$240 million Fiordland monorail rejected

MICHAEL FOX
Last updated 17:50 29/05/2014
ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff.co.nz

Conservation minister Nick Smith says the planned Fiordland monorail "does not stack up".

Fiordland Link Experience

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FAST TRACK: Artist’s impression of the monorail.
Nick Smith
ROBERT KITCHIN / Fairfax NZ
REJECTED: Conservation Minister Nick Smith announces his rejection of the plan today.
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The Government has rejected the proposal to build a monorail in Fiordland, with Conservation Minister Nick Smith saying the $240 million plan "does not stack up either economically or environmentally".

Riverstone Holdings wanted to develop a tourist trip using a catamaran from Queenstown to Mt Nicholas Station, an all-terrain vehicle drive to Kiwi Burn near the Mavora Lakes, and then the monorail ride to Te Anau Downs.

However, Smith said today the plan was too risky, both financially and for the environment.

"The independent tourism and financial analysis concluded it was not viable," Smith said.

"There would be a significant impact on the area's flora, fauna and natural heritage. The route is not sufficiently defined to properly assess the impacts."

If the monorail was built and failed it would have cost $200m to remove it, he said.

'HUGELY DISAPPOINTING'

Riverstone Holdings director Bob Robertson said Smith's decision came as a surprise.

"New Zealand is losing a huge opportunity to develop a world-class tourism experience at no cost to the taxpayer," Robertson said.

"The Fiordland Link Experience would have provided a significant boost to the economy, provided 1000 jobs and future-proofed our tourism industry with no more than a minor ecological impact as confirmed by the Department of Conservation and the hearing commissioner," Robertson said.

The economic viability of the project could not have been truly satisfied until extensive engineering design had been undertaken and a business plan was developed - which would have taken months and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But the risk, he said, would have been completely on Riverstone.

"Given this, his decision does not stand to reason."

The company had worked closely with the Department of Conservation for eight years in developing the plan.

In addition, the independent hearing commissoner's report had concluded the monorail could be constructed with only minor impacts, Robertson said.

"We have proven our commitment to the environment and this project at every step and our plans have been vindicated by experts.

"To have our application face constant delays and ultimately end up with a decision being made months out from a national election is incredibly disheartening," Robertson said.

GREEN, LABOUR REACTION

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei called the decision a "victory for people and a victory for the environment".

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"It's the right decision to save this World Heritage Area for our generation and for the generations to come."

She said it would have been difficult to make a decision to "destroy a world heritage site in an election year" but credited Nick Smith for his decision.

"I do think the decision was political but it's the right decision. The environment should be protected; we do not want to see this destruction in this world heritage site.

"Thousands and thousands of people signed this petition ... so credit to Nick Smith for making this decision for whatever reason he made it."

Turei said the Greens were completely opposed to developments in New Zealand's national parks and Smith should not leave the door open.

There was "no justification" for what she described as a "vanity project".

Labour's conservation spokeswoman, Ruth Dyson, also welcomed the decision saying it was "a victory for common sense".

"The monorail would have had a major impact on a special part of Fiordland which is a mecca for trampers and visitors to New Zealand.

"New Zealanders were loud and clear in their opposition to this, with thousands signing a petition opposing the monorail."

UnitedFuture leader Peter Dunne said the party was relieved by the decision.

"The proposed route is home to some of our last pieces of unspoilt forest and we have a responsibility to protect it for future generations.

"New Zealand's strength is that we offer something unique, something different. A monorail barreling through an otherwise untouched valley diminishes immeasurably that strength."

A HARD DECISION

Smith called the monorail proposal "probably the second-most significant concession application that the Department of Conservation has dealt with, alongside the tunnel proposal for Milford [Sound]".

"In my view this has been a more difficult decision and as a consequence the process has taken a little longer and has involved some additional independent reports."

'DOOR STILL OPEN'

"I do not want this decision interpreted as the Government and Department of Conservation being opposed to any proposal for alternative access options in Fiordland ... The door is still open but proposals will need to be both environmentally sustainable and economically viable." Smith said.

The project was massive and involved a major concrete structure through a protected area and with "a very questionable" economic viability.

Economic viability was important because if developers were stretched, they compromised on their efforts to protect the environment.

INDEPENDENT REPORT CRITICAL

The Department of Conservation and a hearing commissioner recommended last October that developers be given provisional permission to clear a 29.5-kilometre long, 6-metre wide corridor through Snowdon Forest - conservation land - as part of a 43km monorail ride.

But the final decision on the project - the Fiordland Link - was up to Smith.

He sought an independent report the proposal in December.

He said he had been advised that the applicant was being "way too optimistic" about its future market share, saying that the trip being spread out across several modes of transport meant there would not be a substantive saving of time.

He was also advised the estimates of construction costs were too low and he questioned the financial analysis.

He also had concerns about the accuracy of the information provided on the proposed environmental impact, he said.

The applicants had not been able to define exactly where the monorail would go and this made it harder to understand the impact, he said.

"In short, the project does not stack up either economically or environmentally."

A "key strategic issue" in regards to getting people between Queenstown and Milford remained, but the Government would not look at doing something itself.

Other proposals had been suggested, but "it's for the private sector to take the initiative".

"It's my job to test those proposals and approve them if they stack up."

'GREAT NEWS'

Forest & Bird Otago Southland field officer Sue Maturin said the announcement was "great news" for the World Heritage Area.

"The monorail plans were unrealistic from the beginning, as there is no way the applicant could have restored the old growth forest, tussock grasslands or wetlands the project would have destroyed," Maturin said.

The area was home to endangered species, including highly threatened mohua, or yellowhead, and long-tailed bats, she said.

Forest & Bird would now want DOC to "finish the job" of classifying stewardship land such as Snowdon Forest.

New Zealand has about 2.8 million hectares of stewardship land with few legal protections.

"It is very fortunate the Snowdon Forest is now safe from this proposal," Maturin said.

TIMELINE

1995 - Monorail concept linking Queenstown to Lake Te Anau developed

2004 - The plan was first announced after Wanaka-based Riverstone Holdings Ltd became involved

December 2011 - The Department of Conservation (DOC) notified its intention to grant a 49-year concession to Riverstone Holdings Ltd for a monorail and a maintenance/cycle track to be constructed across 29.5km of wilderness that is managed by DOC. DOC invites written submissions and objections to proposal to be submitted by February 27.

January 13, 2012 - DOC extends the deadline for submitting on the Riverstone Holdings monorail concession applications to March 19.

March 19, 2012 - Submissions close: 315 submissions being received. 288 submissions oppose and 27 submissions supported the intention to grant the concession.

March 30, 2012 - DOC announces public hearings for the Riverstone monorail concession application will begin on April 2.

April 2, 3, 16, 17, 2012 - Public hearings held in Te Anau and Invercargill with about 80 submitters to be heard during four days of hearings.

October 31, 2013 - The Department of Conservation recommends the developers of the proposed $200 million Fiordland monorail be given provisional permission to clear a 29.5-kilometre-long, 6-metre-wide corridor through conservation land. But Conservation Minister Nick Smith has the final say on whether the monorail should proceed.

December 20, 2013 - Smith asks DOC to commission an independent financial viability report for the Fiordland monorail proposal being promoted by Riverstone Holdings.

May 29, 2014 - Smith announces he has rejected the monorail proposal. 

- Stuff

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