Nestled in the Manawatu district is a stretch of road that climbs and zig-zags its way over an exposed ridge, across farmland, before leading to the foothills of the Ruahine Park Forest.
Part of the pathway to the bush-covered ranges is on Opawe Rd, a paper road in the Pohangina Valley. The proposed closure of this route in exchange for a land swap has caused dissent. Lucy Townend investigates.
Johannes Altenburg, of Ashhurst, has been exploring the Ruahine Park Forest since he was a youth, but now, 40 years later, he feels as if he is getting a raw deal on what he says is a public treasure being blocked by bureaucracy.
He recalls fond summers tramping and hunting in Pohangina, but says he has always encountered problems when using this particular paper road.
"I was kicked off there as a teenager and because I didn't know any better, I went home thinking I couldn't go up there legally without the farmer's permission, but that's not the case."
Submissions on a Manawatu District Council move to block the unformed portion of Opawe Rd and to create a new road to facilitate access to the park closed this week.
The council's proposal to swap the 2.7-hectare-sized road, which is more than 27,000 square metres of land, with a smaller-sized piece of land owned by a neighbouring farmer has upset Altenburg.
"Our right to free passage on this has been kicked to bloody hell. It should never have come to this stage.
"If this goes ahead, the public will be deprived of something extremely important."
The paper road, located on Maungatau Farm, leads to the west-to-east crossing of Ruahine Forest Park, a seven-hour trek to Dannevirke via the Maharahara Peak track.
People would still have access to the park through a walkway signposted by the Department of Conservation, with the district council wanting to make that route the official public one through a land swap.
But this isn't good enough, Altenburg says, and over the years the landowner has been "obstructive" over use of the road and has even put up plastic cattle feeders to block fence gates from opening and people from passing.
"He doesn't own the paper road. You and I own that, and we've got every right to access that day or night. The whole thing is ludicrous."
Department of Conservation Manawatu Rangitikei area manager Jason Roxburgh says staff have worked alongside various landowners to facilitate access to the forest park for at least 15 years.
DOC has attempted to broker the peace between disgruntled community members and the landowner many times, but accusations that the farmer was being "obstructive" are not fair.
DOC supports the council's proposal to address the access in this way, Mr Roxburgh says.
Maungatau Farm owner Richard Christensen says he has had his fair share of run-ins with errant road users, but it is nothing serious, and he has his own problems regarding the paper road.
His property, stock and house, which sit adjacent to it, have been shot at by people using the walkway and often hunters or trampers get lost and wander on to his private property, fail to close gates and let stock loose, he says.
"I'm just trying to work through with the council to make it happier for everybody.
"There seems to be a lot of confusion and no-one is clear about anything."
When he bought the farm seven years ago, he didn't know the property bordered the paper road and he says the process to shut the road and swap the land was initiated by the district council.
"All they are trying to do is legalise where people walk now and, as a compromise, I give them that piece of land [the poled, signposted route] and I get this piece [the paper road].
Christensen and the district council cannot say why the process was initiated or if money is changing hands.
Kiwitea-Pohangina ward councillor John Baxter says when the move to stop the unformed portion of Opawe Rd first came to the council in March 2011, his decision was clear-cut.
"It just seemed the sensible thing to do and there would be an alternate route, so I supported it because it was logical.
"I know there has been a bit of friction out there regarding it, but hopefully at this stage we can work through it to see what the locals think and feel about it."
Neville Parrott, of Rongotea, says he plans to take the issue to the Environment Court because he feels it is "absolutely wrong, what they're proposing to do".
"The swap of these two pieces of land is totally inadequate, and I'm prepared to spend a hell of a lot of money at the Environment Court, because they're not going to rubberstamp this."
His biggest concern is the council shutting the door on developing the land, which he believes would be suitable for tourism ventures such as mountainbiking tracks, organised recreational hunting or four-wheel-drive ventures.
A New Zealand Walking Access Commission spokesman agrees with Parrott's forward-thinking and says the potential to develop paper roads should not be lost by closing them prematurely.
"Even as little as 20 years ago, there were few who would have seen the popularity and commercial value of cycleways.
"[We] encourage adjoining landholders, councils and recreationalists to take a long-term view on unformed legal roads.
"None of us know what the future holds and how important these roads may become."
A public notice about the road, which was issued by the council in November last year, says it is "no longer required due to ground instability" and is not used enough to warrant it remaining open.
The council's support services and environment group manager, Shayne Harris, says this report was provided by Truebridge Associates Ltd and council staff had walked the paper road and the alternative route to determine which was better, but could not provide more details on it.
Registered surveyor Bruce Stern, who visited the area last week, says the council's reasoning is ill-judged.
"The alternative route proposed by the council is greatly inferior to the existing route, because it contains two stretches of very steep grade, which is 1 to 2.
"Basically, it is a mountainside. It's not a road and it's not a walking track.
"As well as that, the width of the new road is only four metres, as against the existing legal surveyed road, which is 20m.
"Essentially, the landowner is receiving a lot more land than he is giving away."
The public submissions against the proposal closed on Thursday. If there are objections and the council insists the paper road should close, the case will go to the Environment Court.
The council says it is unable to give any indication of how many submissions were received, or what will happen from here.
"[The] council is giving consideration to the submissions received. [It] looks forward to working with the parties involved and a decision will be made in due course," Mr Harris says.
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