National Parks are not theme parks

02:18, Jul 19 2013

"We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may not ever need to go there."  Edward Abbey, "Water".

This week, Conservation Minister Nick Smith made the difficult decision to decline a proposed bus tunnel through our greatest wilderness area, in Fiordland and Mt Aspiring National Parks. Top work by him!

The minister declared that this was one of the most "significant and difficult decisions" he had made in his time as a politician. In some ways, he's probably very right. The current Government has made no secret of its push for development, favouring a constant theme of economics trumping the environment, all in the name of "balance", where they say such decisions are made by "balancing" environmental outcomes against economic opportunities. Personally, I've always struggled with this approach to environmental management. If you take the "balance" line, essentially, what you get is a constant whittling away of environmental values over time when they are held up against economic opportunities.

Apparently when the minister announced his decision, journalists in the press gallery were surprised, leading one journo to comment that it wasn't a very "National Party decision".

Nick Smith says it was a trip to the site last month that swayed him. He said that the thought of half a million tonnes of "spoil" - that's the stuff that would be dug out to create the tunnel - in the Hollyford Valley was not in line with New Zealanders' love of our National Parks. In addition, the terminals would be right next to the end of the Routeburn Track (one of our Great Walks), which he thought would harm the experience of walkers.


In addition, Nick had more pragmatic concerns about the safety of the tunnel, and the cost of building such infrastructure in the remote area.

However, the National Parks Act and the Conservation Management Plans for the area involved probably would have made it very difficult indeed for him to approve this application.

Milford Dart Limited (MDL) have had the concept of the tunnel for the past seven years. It has come up against huge opposition from locals in both the small communities of Glenorchy and Te Anau.  

Te Anau locals celebrating the minister's decision to decline the tunnel this week.

In 1986, Unesco bestowed World Heritage status to this region in recognition of its "superlative natural phenomena" and "outstanding examples of the earth's evolutionary history".

Interestingly, the Department of Conservation hasn't been as fervent as the passionate locals, approving the tunnel idea in principle in 2011, and failing to alert Unesco about the planned development, despite South West Fiordland (Te Wahi Pounamu) being a World Heritage Area.  

The idea behind drilling a 11.3km tunnel between the Routeburn and Hollyford roads was to reduce the travel time for tourists who currently have to take a 286km journey from Queenstown through Te Anau.  It is a long journey (six hours each way) to get to Fiordland National Park.  

There seems to be this idea that we should create some kind of sped-up fast-food approach to tourism to our wildest areas. I find this bizarre. A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to visit Yellowstone National Park in the United States. Our trip to Yellowstone took us 225km, just shy of the distance that people have to travel to get to Milford Sound from Queenstown. I (and my fellow travellers) had no problem taking the roadie to Yellowstone; why would travellers mind a journey through some of our most beautiful country to get to Fiordland?  

The next decision the minister will have to make is about a monorail proposal in Fiordland - the monorail isn't on National Park land, which means the bar is not set as high, but it would mean clearing areas of native forest, building a road and all the infrastructure, and creating a lot of noise and activity in a place that has been internationally recognised as a wilderness area worthy of World Heritage Status.

It's Fiordland, not Disneyland. If tourists want a theme park adventure, can't they go to Rainbow's End?

I was lucky enough to spend a week in Fiordland National Park a couple of months ago - and there's something powerful about being in a place that is truly wild. Even the minister admitted that it gets to you. We don't need over-the-top, sped-up, commercial activities in this ancient place of shadows ... and for the visitors who thrive on that stuff, there are plenty of opportunities in places like Queenstown or Rotorua, for example.

In an interview on Campbell Live this week, Nick said: "I've got four kids, and I want to make a decision that when they're old and I'm gone, they'll say 'Yep, my Dad got it right'." Good on you, Minister, and we hope that you continue to make decisions with our future New Zealanders in mind.   

In light of your future decision - I'll leave you with this catchy tune from Lyle Langley from the Simpsons episode where a monorail becomes a safety hazard and white elephant, and the townspeople are left feeling foolish for being caught up in the hype.  Let's not let that be us.

What did you think about the tunnel decision? Would it be different for a monorail? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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