Government sees dollars in national parks

PARK PLAY: Glacier Explorers driver Duncan Crawford and passengers on the Tasman Glacier Terminal Lake in the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park.
FIONA WOODHAM/Supplied
PARK PLAY: Glacier Explorers driver Duncan Crawford and passengers on the Tasman Glacier Terminal Lake in the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park.

Mountain bikers, heli-skiers, campers and four-wheel-drive enthusiasts are set to win greater access to our national parks as the Government pushes for more commercial and recreational activities on New Zealand's 8.6 million-hectare conservation estate.

The Department of Conservation (DOC), which recently announced it will axe 72 jobs in response to budget cuts, is also looking at offering more tourism services on protected land, including campsites and "glamping" - luxury-style camping, according to Treasury documents.

Minister of Conservation Nick Smith told the Sunday Star-Times the department had been conservative and resistant to change, but he wanted to make it more responsive to modern needs.

That meant looking at recreational uses for the conservation estate beyond simply tramping and hunting.

He wanted to see representatives from a wider range of interest groups on conservation boards, because they were "as entitled to a voice as trampers and hunters".

But conservationists say any change must be managed carefully, to avoid damage to New Zealand's world-famous reputation for its wilderness and conservation values. There is also concern that commercialising the outdoors is another example of the National Government moving to "extract a dollar" wherever possible.

Smith said: "The Government is not proposing any sort of wholesale access to the conservation estate, but when it's a third of the country and eight million hectares, there is room for everyone."

The estate includes the nation's 14 national parks, which comprise around three million hectares.

Smith said more intrusive activities, such as four-wheel-driving or heli-skiing, would be appropriate in some places but not in others. He said DOC was open to hearing from interested recreational groups but would not be "responding to every fad".

DOC spends around $334 million annually maintaining the estate, and commercial operators - who currently pay DOC around $15m a year - should make a "fair contribution to that", he said.

Smith was also positive about public-private partnerships such as the three-year deal between Air New Zealand and DOC to promote New Zealand's "Great Walks" in its inflight videos.

New figures show visitor numbers to the walks jumped almost 10 per cent last year to 89,873 people, after six years of flat numbers.

A Statement of Intent issued by DOC last year said New Zealand was facing ongoing biodiversity pressures and public spending was coming under pressure, and it needed to find new ways of funding conservation.

Smith said the mindset that "tramping is all that is allowed" on DOC land was "old-fashioned and out of step with modern times", as the community's recreation pursuits change.

He said it took 13 years to persuade the department to allow winter mountain biking on the Heaphy Track, with the three-year trial to finish at the end of the year.

Fish and Game chief executive Bryce Johnson said the Government needed to ensure it didn't over-commercialise the outdoors.

"An awful lot of people are becoming increasingly concerned about the profit-driven motives of the current government, which is trying to extract a dollar out of every possible . . . place."

Green MP Eugenie Sage said her party was open to the idea of making parks more accessible, but the plan had to be properly managed in accordance with existing DOC strategies "so you don't have ad hoc bright ideas the minister has just being dropped in".

The measures needed to be consistent with the wilderness experience, and distinguish between recreation and commercialisation.

"Often the line between greater commercialisation and some recreational use can be a bit blurred. It's obviously appropriate to provide some tracks for mountain bikers [but] we wouldn't want to see increased recreation meaning more 4WD tracks, a major expansion in aircraft activities or lots more heli-hiking and heli-biking."

Federation of Mountain Climbers president Robin McNeill said the organisation was open-minded about the changes. The Heaphy trial appeared to have gone smoothly, but they wanted to ensure some areas remained off-limits.

OUR CONSERVATION ESTATE

Almost a third of New Zealand's land – some 8.6 million hectares – falls within an area where natural or cultural resources and biodiversity are protected.

This includes the 14 national parks, which comprise 3.1 million hectares.

The national parks contain the tracks designated as New Zealand's Great Walks – the Milford, Kepler, Routeburn, Rakiura, Heaphy, Abel Tasman, Tongariro Northern Circuit, and Lake Waikaremoana walks – as well as the canoe trip down the Whanganui River, a Great Journey.

Source: Te Ara Encyclopaedia of New Zealand

Sunday Star Times