Tunnel, monorail plan fuels anger

Peter Jackson did them all a favour in Glenorchy.

When he and his 90-truck Hobbit-filming cavalcade spent a day trundling through this minuscule town at the top of Lake Wakatipu, the locals suddenly realised what it meant to have your road clogged with traffic.

It was a dramatic demonstration of what it might be like if developers are allowed to punch a 11.3km tunnel through nearby mountains as a shortcut for buses from Queenstown to Milford Sound.

“Ninety trucks,” says Corrine Davis, who runs a motel and a store. “That's about the same as what they're proposing the buses will be: 40 going one way in the morning and 40 coming back in the afternoon.”

Davis loves Jackson for the tourists he's attracted to nearby Lord of the Rings locations. But on that noisy, diesel-fumed day, “We thought ‘oh my God! This is what the buses are going to be like, except it's not just going to be for a week. It's going to be every day. Forever.”

Before then, Davis was on the fence. Now she's made her mind up and she's fighting the tunnel, part of a swiftly growing band of naysayers. And the tunnel's not the only thing they're against.

Plans for opening up this remote and beautiful corner of the country to more tourism are often mooted, but the big ones - such as a proposed Haast-to-Hollyford highway - seldom get far. Now, suddenly, there are two big ideas that have a chance of getting across the line.

One is the $170m “Milford Dart Tunnel” Davis is worried about, which by joining the Routeburn Rd in Mt Aspiring National Park to the Hollyford Rd in Fiordland National Park would bypass Te Anau to the south, and knock 360km off the 600km round-trip by bus from Queenstown to Milford Sound and back. Private vehicles won't be allowed to use it.

The other, proposed by an unrelated bunch of developers, is the “Fiordland Link Experience” - a Queenstown-based day trip comprising a catamaran trip across Lake Wakatipu, a back-country blat in a 4WD and a grassland monorail ride to Te Anau Downs, 29.5km of it through DOC's Snowdon Forest. Once again it means Queenstown tourists can reach Milford far faster.

Both projects need Department of Conservation approval, which is why many locals weren't too worried; they assumed DOC would scoff at the notion of running a 5m-wide privately-owned hole through not one but two National Parks, both within the Unesco-defined “World Heritage Area” of Te Wahipounamu - South West New Zealand.

Monorail opponents, meanwhile, assumed that running a 200m-wide corridor through tens of kilometres of DOC wilderness (not National Park but still World Heritage-designated) was just as implausible.

But in November they got a shock. After much back and forth with developers over how to mitigate environmental and conservation concerns, DOC gave a thumbs-up to both projects, subject to public submissions.

By March, 1262 submissions had been made on the tunnel plan (about 800 opposing) and 315 on the monorail (288 opposing). There were public hearings, and developers had a right of reply. Then DOC snuck away to have think about it.

The final decisions are months away. If they get thorny, the buck could be passed as far up as Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson. She's carefully avoided expressing opinions one way or another and last week she was joined by Prime Minister John Key. A spokesman said that as Tourism Minister, Key “is aware of the proposals [but] has yet to form a view either way and will await DOC's consideration of the submissions and decision”.

Opponents won't be waiting patiently. In Glenorchy and in Te Anau, they're mobilising. They're courting national media. Pressure groups are forming. They're getting Unesco on the phone. They're angry, and they're ready for battle.

U NLIKE BIG, brash Queenstown 45km to the south, there's no major skifield near Glenorchy, so winter visitors are scarce. When I turn off the engine of my rental car outside Corrine Davis' home early on a Wednesday morning it's so quiet I feel I've gone deaf.

Davis' sitting room has views of white-dusted peaks in most directions. It's large but cosily cluttered, and that extraordinary snowy silence has followed me indoors. At first I don't notice Davis' teenage daughter, and a niece visiting from Wellington, who are silently curled up on couches like cats - not reading, not texting. “I like the quiet,” says the niece, Billy, quietly.

Davis and husband Thor run the seven-unit Mt Earnslaw Motel and a possum-fur store (bedspreads sell best). “We don't make a fortune but it's good enough. We're flat out in summer and in winter it's very quiet.”

Glenorchy has always been the end of the road (and before the road, end of the lake). Ten years ago the townsfolk wrote a community plan, in which they agreed they'd like to stay that way.

“It's an end-destination. The tunnel will turn it into just another place you pass through on the way somewhere else.”

Thanks to the Hobbit trucks, Davis is confident 80 drive-bys a day will clog the town and disturb the peace, and the economic trade-off won't be worth it.

"They might use a toilet or stop for a cup of coffee . . . and if this does go ahead, then we'd be working to get the buses to stop. But in the first instance we'd rather they didn't come here at all.”

The impact won't only be on humans.

“They're going to have to pull down trees at the start of the Routeburn to widen the road. There are endangered native bats in those trees, there are endangered mohua; there's the endangered blue duck on the river. There's kaka, there's falcons. Our iconic native species will be affected and this is DOC saying yes that's OK? We don't understand that. How come we're pleading with DOC to protect our national park? That's their job.”

In Glenorchy everyone knows everyone, but it's a mixed crowd: greenies and DOC workers, Queenstown commuters and foreigners who have come here for the chilled lifestyle, farmers who have been here for generations.

Yet when they held a community meeting, it turned out just about everyone opposed the tunnel, so they set up a Glenorchy “Tunnel Action Group”.

Besides talking to journalists, Davis has been using social media: starting conversations on Trade Me message boards, where she can win support one keystroke at a time, and inviting people to spot the difference between drilling a tunnel in a national park and digging a mine.

Also keen to speak up are Mary Aitken, 92, and her daughter, Sharon. They live a few kilometres north, on the Rees Valley Rd. I'd have missed the driveway completely if Sharon hadn't been waving at the roadside.

Here, too, the silence is startling, the views awe-inspiring. At the kitchen table, Mary declares the tunnel “the most horrible thing I've ever heard of”.

She worries about the native flora and fauna. She recalls the time her deer-stalking husband, Brian, came across men poaching endangered blue duck up the Routeburn, and he tramped all the way out to tell the authorities, who collared the villains as they got off the boat.

When was this?

“Oh. That would be about 1947.”

Brian died in a trucking accident in 1958, but his family had been in the district since the 1860s. For Sharon, building a tunnel would be like “boring a hole through my heart”. These hills are where she draws her spiritual strength, and she can't bear the thought of them being “violated and mutilated and trashed like that - becoming a carry-through for hundreds of people who want to ‘do' Milford.

“We have this beautiful piece of the Earth which we're happy to share with the rest of the world, but we want them to come here to see that, not to be herded onto buses and poked through a hole.”

If DOC approves the tunnel, and it gets resource consent and legal challenges fail, would these two women lie in front of the diggers?

“I will,” says Sharon.

“Very definitely,” says Mary. “Though I'd go around with a .303 first.”

“Just as well we handed it back in,” says Sharon.

Farmer Mark Hasselman arrives on his bike. He was busy skinning a couple of sheep, but for the sake of the anti-tunnel campaign he's happy to show a visitor around. As we drive to the Routeburn Road End, the intended site of the tunnel's eastern portal, we pass plastic-wrapped hay bales on which Hasselman has painted “Stop the Routeburn Tunnel”.

Hasselman runs sheep and cattle on the 8000-hectare Temple Peak station, but only on the 15% or so that's farmable - the rest is mountainous, which is fine, because he likes to climb.

At the nearly-empty road-end carpark there's melting snow on the grass. He points up through the bush: "That's where the tunnel will start".

It's quiet, but you can hear the hissing of the river.

“I don't know if you'll hear the river when the buses are coming through.”

I F GLENORCHY wants the right to remain silent, Te Anau is the opposite. If fiord-seeking Queenstown tourists zip into the tunnel at Routeburn, they'll no longer need to take the 300km fishhook-shaped route that dips deeply south and west before curling back north through Te Anau.

No surprise then, that Te Anau is the other hotbed of anti-tunnel activists. It's also a hotbed of anti-monorailers (it too will bypass Te Anau). So after dropping Hasselman back at the Aitkens', I go to meet some of them.

The drive from Glenorchy to Te Anau is so beautiful it wears you out. For the first 80km or so you cling to the eastern shore of the Harry-Potter-scar-shaped Lake Wakatipu, but then it's all glacial plains and snaking rivers and huge sky. You drive between jutting Lord of the Rings mountains and past vast, doughy brown hills.

Even the manmade bits look amazing: low winter sun makes the tarmac gleam and powerlines glisten. The road's so good it's hard to stick to the speed limit, so no-one bothers. I'm told the next bit - from Te Anau to Milford - is even more impressive.

When I reach Te Anau someone's organised a little welcoming committee - a smattering of the locals behind the new Save Fiordland movement. There's a National-voting fly-fishing dentist who hasn't protested about anything since the Vietnam War but doesn't want to see a “goddam Disneyland” monorail cutting a swath through Fiordland. There's a preschool teacher, a tramping guide and a helicopter pilot.

There's a DOC worker who isn't allowed to comment on what he thinks of his employer's actions, and a senior student from Fiordland College who's running the Facebook page. Frana Cardno, the ebullient mayor of Southland District Council, is there to put her tuppence in, and so are Ray and Helen Willett, veterans of the successful 1960s and 1970s battle to save Manapouri and Te Anau lakes from being flooded to boost power output from the Manapouri Power Station. Motivations vary, but they're all keen to see the tunnel and monorail off.

The Fiordland Link monorail is the brainchild of Riverstone Holdings, which has spent more than $3m on its bid so far.

According to Riverstone director John Beattie, the monorail is getting “tarred by the tunnel brush”, and Save Fiordland is happy to see “the spillover of antagonism from the tunnel start to affect the monorail”.

He won't directly comment on the tunnel project “as it would be inappropriate”, but he's positively bubbling with enthusiasm for his monorail. “This is a cool project and it will be done with balance, and it will be something people can be proud of”.

Fact is, says Beattie, New Zealand tourism is falling off, and a big $170m project like his is just what's needed to attract visitors back from other destinations. New Zealand needs a piece of the burgeoning Asian market, and once Fiordland Link is up and running, it'll spend $3m to $4m abroad each year, marketing New Zealand tourism.

Local benefits are huge too: hundreds of jobs during construction and 60 to 100 once operational. Environmental impacts will be managed with extreme care: for instance, just 22 hectares of trees will be lost in an area of 47,000 hectares: “That's less than of 1 percent!”

Beattie accepts some locals - a few hundred maybe - may have genuine concerns, because they're “the fortunate few who've used it as their private recreational playground”.

But he's far less impressed by those with ideological motivations who are now “parachuting in”, such as Green MP Eugenie Sage, who paid a visit recently. He says her claim that tourism can be saved by encouraging visitors to stay longer and walk more are “loopy and unrealistic”.

“We're talking about Asians who get a couple of weeks' holiday a year.”

Beattie says there's more support for his project out there than you might think. Protesters are moving the debate from inside DOC hearings to the public arena, and he's about to do the same.

Michael Sleigh of Milford Dart Limited, which has invested six years and a couple of million dollars on its tunnel proposal, says his company will keep faith with the process DOC is following, and doesn't want to run “a public campaign outside the legal process”.

He'll say this though: his tunnel will be of great benefit to New Zealand tourism. A shorter Queenstown-Milford trip isn't only good for tourists, it reduces their carbon footprint.

The tunnel itself will have "little or no environmental impact, because it's under the ground.” He's not much impressed by the campaigners. For example, some of those criticising the tunnel are proponents of a Haast-Hollyford highway, “which would have a bigger impact than anything we're proposing”.

In Glenorchyl, “we've been contacted by a lot of people who say they are very supportive of it but feel they can't voice it publicly. There's a lot of people there that feel reasonably intimidated by the situation.”

Intimidated by whom? “By those in the community that don't want anything to change.”

Actually, says Sleigh, the benefits for Glenorchy “are very significant and the impacts are very minimal”. There'll be more people coming through to do horse-trekking or walking or jet-boating or whatever. As for traffic, at the peak level of 40 buses a day that's only an 8 per cent increase on existing traffic.

As DOC decides, Save Fiordland and Stop the Tunnel are getting battle-ready. Last week Save Fiordland incorporated itself and appointed former tourism operator Daphne Taylor as chairperson.

From Save Manapouri on, says Taylor, Fiordlanders have felt that “we're guardians and we take the role seriously.

"We know we're lucky to live down here, but with that privilege comes the responsibility of preserving it. But we need help from the rest of the country to do that.”


■ Monorail: www.fiordlandlink.com

■ Tunnel:: www.bit.ly/LsVdgP

■ Save Fiordland: www.facebook.com/savefiordland

■ Stop the Tunnel: www. stopthetunnel.co.nz (There's a public meeting tonight at 5pm at Queenstown Memorial)

■ World Heritage Area listing: whc.unesco.org/en/list/551

Sunday Star Times