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September 2013 Issue
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The wild west

The proposed monorail will pass through Snowdon Forest and Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area

The Fiordland monorail requires unacceptable permanent damage to a World Heritage Area, says Mick Abbott

Minister for Conservation, Nick Smith, is to be congratulated for his decision to decline an application for a private tunnel running beneath the Humboldt Mountains from the Routeburn Valley to the Hollyford.

In rejecting the tunnel, he said: “I am declining this tunnel proposal because the environmental impacts are significant and beyond what is appropriate in two of New Zealand’s most spectacular national parks and a World Heritage Area.”

Now Nick Smith’s judgement turns to the monorail application – a proposal that depends on 237,000 to 333,000 people every year wanting to take a half hour boat ride across Lake Wakitipu, where they will hop on an all-terrain vehicle for a 45km journey on existing gravel roads before taking a 30-minute monorail ride to Te Anau Downs. From there, they’ll board a bus for a two hour ride to Milford Sound. They’ll then repeat the journey in reverse to return to Queenstown.

It’s stated in the proposal that the trip to Te Anau Downs involves 1hr43min travel time. However, with transfer time included, this rises to ‘just over two hours’.

I’m sure Fiordland Link Experience (FLE) could become fairly efficient at getting each group of 160-220 people on and off the various transports their journey requires. In terms of logistics, each stage is not dissimilar to handling a 737 domestic flight of 130 passengers.

Nonetheless, the Fiordland link will be hard pressed to get any of these transitions down to less than 15 minutes, especially given there’s no toilets on the ATVs and monorail. So it’s difficult to see how the monorail will get people leaving Te Anau Downs for the trip to Milford much earlier than those doing the two and half hour drive it takes to get from Queenstown to Te Anau Downs.

Now some could say that such a proposition in tourism terms is marginal. Even the ‘low-growth’ scenario of carrying 30 per cent of absolutely everyone going to Milford Sound, let alone the 47 per cent high growth target they hope for, seems ambitious.

With its projected 100 full-time staff, the FLE will cost significantly more to provide (and purchase) than the buses, campervans, and private transport most local and international travellers currently use. Price-conscious backpackers will likely spend their discretionary dollar on something with a bit more adrenalin than transitioning between boats and ATVs. Not to mention keeping some money left over for kayaking on Milford Sound.

But then the job of the Minister is not to assess the business viability of tourism entrepreneurs. Though Nick Smith certainly did state economic viability as a factor in his declining of the tunnel application, and in this case there’s also Southlander’s views on what can be seen as a predatory Queenstown raid on Te Anau to consider.

Nor does it usually require a cabinet minister to rule on whether private concerns can use public conservation lands to undertake their business. Getting a concession for guiding, helicopter flights, and boating services is generally a non-ministerial task.

Where the collective interest of all New Zealanders comes in, and why Nick Smith is tasked with making the decision, is because this, the world’s longest monorail journey, is destined to create irreversible environmental and ecological change regardless of the venture’s success or failure.

If you listen to the reassuring comments of Riverstone Holdings and Fiordland Link Experience (FLE), you’ll get no sense of this. FLE’s chief executive, Bob Robertson, states “we don’t even break the canopy in the forest”.

Yet according to FLE’s own calculations, up to 122 large trees will be felled (with diameters when measured at breast height exceeding one metre), as will 5350 trees with a diameter between 50cm and one metre, 10,290 moderate sized trees (between 30cm and 50cm in diameter) and 3770 small trees (between 10cm and 30cm in diameter). On top of these 19,500 trees, another 22,600 or so saplings will also be destroyed.

All up, more than 15,700 trees larger in diameter than your copy of Wilderness magazine will be cut down.

That’s an awful lot of forest. Enough native timber to pack a one metre by one metre trench 10km long, if FLE’s own figures are accepted.

The monorail has been described as gliding above the forest. In reality, it is a proposal to build two parallel roads through 30km of the very same World Heritage Area and forest the rejected tunnel would have damaged.

It is planned to clear one corridor up to six metres wide so the monorail can be built above it. The other road, three meters wide, is to bring in the excavators, trucks, monorail track, roading fill and culverts that are required. It’s also there to transport the felled native timber that can’t be mulched.

Drawings from FLE’s engineers included in the application suggest far more felling might be required. For instance, drains either side of the 9km flatter section of forest road require a 3.75m corridor be cut, while the 14km of steeper roading show up to nine meters of forest floor being cleared.

The scale of roading is immense. Measure out the six metres plus three metres in a patch of bush near you and imagine it travelling from Christchurch’s Square out to Woodend, Parliament Building to Silverstream, or Auckland’s Queen Street to Manukau.

All this detail can be overwhelming. While the full application can be found in the project documents section of the website, it’s a daunting read. It’s far more comforting to trust the various sound bites doing the media rounds than to think of the extensive road works and tens of thousands of trees that will be felled in the hope people will pay a premium for this back-to-back triathlon of transport systems.

Bob Robertson happily points out, the “monorail doesn’t go in the national park at all. It skirts the edge of it”.

But that doesn’t mean we should skirt the issue of acceptable environmental impacts in our public conservation lands. Or that FLE’s core appeal is a 30 minute monorail ride that depends on building two high-impact roads through a World Heritage Area that’s the equal of any national park, but to which national park standards don’t yet apply.

If their proposal was any different, Riverstone Holdings and the FLE would be just as happy to take their monorail across farmlands a little further west. But then in this part of the country, maybe it’s the Wild West that continues to have the greatest appeal.