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March 2021 Issue
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Paparoa helicopter dissent

GCH Aviation has a permit to drop bikers off near Croesus Hut, angering both walking and biking advocates. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

A permit to fly heli-shuttles onto the Paparoa Track Great Walk has raised concerns about disruption to the natural environment, and the high carbon use involved.

A helicopter-shuttle operation is activating a long-held permit to fly mountain bikers onto the Paparoa Track Great Walk.

Flights are permitted to land on conservation land, outside Paparoa National Park, but not everyone is happy with the idea.

New Zealand’s first purpose-built walking/biking Great Walk, the Paparoa Track, crosses the Paparoa Range and lies mostly within Paparoa National Park. Huts on the track are all but fully booked through to winter.

Coastwide Helicopters, owned and operated by GCH Aviation, has a long-held concession for multiple landing sites on conservation land on the southern Paparoa Range, near the Great Walk’s highest point. Caroline Blanchfield, GCH Aviation group marketing manager, said the company has purchased specially-designed helicopter bike racks from Canada, with vertical frames that will protect expensive bikes. Up to four passengers (at $335 each) and their bikes can travel in one load.

“The flights cut 10 to 15km of track and 800 to 1000m of vertical climb for bikers and walkers, and make a day ride of the track feasible for experienced riders,” says Blanchfield. (Notwithstanding the fact that many bikers are already riding the entire 55km track in one day.)

“Mountain bikers can arrive in Greymouth in the morning, get landed on the track, begin the day’s adventure and be back in Greymouth for a beer later that day,” says Blanchfield.

The landing sites are close to, but outside the national park, where recreational helicopter landings are currently subject to a judicial review. Last year, Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) and Forest & Bird sought court action to prevent recreational helicopter landings in the park. The park’s management plan, approved in 2017, allows for such landings, however, the two groups contend that the overarching Conservation Management Strategy does not. A High Court hearing is expected soon.

Helicopter drop-offs are banned on the Heaphy Track, the other dual-use mountain bike/walking Great Walk, to preserve the natural quiet.

DOC’s Ben Hodgson says GCH Aviation approached DOC to confirm whether they can conduct landings to drop off bikers at Ces Clarke Hut and a landing area set back from the Paparoa Track near the Barrytown/Croesus Track junction.

“DOC has sought legal and permissions planning advice and confirmed that GCH is entitled to conduct ‘irregular’ landings in the area using the permit they hold. The company has held a concession for landings here since 2011,” he said.

An irregular landing allows the concessionaire to undertake up to two landings a day and/or 20 landings a year at any given location within one kilometre of the initial landing site.

“Provided GCH meets the conditions of their concession around safe landing areas and don’t go within the 500m buffer area of the national park, they can have any number of landing sites [within one kilometre of the initial site] on the conservation land,” Hodgson confirmed.

“When the concession was granted, the Paparoa Track had not been established so the effect on users was not considered; the Croesus Track had relatively low use and a landing site was therefore considered appropriate.”

The concession expires on December 14, 2021, at which point the company will need to apply for a new concession. “DOC would then consider the concession, the effects on the environment and other users, in line with the guidance in the CMS,” Hodgson said.

FMC president, Jan Finlayson, has expressed concern.

“I think the idea is very disrespectful to the environment up there. I understand there is a concession in place but that doesn’t mean it has to be activated. People need to accept some limitations. Why would they want to rush through this landscape anyway?”

There is also an irony in respect of climate change legislation, she said. “DOC needs to reduce its own carbon use so it’s perverse that you would have this very carbon-intensive activity taking place on conservation land.”
Jonathan Kennett, co-author of the book Classic New Zealand Mountain Bike Rides, echoed these sentiments.

“There are a few reasons why helicopter shuttles aren’t a good idea. They disturb the peace and quiet that people go into the hills to enjoy and the popular Paparoa Track hardly needs more users,” he said. “But the most topical consideration is the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions. For that reason alone, I’d have to give heli-biking and heli-tramping the big thumbs down.

“And considering the government announced a climate emergency in December 2020, I would hope DOC is already considering ways to reduce unnecessary helicopter flights on all conservation estate.”

Coastwide planned to begin flights with the new bike racks in February.