Smith swayed by trip through pristine valley

SWAYED: Conservation Minister Nick Smith's trip to Fiordland influenced his decision.
SWAYED: Conservation Minister Nick Smith's trip to Fiordland influenced his decision.

Enviromentalism has triumphed over economic development in a Government decision that spares two of the country's most pristine national parks from a major construction project.

A $180 million plan for a tunnel beneath the Fiordland and Mt Aspiring national parks would have halved travel time to Milford Sound, which attracts 420,000 visitors a year.

While pondering the decision whether to allow the tunnel to be cut through the world heritage area, Conservation Minister Nick Smith visited Fiordland.

The trip swayed him, he said yesterday as his decision was celebrated by environmentalists. Disappointed developers are expected to lodge a legal challenge.

"When I thought about half a million tonnes of tunnel spoil being dumped in the pre-pristine environment of the Hollyford Valley, I took a deep breath and said: ‘I don't think it is a runner'," Dr Smith told reporters.

"I could not feel comfortable with being the person responsible for having given the OK to that sort of environmental degradation."

Depositing that amount of spoil would "permanently damage the natural and landscape values" of Hollyford Valley.

He also had concerns about the economics and safety of the plan, as ventilation and emergency systems would be costly.

The impact of the new roads and portals at each end of the tunnel, and particularly the effects on visitors at the entrance to the Routeburn Track were also significant factors, with Dr Smith saying the proposal ran counter to the National Parks Act.

"In my time as an MP and as a minister this would be one of the more significant and difficult decisions that I have made. I have given it a huge amount of consideration and careful thought," he said.

The decision might have surprised those nervous about the Government's focus on extracting more revenue from the conservation estate and attracting more visitors.

Dr Smith said there was a balance between the economic benefits of tourism growth and the environmental effects of the proposal ". . . and on this decision I have said that the environmental impacts of this proposal are too large and on that basis I have decided to decline".

Milford Dart managing director Tom Elworthy, in a brief email, said the decision was political.

"Disappointed of course. National trying to out-green the Greens. Going skiing."

Other directors of the Christchurch firm could not be reached for comment.

The plan was to drill a 11.3km bus tunnel underneath the Fiordland and Mt Aspiring national parks, linking Queenstown and Milford. Parts of the affected area are in Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area.

The drive from Queenstown to Milford is 286km, taking about nine hours.

Opposition to the tunnel had been significant and included a petition to Parliament.

Southland District Mayor Frana Cardno was jubilant when she heard the decision, shouting the news to those gathered at a council meeting.

"I'm overcome with joy - it's the right decision."

Stop the Tunnel spokeswoman Trish Fraser, of Glenorchy, said the group's confidence had been growing "but until we heard the news we were not quite sure how it would turn out".

Dr Smith said he had made the decision rather than leaving it to the Department of Conservation, given the scale and level of public interest.

Fairfax Media