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June 2013 Issue
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Why we should pay huts fees

The author, shown at Tauanui Hut in Aorangi Forest Park Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Paying hut fees is a demonstration of respect towards the ‘best backcountry hut network in the world’, writes Shaun Barnett

Veteran tramper Pete Lusk previously wrote that he wouldn’t pay hut fees ever again, and also claimed when he started tramping in the mid-1960s, ‘all the huts were free.’ He went on to castigate DOC for introducing hut fees.

It’s a common misconception that hut charges only arrived when DOC introduced a nationwide fee system during 1989. In fact, we’ve had hut fees since the very first huts were built for recreation in New Zealand. The huts built on the Milford Track during the 1890s were run by guides who charged fees for their services, including use of their huts. That tradition of charges for guided walkers on the Milford Track has been in place ever since, and hut fees also applied to the huts built by the Fiordland National Park Board for ‘freedom’ walkers during the 1960s.

Huts at Aoraki/Mt Cook have also had charges right from the outset, as these were often built by the Tourism Department and maintained and stocked by alpine guides.

True, many of the tramping clubs that formed during the 1920s and 1930s didn’t charge for use of their huts. But that was a conscious decision back when most trampers were club members and so agreed on a ‘no fee’ policy as a reciprocal arrangement for using huts belonging to other clubs.

During the 1930s Depression, fees provided essential revenue for some huts. For example, the Mt Balloon Scenic Reserve board charged one shilling for Flora and Salisbury huts in north-west Nelson. The Mt Egmont Alpine Club charged for use of Syme Hut on Fantham’s Peak. Similarly, the New Zealand Alpine Club has charged fees for its alpine huts right from when their first hut went up in 1931. Why? To help pay for maintenance. Members largely understood and accepted this necessary charge. During the 1940s, a one shilling fee also applied to the Port Levy Saddle Hut on Canterbury’s Banks Peninsula.

Between the 1960s and 1980s, Park Boards charged modestly for use of many national park huts. So hut fees are not new, and have long played a role ensuring huts are maintained.

Aside from a smattering of club huts, the only free huts during the 20th century were those built by the Forest Service, between the 1950s and 1970s, most for deer culling. With its large budget, the NZFS could afford not to charge. DOC has kept some of these ex-culling bivs and basic four-bunkers free.

Today, however, hut fee compliance is disappointingly low at other non-wardened DOC huts: as little as 20 per cent. Perhaps many New Zealanders, like Pete Lusk, consider they have already paid for huts through their taxes. There’s also a good argument to say foreigners should pay more for huts, as they don’t contribute through taxes or volunteer work parties.

But that matter aside, should we Kiwis pay hut fees? I believe so, for two reasons: respect for huts and making a contribution. Many taxpayers never stay in a hut. Should they subsidise the rest of us? As people who derive great benefit from huts, why shouldn’t we contribute?

Sure, we don’t want hut fees to become so expensive as to make tramping unaffordable. For that reason, Federated Mountain Clubs advocated successfully for free use of Great Walk huts for under 18-year-olds in 2008, resulting in an increase in young New Zealanders on these tracks since then. But let’s face it, fees for most huts remain modest, and don’t cover maintenance costs.

I buy a Backcountry Hut Pass every year. It costs $122 and with my FMC membership card I get 30 per cent off. This discount recognises volunteer effort from club members to up-keep huts.

The Backcountry Hut Pass does have some issues: DOC has promoted it only patchily in the past, and it doesn’t cover a growing number of high-use huts, such as Welcome Flat (Westland National Park), and Pinnacles (Coromandel Forest Park). However, excepting Alpine and Great Walks huts, plus those few others, it still covers 95% of the 1000-odd huts on conservation lands. It’s a bargain. I consider it my annual donation to help maintain the world’s best backcountry hut network.

Higher compliance would mean less need for wardens, and more resources for maintenance rather than administration. Additionally, by paying fees, the public can demand more say about which huts get maintained.

But more important is the issue of respect. Our extraordinary huts, in all their shapes, sizes and locations, comprise a national treasure deserving reverence. By paying my annual fee every year, I’m saying – as a user – that I value them, and that I also appreciate the enormous efforts made by DOC staff and others to maintain them.