Minister to decide on Milford tunnel and link

TERRI RUSSELL
Last updated 09:31 25/02/2013

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It makes sense for conservation minister Nick Smith to decide on the proposals for the Milford Dart Tunnel and Fiordland Link Experience, says Prime Minister John Key.

The Milford Dart bus tunnel would go from Routeburn Road in Mt Aspiring National Park, to Hollyford Road in Fiordland National Park, according to the Department of Conservation.

The Fiordland Link Experience is a monorail which would go through the Snowdon Forest Conservation Area, with terminals alongside the Mararoa River, and Fiordland National Park.

Key said though previous minister Kate Wilkinson gave the final call to the Department of Conservation for "neutrality", these decisions were inherently political.

"It makes sense for Nick Smith to be the decision maker there," Key told RadioLive this morning.

"These are big crunchy decisions down there in Milford, and in Fiordland."

He said the political nature of the proposals would mean those who considered they lost out in the decision would blame the Government.

Key said he understood the logic behind what his team was trying to do, because of tourism and job creation.

"On the other side of the coin, a tunnel through a national park and all the rest of it - they're not insignificant actions and not without their risks. So I can see it both ways."

Smith said he had decided, given the scale of the projects and the huge public interest in them, it was not appropriate for the decision to be delegated to a Conservation Department official.

''These are public lands and it is proper that these decisions are made by a publicly elected and accountable official,'' he said.

The decisions would be difficult and he had taken advice on ensuring a robust process, he said.

''Parks and reserves are much loved areas of New Zealand set aside for conservation and recreation. There is a particularly high threshold for projects in our National Parks. However, New Zealand also needs jobs and economic development.''

Smith said he would be advised by the Department of Conservation and expected to receive the department's reports on the Milford Dart tunnel soon and the Fiordland Link Experience in a few months.

He would also visit the affected areas and meet with the commissioners who heard the public submissions, and planned to meet with the project applicants and consult the New Zealand Conservation Authority before making a decision.

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Southland District Mayor Frana Cardno said she hoped the minister did his homework thoroughly before coming to a decision.

"We hope that he looks at our environmental heritage and takes on board the law.

"With world heritage comes obligations to understand the natural values," she said.

Save Fiordland chairwoman Daphne Taylor said she was glad the decision would be made by the minister, because it showed its importance.

"We hope that it reflects his understanding of how significant that world heritage status is on every level," Taylor said.

The group wanted the minister to have a full understanding of the law and conservation management documents before making a decision.

Federated Mountain Clubs president Robin McNeill said that he was confident the minister would review the evidence objectively and impartially, and realise the process to date had been flawed.

- The Southland Times

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