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Ngapunatoru heli landings ‘Nonsense on stilts – again’

Up to 80 helicopters a day will be allowed to land on the Ngapunatoru Ice Plateau - in contravention of the FNP management plan. Photo: Jaz Morris

The Federated Mountain Clubs is calling on DOC to renege on an undertaking to the aviation industry to increase helicopter landings in Fiordland National Park and is asking the Ombudsman to intervene.

FMC said it was deeply disturbed to discover the extent of closed-door discussions between DOC and the aviation industry which led to DOC recently overriding the statutory limits for aircraft landings in the Fiordland National Park Management Plan. It is the second major breach of a national park plan uncovered in three years, occurring after the Ombudsman, Professor Ron Paterson, described a similar DOC decision to override limits on Routeburn Track concessionaires, as “nonsense on stilts” in 2015.

FMC President Peter Wilson described the situation revealed through an Official Information Act request, as “revealing, disturbing, and casting doubt on DOC’s ability and willingness to regulate the tourism industry in accordance with management plans”.

Last year there were a number of closed-door workshops and conversations between the aviation industry and DOC, which led to DOC’s decision to ignore the current rules, and allow an eight fold increase in the number of helicopter landings on Mt Tutoko’s Ngapunatoru Ice Plateau from 10 to 80 each day. “One lucky operator has received a windfall of 2000 extra landings [a year],” said Wilson. “DOC planning staff are revealed as enabling this through their ‘brilliance’ at finding loop-holes in the law.”

Wilson said DOC is under huge pressure from the tourism industry to increase landing opportunities on conservation land. “The industry has threatened DOC with going to their minister, who happens to be the prime minister, if they don’t get their own way,” said Wilson. “I think DOC feels under huge pressure to give way and not hold to environmental limits.

“Where pressure occurs, it appears that DOC staff are only too willing to say yes, even if that means ignoring statutory plans.”

Documents in the FMC’s OIA showed:

  • There has been ongoing consultation between DOC and the aviation industry in which all stakeholders were not involved;
  • The current daily landing limits for the Ngapunatoru Plateau, effective since June 2007, have not been applied because DOC can’t find a “simple way” to allocate and manage them;
  • There is a general understanding that concessionaires have not been abiding by their daily limits, without any ramifications from DOC;
  • There is some indication that DOC has accepted revenue from concessionaires, above the concessionaires allowable limit, though details were not provided.

Wilson said FMC wants the ombudsman to undertake a review of DOC’s statutory planning department to make sure it is “fit for purpose, because we don’t think it is”.

“We have to fix the process,” he added. “This is the second time in three years DOC has broken a management plan. The last time it was described as nonsense on stilts, and its nonsense on stilts again.”

An investigation by the ombudsman would be timely. Management plans for Aoraki/Mt Cook, Mt Aspiring, Paparoa and Westland national parks are all up for discussion in coming months. Wilson said conservation board members have told him they believe the intention is to double the number of aircraft landings in all these parks.

“I think  that will happen in all these plans,” said Wilson. “We’re just burning fossil fuel to chase melting glaciers up mountains.

“The outdoor community can support and encourage a sustainable tourism industry, but not if it continues to pressure the Department of Conservation to flout the law.”


Marie Long, DOC’s director of planning and permissions, responded to the FMC’s call for the ombudsman to intervene with this written statement:

  • DOC has already made its decision to allow increased helicopter landings at one site in Fiordland National Park for a 12 month trial period.
  • The Fiordland park plan makes provision for such a trial and DOC is happy to work with the Ombudsman to explain the reasoning behind our decision.
  • DOC needs to balance the growing demands from tourism operators for more scenic glacier landings across the Southern South Island parks with the impact such landings can have on other users and the environment.
  • There are currently limited opportunities for such growth and DOC acknowledges more work is needed with both the tourism industry and outdoor user groups to manage this situation.
  • To inform these discussions, DOC has chosen one site near Mt Tutoko in Fiordland National Park where the existing park management plan allows the implementation of a trial period for increased activity.
  • The increase in landings at this site will be reviewed in 12 months and DOC will be reporting back to the Conservation Board, Ngai Tahu and alpine user groups every three months on the progress of the trial.