As the cut–off time for submissions on Milford Dart's plans to build a tunnel into Fiordland nears, Scot MacKay explores the proposal and what it could mean for Milford, Te Anau and Glenorchy.
At the head of the Hollyford, a wide airstrip can be seen protruding from the forest as a haze of diesel fumes hangs over the trees.
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Looking down through the canopy, a line of buses can be seen winding through the bush as tourists inside blink away the darkness of the tunnel that has brought them to Fiordland.
A scene like this in the Hollyford Valley will sound far-fetched to those who have visited the area, but with a proposal tabled to build a bus tunnel linking Mt Aspiring and Fiordland national parks, it could be a reality in five years.
Milford Dart wants to build a $160 million 11.3 kilometre bus tunnel – the Dart Passage – to create a private route to Milford Sound from Queenstown. The trip would take tourists around the northern tip of Lake Wakatipu via Glenorchy, south along the Routeburn Rd, though the tunnel and into the Hollyford Valley, set deep in Fiordland. Once in the valley the buses would continue to Milford Rd and into Milford Sound.
Te Anau, on the current route to Milford from Queenstown, would be bypassed, potentially reducing tourism income, while both the Hollyford Valley and Routeburn Shelter area would no longer be the serene areas they are today.
For these reasons the proposal has attracted vehement opposition, but despite this the Department of Conservation has indicated it is willing to accept the proposal and has opened it up for public submissions. They must be filed by February 20.
Once submissions close, the application still has a long journey before being approved, including a public hearing. Then it must get resource consent from the Southland District Council.
Standing at the head of the Hollyford Valley now, only the sound of water falling from Lake Marian to the river below can be heard.
As far as the eye can see is mountainous terrain and almost unspoilt lavish green native forest.
Southland District Council Mayor Frana Cardno has been visiting the Hollyford for years and says she has not experienced anything like it.
People have accused her of being biased about the tunnel because she lives in Te Anau, but Cardno says while she does not want to see the town suffer, there is a bigger picture of protecting the natural and historical beauty of the area.
Cardno spent almost a month living in Jamestown, a failed settlement that lies about 3km from the Lower Hollyford River, 45 years ago with her late husband when he worked for DOC as a builder. Since then she has spent considerable time there and because of that feels a strong connection to the area and does not want it "destroyed" by using it as major transport route.
"I love Fiordland and the Hollyford – being brought up in Canterbury I had never experienced Fiordland or scenery like it," she says.
Cardno says there is already adequate access to Milford, via the Milford Rd – a journey in itself – or by air, so she can see only one reason for a tunnel – to make money.
But only for a few.
If successful, the single lane two-way tunnel is expected to cut travel time to Milford from a nine-hour round trip to four hours.
Milford Dart predicts 23 buses per day on average would use the tunnel, peaking at 40 in the summer and dropping to eight in the winter.
However, Cardno says it will not mean quality tourism, something Kiwis are supposed to strive for as set out in the New Zealand Tourism Strategy, but will instead get tourists out of the country quicker.
"It is not just Te Anau [that will suffer], it is the whole of Southland and the effect on tourism flow."
Trips and Tramps owner Steve Shanks agrees. Shanks started working as a guide in Fiordland 21 years ago and in 2010 he and his wife, Kate, took complete control of Trips and Tramps – a Te Anau-based business that runs tours in Fiordland combining boat cruises, guided walks, kayaking and coach tours.
The Shanks have a vested interest in keeping the Hollyford tunnel-free because they use its peacefulness to entice tourists, but say it is not just about business. It is about giving people the feeling of being isolated from the rest of the world.
"It's not all about get there, get the T-shirt, get out."
While constant buses through the area will damage that peaceful feeling, the two years of construction will also have a major impact, they say.
Milford Dart's application says the tunnelling will take place mostly from the Hollyford end and would take between 18 months and two years, with the initial excavation using drill and blast techniques.
A staging area for construction, about 8500 square metres, will also need to be formed and facilities will need to be installed to support the tunnel boring machine, including diesel generators, substation, compressors and tunnel fans.
The Hollyford's tranquillity and wildlife attract people worldwide, with an abundance of kaka for show and even some sightings of kiwi.
But the noise from construction would deter visitors, while the habitat of those species living in the area could also be destroyed, the Shanks' say.
"It gives them [tourists] something special, makes them feel like there is no one else there – people won't want to go down the Hollyford ... if there is construction there."
DOC has received more than 200 submissions on the proposal and speaking to people from Fiordland, Te Anau and Glenorchy, you are hard-pressed to find supporters of the proposal.
However, even after such harsh criticism, Milford Dart managing director Tom Elworthy says the project does have supporters, they just don't want to speak up for fear of public scrutiny.
"The opposers are always much more vocal than supporters in these things."
The people of Te Anau and Glenorchy like the status quo, but "nine hours in a bus is absolutely absurd and it is a complete wast of time", he says.
Spending so much time on a bus meant tourists could not spend money anywhere else and the idea that people would use the tunnel to get back to Queenstown faster and out of the country is ridiculous, he says.
Rather, the tunnel would give people more time to explore Milford and not every bus would go through the tunnel both ways, which would mean more time could be spent in Te Anau if its residents could work out a way to keep them there, he says.
"Things change and change can be upsetting for people, but there is also opportunity that comes from change.
"I understand that some people in Te Anau think their business will be harmed by it, but I have thought about it and tried to see their perspective and I don't agree."
People going both ways on the tunnel would be hard-pressed to get back to Queenstown in time for a flight out and even if they tried, they would not be the type of people who were looking at spending more money in the country anyway, he says.
Rumours about Milford Dart's plans have been rife since submissions opened and fear is rising the company will sell off the rights to build the tunnel, along with any liability, to the highest bidder.
But Elworthy says the company has been committed to building the tunnel since the start.
"It always has been ... our intention to build it – it sounds like a lot of money when you say it slowly, but ... funding is not a huge concern."
Questions have also been raised about Milford Dart's projections of visitor numbers, which DOC has even called "very optimistic".
In 2007 the company estimated about 599,589 people visited Milford Sound each year, but figures from Milford Development Authority show numbers have been declining since 2006.
Its figures cover all people who take a cruise in Milford, about 95 per cent of visitors, and show 476,152 visited the area in the year to March 31, 2006, but declined to 424,839 in the year to March 31 last year. But Elworthy says a lot of research has been done with tourism consultants and the company has been advised making Milford more accessible would entice more people.
"It is not going to predate on the market to Milford, we think it will improve the market."
The impact on Te Anau would also be small because, of the large number of buses that passed through the town each day, many stopped for only a short period while others did not stop at all, he says.
In the past couple of months politicians have also waded into the debate about the tunnel, including Prime Minister and Tourism Minister John Key.
Key has commended Milford Dart for its proposed innovation because of the potential for economic development and says: "Any project that increases economic activity in smaller communities should be encouraged, but that must always be balanced with environmental responsibility."
Milford Dart's application states a 24-hour, seven-day shift system is likely for the construction period, with a peak workforce at the Hollyford end of about 90-100 people for the 18 months tunnelling duration.
Workers are expected to be housed at Gunn's Camp in the Hollyford Valley.
The prospect of jobs has not made those opposing the proposal smile though.
Sandfly Cafe owner Carolyn Fox is one of many business owners spoken to who expressed concern.
The Te Anau businesswoman says she is worried about the environmental impacts of the tunnel and feared it could open the door for further development in the area.
"If you let one proposal go through then possibly another one will get through and eventually Te Anau will get bypassed."
Tourists from the buses passing through are a significant source of income for her business, she says.
On the flipside, the proposal has the potential to bring more money to Glenorchy, but many of its residents fear all it could mean is their town becomes a pitstop.
- 268,000 cubic metres of soil will be taken from the tunnel and placed on the Hollyford Airstrip
- The Hollyford Airstrip will be raised by about 7m to 7.5m
- Estimated construction time: 18 months to two years
- An 8500m2 staging area for construction will be formed to support the tunnel boring machine
THE CONSENT PROCESS
- December to February 20 – public submission period on the proposal
- March 12 – the likely start date for a hearing, if required
- The final decision will follow the hearings, but no timeframe set.Reconsideration of decision
- The applicant (Milford Dart) or public may request a judicial review
TO MAKE A SUBMISSION UNDER THE CONSERVATION ACT
Topics for submission:
- Consistency with plans (Fiordland National Park Plan, Mt Aspiring National Park Plan, General Policy for National Parks, Conservation Management Strategy and quality of experience on offer)
- Ability to undertake the activity (safety/ability to fund the project)
- Effects (Physical and social. Economic factors not applicable under this process, but visitor flows and visitor numbers/congestion are).
VISITORS TO MILFORD
(To March 31 of each year):
- 2006: 476,152
- 2007 475,966
- 2008: 459,665
- 2009: 418,134
- 2010: 432,578
- 2011: 424,839
Note: these figures are of people who go on cruises in Milford. About 95 per cent who visit the area are believed to go on cruises.
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