In an increasingly politically correct and secular world, the lines between sense, sensitivity, beliefs and individual rights can often become blurred.
As guardian of much publicly owned land, often with high environmental, aesthetic or cultural value, the Department of Conservation at times finds itself in the difficult position of ruling between groups with conflicting views on how a resource ought to be protected and used.
A case in point is Waikoropupu Springs in Golden Bay. The largest freshwater springs in New Zealand and also the largest coldwater springs in the southern hemisphere, they contain some of the clearest water ever measured - second only to that found beneath Antarctica's near-frozen Weddell Sea.
They are also regarded as sacred by iwi. The springs have been registered as wahi tapu with the Maori Heritage Council of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. According to Wikipedia, "Waikoropupu is the legendary home of the female taniwha, Huriawa, one of the three main taniwha of Aotearoa. She is a diver of land and sea, travelling deep beneath the earth to clear blocked waterways.
"She is brave and wise and believed to still rest in the waters of Waikoropupu, when she is not away attending to business."
A sign attesting to the springs' significance to iwi is prominent at the start of a walkway there.
This past summer, uniformed Conservation "compliance officers" asked visitors to refrain from eating their lunches near the water, informing them of iwi protocols around wahi tapu (sacred places).
In early 2006, prompted by concern about the spread of the invasive algae didymo, the department opted to close off all physical contact with the springs: no fishing, swimming, diving, wading, boating and drinking the water. It said this was done to safeguard water quality and "to respect cultural values". Prior to this, diving was allowed under a voluntary code of conduct, restricting excursions to 15 minutes and prescribing no more than four divers at a time. Divers came from around New Zealand and further afield to experience the amazing water clarity, officially measured at 63 metres. Even after the closure, the springs remain Golden Bay's greatest tourist attraction with 80,000 visitors annually.
The department's decision to ban divers was opposed by the local clubs, who pointed to how well the voluntary code had worked. Now, Nelson Underwater Club members fear a case of deja vu, with consultation under way over the future of another place of special significance to iwi, the crystal clear waters of the Riwaka Resurgence.
Hopefully, their fears will prove unfounded. Iwi spokesman Ropata Taylor says iwi are "happy to continue discussing use of the river with the underwater club", while the department's Brian Paton says private diving expeditions are still allowed.
Club member Mark Roden is right to point out the site has significance for divers. After all, they know more, in a direct sense, of the underwater cave system than anyone. He makes a non-PC but also valid point in stating just as members respect Maori spiritual beliefs about the place, so too should his own "un-belief" be respected. There is an Orwellian warning in there somewhere. In a secular world, one set of beliefs should not over-ride any other.
- © Fairfax NZ News