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The big issues

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February 2018 Issue
The future of national parks could be in for a shake-up. For the first time in 13 years, the General Policy for National Parks is being reviewed. Wilderness asked seven experts to share their views on how to future-proof these special places.

The influx of tourists, pressure for development, and a drive for greater iwi involvement in our national parks has led the Conservation Authority to begin a review of the General Policy for National Parks.

The CA – the body that governs national parks and advises DOC – hopes to adopt a new policy by the end of the year.

The policy sets out how the National Parks Act is interpreted, and is used to guide the national parks’ management plans. CA chair Dr Warren Parker says the parks have undergone significant changes since the policy was last reviewed in 2005 and it is looking at a more flexible approach to park management.

The review doesn’t include any open public consultation, but Parker says people can email their views to the CA.

Wilderness asked seven experts in recreation, tourism, conservation and park management for their opinion on the big issues facing national parks and how they should be addressed.

Ken Bradley

Restrict visitor numbers

Ken Bradley worked in Fiordland National Park for nearly 50 years and says visitor numbers to our special places need to be restricted

Until the late 1980s, the main recreational users of our national parks were New Zealanders.

But then cheap international airfares opened the floodgates to hundreds of thousands of backpackers. A new industry quickly established to cater to their desire to see as much of New Zealand as cheaply as they could. They soon had an impact on the more popular tramping tracks and camping areas and booking systems were introduced to allow everyone a fair chance to enjoy the most popular areas. Though unpopular with many Kiwi outdoors people, this was necessary to save grossly overfull huts. But the pressure has continued to build and shows no sign of slowing down.

So, what will land managers do to solve overcrowding in popular areas of our backcountry? There are some options, but they won’t please everyone. International visitors mainly come from countries more crowded than New Zealand and are used to busy attractions. But seeing degraded facilities and too many people loving a place to death could turn these visitors off, too.

There has been a drive to spread visitors to less used places. But to do this properly, there have to be incentives – or disincentives. One method could be daily limits on the number of people allowed in an area, combined with booking systems to even out the flows. Once the limit is reached, visitors would have to look at other options. At Milford Sound, visitor numbers have increased to the point where the infrastructure will soon be insufficient for everyone to have a nice time. But if the number of annual visitors was set at 750,000, the existing businesses would be able to provide a quality experience and the infrastructure, with some investment, could cope. There could be a small yearly increase allowed.

We are all used to booking airfares, holiday accommodation, rental cars and campervans – booking your day trip into our special places shouldn’t be problematic.

Overcrowding is going to be a major issue for the next Fiordland National Park Management Plan. We have to accept that what we had in the past is not possible in the future.

Peter Wilson

Separate recreation from tourism

Defining recreation is top of the list for Peter Wilson, Federated Mountain Clubs president

In light of the tourism boom and a general slip in the level of detail provided in new national park management plans, there is a need to beef up the General Policy.

Specific areas that need improvement, from an FMC perspective, include:

● Defining what ‘recreation’ is in the hierarchy between the preservation of conservation values, the need to foster recreation, and the allowance for tourism. Recreation in national parks should be defined as non-commercial recreation, to make it distinct from commercial tourism.

● A further integration of Te Ao Maori [the Maori world] into the national park planning framework, effectively recognising recent treaty settlement developments to enable both physical and spiritual features to be recognised in landscapes. Maori (and many pakeha) see atua/gods, and tupuna (ancestors) in national park landscapes and recognition of this in law and policy would help ensure the concept of national parks endures across cultures and generations.

● Addressing noise and disturbance from aircraft within national parks, beefing up the requirements for zoning flight paths and landing sites and providing methodologies for allocating aircraft landings where limits have to be imposed.

● Strengthening the private accommodation section to stop the slow creep of private lodges within national parks and opportunistic plans for more.

● A section on climate change, which could include a requirement to introduce greener forms of transport to and from our parks.

● Strengthened guidance on limits and restrictions to recreation to ensure DOC consults widely before imposing them on New Zealanders using national parks.

Craig Potton

Protect natural quiet

Publisher and conservationist Craig Potton says the loss of quiet places needs to be remedied

During the last look at the General Policy in 2005, I was on the Conservation Authority and wanted to ensure the policy reflected, aided and abetted the sound principles of the National Parks and Conservation Acts.

These Acts give primacy to the protection of indigenous flora, fauna and geological features and outstanding scenery. In the National Parks Act, this protection cannot be compromised by people’s right to enjoyment and spiritual succour from the intrinsic values of these extraordinary places. In other words, recreation and commercial tourism (uses valued in descending order in the Act) are both subservient to biodiversity protection. So it has been for more than 100 years and so it should remain.

When we last considered the policy and developed the Visitor Strategy 20 years ago, there was not the pressure of visitor numbers that there is now, but there were still plenty of problems caused by inappropriate visitor uses and developments inside park boundaries. To me, one of the most profound impacts was the loss of ‘natural quiet’ – defined as the ambient sounds of all things wild (or, noise not made by humans or their constructions). I extolled the value and need to protect natural quiet from the deafening and soul-destroying industrialisation of places like Aoraki/Mt Cook, Westland and Fiordland national parks from such machines as helicopters, jet skis and fixed-wing planes.

But things have only got worse.

National parks are places where we can meet nature on its terms and, in doing so, be consciously and unconsciously enriched by the rhythms of the Earth that are not of our planning or making. Here we can encounter a different sense of time and an expansion of space that we do not have in the rural or urban landscape in such a raw and enriching way.

In today’s individualistic, goal-driven culture, we want, expect and are prepared to pay for ‘experiences’, and to achieve this we promote mechanised transport such as biking, helicopters and jet skis. These all save time, but in doing so destroy a sense of space and the wonder that goes with the vast expanses of our parks.

The revision of the General Policy needs to strengthen the philosophy of meeting nature largely on its own terms and point to pragmatic planning tools to exclude ground- and water-based transport from our parks (except on formed roads) and roll back the use of airborne vehicles. If we do not, our wild places will continue to shrink.

Jacinta Ruru

Learn from tangata whenua

Dr Jacinta Ruru, University of Otago law professor, says more emphasis needs to be placed on listening to, and working with, Māori

Completely absent from the National Parks Act 1980 is the tangata whenua relationship with lands and waters encased within national park boundaries. According to the Act, national parks exist for their intrinsic worth, and public benefit, use and enjoyment. But these lands and waters are also the home of tangata whenua and their ancestors.

Despite the lack of legislative acknowledgement, Māori tribal aspirations for caring for lands and waters are positively transforming modern conservation management. The review of the General Policy is an ideal moment for New Zealand to listen to the conservation visions of tangata whenua.

There is already some inspiring work occurring within the existing law and policy. For example, the striking new Paparoa National Park Management Plan recognises that the Treaty of Waitangi provides the framework for ‘active and shared management and decision making’.

One of the greatest opportunities for modern conservation is happening outside the national park model. In 2014, Te Urewera was transformed from a national park into a legal person with rights, powers, duties and liabilities. Similar status is also accorded to the Whanganui River and will soon be granted to Mt Taranaki. These are transformative landmarks for us as a nation.

In reviewing the General Policy, let us be inspired by the new language of conservation being spearheaded by tangata whenua. For example, Te Kawa o Te Urewera [the management plan for Te Urewera] is perhaps the bravest piece of conservation writing in the world. It sets out to ‘disrupt the norm’. It strives to manage ‘people for the benefit of the land’, rather than manage the land for the benefit of people. It embraces ‘a process of unlearning, rediscovery and relearning to seize the truth expressed by Tūhoe beliefs’. The orientation of the plan is stated as ‘resetting our human relationship and behaviour towards nature. Our disconnection from Te Urewera has changed our humanness. We wish for its return.’

While the review of the General Policy must adhere to the key principles of the National Parks Act, there is much to learn from tangata whenua.

Dave Bamford

Manage the impact of tourism

Tourism advisor Dave Bamford argues for a sustainable tourism model

During the last five years, tourist arrivals to New Zealand increased from 2.5 million to 3.7 million and are predicted to reach five million within seven years. Visitor numbers to popular national park locations reflect this growth and there is considerable pressure for further development, for both commercial operations and public infrastructure, such as toilets and car parks.

Transport including gondolas, monorails, tunnels, boats and aircraft have all been suggested as a means of both managing and increasing the number of visitors. One positive example of effective visitor management is the recent introduction of a park and ride for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This is reducing congestion as well as social and environmental impacts.

A revised General Policy should incorporate international best practice for managing the impacts of tourism. This could include:

● Continued acceptance of the connections of iwi to their land, that irrespective of national park status, iwi hold kaitiakitanga (guardianship) over their maunga (mountains), ngahere (forests), awa (rivers) and moana (lakes and sea). As such, they must be involved in management of national parks that encompass these ancestral connections.

● ‘Freedom of access to our national parks’, as quoted from the National Parks Act, is really a fallacy. There is often an environmental, social or cultural cost. Accordingly, there should be legal provisions for charging fees at specific under-pressure sites to help pay for facilities and environmental management.

● Improved legal provision for limiting commercial activities in national parks. For example, more than 40 transport concessions operate for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, making it difficult for DOC to manage the impacts. International best practice would have just a handful of concessionaires operating there.

● The provision to cap visitor numbers to certain sites in our national parks.

● Accepting targeted visitor accommodation in some areas of our national parks, but increasing the environmental standards required by accommodation providers.

As the policy is developed, accepting that visiting our national parks is a privilege, not a right, is important. It is possible to have well-protected parks that allow for sustainable and growing tourism.

Chris Roberts

Coordination and flexibility needed

Chris Roberts, Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive, wants tourism activities to be managed in a way that benefits all users

Our priorities for the review include a continuation of the open and transparent consultation DOC currently undertakes on park management plans, including acknowledging the needs of all park users – visitors, tourism operators and local communities.

Park visitors include private recreationalists and those who prefer their experience delivered by a tourism business, which pays a concession to use public conservation land. We want park plans to encourage sustainable use of our parks and cater for the needs of all stakeholders, who in turn must accept that it is not always possible to cater for all our needs in the same place at the same time. Careful planning, supported by clear national principles, is essential to deliver a good outcome for all.

Limits on commercial recreational use of our parks are necessary, but must be based on strong evidence and knowledge, supported by effective monitoring and enforcement. This system is not working as well as it could and DOC needs to continue to work with industry to find solutions.

Parks should have the agility within their 10-year planning cycle to respond to changing people flows, environmental pressures, tourism innovations and new knowledge. The current model does not support this.

We also recommend an integrated approach to national park management. This would enable coordinated management of tourism activities and help DOC support a quality experience for all recreational users. This includes ensuring that linked resources such as ecosystems, tracks and huts, air space, natural quiet and landscapes are managed most effectively to meet the needs of conservation, tourism and communities.

New Zealand’s spectacular landscapes and natural environment are vital to both our communities and our tourism offering. Our national park planning processes must be world leading to allow them to thrive and to enable all recreational users to enjoy them in a sustainable way.

Russel Garlick

Enable volunteers

Volunteers are an integral part of track building and hut maintenance and they need to be encouraged, says Trail Fund NZ chair Russel Garlick

It is in our 13 national parks where tension, or perceived tension, between preserving the natural flora and fauna and providing for recreation opportunities are most profound. Any review of the policy that guides the management of these areas is hugely important.

When DOC offered to help finance volunteers to manage tracks and huts, it did so in a way that trampers and alpine enthusiasts at Federated Mountain Clubs, the hunters of the New Zealand Deerstalkers Association and the mountain bikers of Trail Fund NZ had to work together. The three entities created the Outdoor Recreation Consortium and successfully unleashed the capacity and willingness of volunteers.

From such beginnings, we have found such common ground that we have formed the Backcountry Trust to continue this hugely successful work. This is the type of initiative that we want to see encouraged and supported by any policy review. While it is cost-effective for the department, it also encourages seemingly disparate user groups to work together for the collective benefit of New Zealanders.

In many ways, the department has an unfortunate name: conservation. Outside of the natural environment, and in, say, the realm of science, this means the act of holding something constant, the act of preventing loss. And here is the rub: the one thing we can be sure of is change. Try as we might, keeping things as they once were, or even as they are now, is impossible. If we look at the decline of some of our native species and environments, keeping things constant is the absolute opposite of what we are after. What is required is active preparation.

How can we prepare the environment for the changes that are happening? Tourist visits are ever increasing. Locals are increasingly looking at new ways to enjoy these areas. Trying to keep these areas as they are now, or were in the past, is not going to help.

Readers, what do you think? Have our opinion writers hit the spot, or do you think the General Policy review should consider other factors? Either way, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Email us at editor@lifestylepublishing.co.nz