place, the problem is they’re always trying to push it a little more,” Barnes said. “It’s important we try to keep it a national park and not a theme park.”
Helihunting poses a threat to the park’s tranquillity said Barnes and while the board made clear in the plan the activity should have no role in it, it was unable to ban it outright.
Board Chairperson Abby Smith said the majority of Board members believe aerial trophy hunting has no place in a national park.
“We weren’t able to put that in the plan because it’s necessary for this to be resolved at a higher level,” Smith said.” So the plan is written to allow whatever national policy gets decided.”
Board support officer Mark Clark said the board wanted no helihunting in Mount Aspiring National Park at all.
“DOC insisted that the legislation did not allow a ban – there had to be some allowance made for helihunting as the legislation currently stands,” Clark said.
Smith said the board also considered a “total ban” of permanent rock climbing bolts on walls in the park, but revised its policy after looking into the issue further.
“We discussed the safety issues, how temporary bolts aren’t as good and how more damage is done by people all using temporary ones and we revised our opinion so they’re now allowed in certain parts of the park,” she said.