New challenge for tunnel opponents
Environmentalists may have another fight on their hands, hot on the heels of the rejection of a national park tunnel.
Conservation Minister Nick Smith yesterday rejected the proposed Milford Tunnel project saying it showed how high the bar was set for engineering projects in national parks.
However, he did not rule out future construction projects including a proposed monorail in Fiordland, saying proposals would be considered on their own merit.
The 43 kilometre, $150 million Fiordland Experience would travel mainly through the Snowdon Forest, part of which is in the Southwest World Heritage site, and home to several critically endangered lizard, birds, plants and the short-tailed bat.
Around 29.5km of the line would be through Department of Conservation land.
The significant difference between the Fiordland Experience project and the tunnel was that ‘‘very little of it’’ was within the Mt Aspiring and Fiordland national parks, which would have been affected by the tunnel.
Both parks are world heritage sites.
‘‘I don’t want to prejudge in any way the Fiordland Experience Project. I have not considered any papers on it, at all, I will be following a similar process in the consideration of that proposal as I have over the tunnel,’’ Smith said.
He expected the report from the hearings commissioner later this year.
Smith urged the public not to draw conclusions between this decision and future ones, saying such projects would be considered on their own merits.
The people behind the Fiordland Experience were reportedly heartened by the decision to stop the tunnel, saying it increased their chances of getting the go-ahead.
Green Party conservation spokeswoman Eugenie Sage called the decision to stop the tunnel a victory for the thousands of New Zealanders who had demanded protection for national parks and she hoped Smith would make a similar decision about the monorail.
Sage told Radio New Zealand Smith might find the monorail more difficult to decline because the test in the Conservation Act is not as strong as that in the National Parks Act.
Smith is also considering a separate proposal from the company behind the tunnel project, Milford Dart.
The company last week outlined an alternative tunnel which would be approximately two kilometres longer, at around 13.3km, and would relocate the eastern portal about three kilometres south east.
Smith said he had not received any technical advice yet nor had the public of hearing commissioner had an opportunity to consider it.
He said it was too early for him to respond to the new application.
Yesterday Smith said his main reasons for axing the plans for the Milford Tunnel were the depositing of 500,000 tonnes of spoil in the pristine Hollyford Valley, and the impact of the new entrance and exit roads were also inconsistent with the National Park Management Plans.
He also had concerns over the safety of the 11.3km tunnel and its economic viability.
The tunnel would have linked Queenstown and Milford Sound, halving the current travel time between the destinations.
The developers have indicated they could mount a legal challenge.