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Southland parks now open for regular heli landings

The 6-bunk Cheviot Downs Hut could receive two helicopter landings per week. Photo: DOC

A helicopter company has been given a concession to land in two backcountry Southland parks.

Te Anau Helicopter Services will be allowed to land at specific huts in the Takitimu Mountains Conservation Park and in locations above 1000m in the Eyre Mountains Conservation Park. Only two landings per hut, per week will be allowed at four huts in the Takitimus: the six-bunk Cheviot Downs Hut, and three two-bunkers, Telford Hut, Whare Creek Hut and Spence Hut. The concession was granted in line with the Department of Conservation’s new Southland Conservation Management Strategy (CMS). The previous CMS had allowed for the scenic landings in the Eyres, however, the Takitimu landings are a new addition.

Normally a very quiet park, the bulk of visitors to the Takitimus are Te Araroa thru-hikers and hunters. Greg Lind, operations manager for DOC in Te Anau said both areas are seldom visited; some of the high altitude two-bunk huts in the Takitimus only receive 20 or so visitors a year. Meanwhile, the neighbouring Fiordland National Park sees hundreds of thousands of tourists and trampers each year.

“It’s quite a neat place,” Lind said of the Takitimus, adding that the helicopter access could help boost visitor numbers. “It gives the opportunity for some other businesses to be created, not only the helicopter companies, but maybe other people are interested in running day tours – maybe land by helicopter and walk out. Some low-key tourism will spread the load out of Fiordland, where at the moment, a lot of our half-day walks are at capacity during the summer. If someone wants to develop heli-hiking, there’s really good opportunity for that.”

Former Federated Mountain Clubs president Robin McNeill has taken issue with the concession, pointing out that the Takitimus, “are small enough and sufficiently well-tracked that it is possible to reach any hut in less than a day from the road-ends. The whole point of locating forestry huts and track networks where they are was to provide good foot access – often with huts no more than 4-6 hours apart.”

McNeill also said that because many of the Takitimu huts are two-person bivvies, they could be incompatible with helicopter loads of four to six people. “It makes no sense to land parties at huts – what were the DOC planners thinking, crowding the huts and the little flat land beside each hut?”

Current FMC president Peter Wilson said the FMC and Southland Conservation Board had expressed some opposition to opening the area up to helicopter access, saying that, “there are fears that the new landings will result in exclusive use of the valleys and huts, as the huts only have limited space.”

Lind said they’re not sure yet how the heli-access will impact those smaller huts, but that they plan to monitor the situation.

“Some people would worry that it creates opportunities to ruin those places, but a lot of times, we found in those places, they just receive a level of use that is sustainable. So if you can get a helicopter landing next to the Spence Burn and walk people out at the road end in Waterloo, then, lovely,” Lind said.

“We’ll be keeping an eye on it, because we don’t want to lose that specialness about the Takitiumu or the Eyre Mountains. It’s a place where you can go to have a quiet tramp in a pretty special place.”

Wilson said FMC is pleased recreational hunters will have easier access to the region, but said that access came with responsibility to remove all rubbish, and respect trampers.

“FMC will be requesting the Department of Conservation enact its monitoring clause to monitor the flights and any effects from increased usage of these areas,” Wilson said. “DOC cannot afford to be hands-off in its approach.”