The closure of the access road to the Remarkables Conservation Area sets a dangerous precedent, writes Erik Bradshaw
On December 18 last year, NZSki sent shock waves through the Otago outdoors community when they announced the closure of the ski field road up to The Remarkables Conservation Area. The closure was for an unspecified period of time, probably until winter, while the company constructed a new lodge. It is closed 24 hours, seven days a week. Their argument was based on safety and health, and that the combination of poor tourist driving skills and large trucks were a potentially fatal mixture.
On the surface, this argument is plausible, but on closer examination it sets a dangerous precedent which allows large companies to ignore their public obligations and treat Public Conservation Land as private property.
Before the ski area was built in the Rastus Burn basin, the Lake Alta area was recognised for its pristine and unique beauty. With close proximity to a major town, it was a popular walking and climbing destination in both summer and winter. A healthy day’s climb would lead to a high altitude camp beneath towering rocky peaks and beside a clear alpine lake of striking blue.
As compensation for the environmental degradation caused by the construction of the ski area, the public were guaranteed year-round walking and vehicle access up the ski area road. This agreement is documented in both the ski area concession and also the public easement along which the road runs.
When NZSki announced the road closure, a group of local climbers asked the Otago Conservation Board to intervene hoping to secure some level of access such as Sundays and public holidays when the road was not in use and construction traffic was not a hazard. NZSki refused to meet, saying there was nothing to discuss.
Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) and New Zealand Alpine Club (NZAC) became involved to see if they could persuade NZSki to acknowledge their obligations, at the same time offering soundly based, pragmatic solutions. The root cause of NZSki’s safety concerns were difficult to nail down and they seemed uninterested in accommodating recreationalists. Their standard answer to any suggested solution was that safety concerns were paramount and the only way to guarantee public safety was to exclude it. This line of logic, if applied more widely to state highways would say that cars were forbidden to use public roads in order to prevent car accidents. Yes, it would prevent accidents, but it would also defeat the point of the roads.
Locals have been extremely disappointed that DOC’s official view has been that safety must come first, without also pointing out that safety could be accomplished in ways other than just applying a blanket exclusion. As FMC researched this, we found contractors in other parts of the country building structures on public conservation land whose first and only safety strategy is to exclude the public on a wholesale basis. This is unacceptable. In agreeing to such approaches DOC seems to support a cavalier approach to recreationalists. DOC appears to be confused about whether its loyalties lie to the concession holders or to the general public and there is concern that if we don’t stand up and fight, this will become the ‘new normal’.
We would love the Minister of Conservation to intervene and inject some common sense into the situation, but we fear Wellington is far away and the words ‘Health and Safety’ are to a politician what cold porridge is to a tramper.
The issue is on a steady path of escalation. Nobody knows where it is leading, but hopefully some practical reasoning will result. The Health and Safety law is to make the workplaces of New Zealanders safer and not to be used as a tool to restrict the freedom we enjoy in our own country. Misusing law undermines its validity and hurts everyone, including those it is designed to protect.
Just before this issue went to press, an offer from NZSki came through of a bus once a day on weekends at a predefined time. While this is a step forward, having to work to a defined time schedule prevents recreationalist from morning starts or enjoying the cool alpine evenings. We would prefer the road to be open on days when no construction activity is happening but apparently this is not possible.
– Erik Bradshaw is a Queenstown-based climber, mountaineer and backcountry skier who in 2011 completed the first ski traverse of the length of the Southern Alps