Park move embraces island time

OPEN SPACES: Turning most of Stewart Island into a national park hasn't led to an overwhelming influx in tourists, helping to retain the island's sense of remoteness.
OPEN SPACES: Turning most of Stewart Island into a national park hasn't led to an overwhelming influx in tourists, helping to retain the island's sense of remoteness.

Ten years ago, almost 90 per cent of Stewart Island was turned into a national park. At the time, opponents were vocal against the proposal. But a decade on, Gwyneth Hyndman discovers that opposition has faded.

"While we've got the Yanks talking about some great space programme and the Poms talking about the world's biggest ferris wheel, they are unlikely to be around in the new millenium for long."

So said Minister of Conservation Nick Smith in 1999, in a proposal to turn nearly 90 per cent of Stewart Island into a "legacy of the new millennium".

But "this park would be", he declared. Three years later, Rakiura National Park became a reality.

This week, the 10th anniversary of the park is marked

It became the 14th of New Zealand's national parks, officially opened on March 9, 2002, with a ceremony that included Sir Edmund Hillary, Helen Clark, and the then-conservation minister Sandra Lee.

Covering about 157,000 hectares, the park area excludes the township area around Halfmoon Bay at Oban and some roads, as well as private or Maori- owned land further inland.

Comprising a network of former nature reserves, scenic reserves, and state forest areas, the unlogged tracts of indigenous forest are home to a variety of threatened bird species.

Forest and Bird southern conservation officer Sue Maturin, who welcomed the proposal by Smith in 1999, said at the time it thoroughly deserved a national park status.

"Nowhere else in New Zealand is there such a diversity of landscapes and ecosystems that have been so little modified by human occupation, " she said.

Though most supported Smith's rally cry to transform the majority of the island into a national park – protecting its wildlife and natural resources, while bringing more tourism to the island – some were cautious of the benefits for everyone.

The fear of the national park impinging on the Stewart Island lifestyle and a wariness of too much government involvement in the lives of the 390 people who lived full-time on the island was raised.

At one community meeting not long after the proposal, fourth-generation islander Elaine Hamilton – also at the time the owner of Rakiura Motels – said the national park idea was "worth considering", but was cautious about its impact.

She wanted a guarantee from the conservation ministry that rules of the island would not change once it had national park status and take away the benefits to the "ordinary" Stewart Islander.

"There is nothing to stop them in the future from going through a process to do their own thing.

"My first concern is for the island and, secondly, as a motelier, " she said at the meeting.

This week, Hamilton – who no longer owns the motel and lives about a kilometre from town – says the park has had less impact than she expected at the time.

Concern from another resident at the meeting that turning Stewart Island into a marketed national park would change it into a tacky, tourist trap had "absolutely not happened", Hamilton says.

Iris Tait, who arrived on the island as a visitor in 1971 and became a relieving district nurse for 15 years, was also a foundation trustee of Ulva Island, the largest of several small islands in Paterson Inlet.

After she and her husband, Peter – who arrived on Stewart Island in 1969 as a New Zealand Forest Service ranger – left commercial fishing in 1996, they opened a maritime operation, Sails Ashore. Right after the island became a national park, their business enjoyed a big boost, she says.

"There was a lull after that, but it has been positive for the island. It's been a very popular attraction.

"I think New Zealand as a whole has been proud to have Stewart Island as a national park."

Margaret Hopkins, who has been a Southland Conservation Board member and is a Stewart Island resident, says turning most of the island into a national park had done little to change the lifestyle of residents.

"I don't think it has affected us as much as people thought it would."

Hopkins, who came to the island 37 years ago, says the Conservation Department had worked well with people in the community, which had probably soothed anxieties early on.

"It would be such a shame to have a national park the locals didn't support and, thankfully, that hasn't been the case."

Changes in the commercial fishing industry had meant residents were more reliant on tourism. If there was some resentment about that 10 years ago, most of it has died down, as reliance on the industry has increased.

"It is a double-edged sword in some ways, " she says.

"You don't want things to change that much, but you need those numbers as well.

"There may have been attitude and resentment about tourism then, but it is largely gone now."

In 1999, the island was visited by 22,000 tourists. That year, the Southland District Council predicted in 15 years that would rise to 65,000.

A 2010 Visitor Survey Report for Stewart Island shows about 40,000 people come to Stewart Island annually (DOC and Venture Southland have emphasised this is a conservative estimate as it relies on foot traffic to the DOC information centre on Stewart Island and information provided by commercial operators providing transport to and from the island).

Of these, the report says, about 34,400 stay one night or more.

The total direct spend of visitors – excluding travel costs to and from the island – is about $22.8 million.

"There is room for more visitors, " Hopkins says. "But it was always more important ecologically [rather than financially] to have it as one park, rather than random reserves around the island."

DOC Stewart Island field centre supervisor Sharon Pasco said one of the accomplishments DOC was most proud of was the Rakiura Track, which is being upgraded and expected to be officially completed by April.

Now listed as one of the New Zealand Great Walks, the 30km circuit follows the open coast, and goes through the sheltered shores of Paterson Inlet, passing sites of historical interest and introduces trampers to the island's common sea and forest birds.

The department has worked to overlay large sections of the track with timber boardwalks, covered with wire mesh to protect the track from deterioration.

Unlike the longer Northwest Circuit and Southern Circuit, which are more than 100km each, the Rakiura Track is walkable in three days for most trampers.

Pasco agreed that having most of the island as an official park – with an accessible track for visitors – made it more of a drawcard.

"The island has always been here, " she says. "However, this does give it more of a status."

Rakiura Maori descendent Ken McAnergney – who protested with two others at the opening ceremony in 2002 because he said Stewart Island-based Maori had not been invited, while representatives from the four Ngai Tahu runanga in Southland were – says it is water under the bridge.

Ten years later, McAnergney, who is now planning manager for Christchurch Airport, says he regularly sees one of the opening ceremony organisers, former DOC conservator Lou Sanson, who is now chief executive of Antarctica New Zealand.

There are no hard feelings for being overlooked, McAnergney says. "He apologises every time he sees me."

McAnergney always supported the park concept and believes it has something special to offer to outsiders.

However, tourism on the island could benefit from regular evaluation of services, he says.

The introduction of a $5 Stewart Island visitor levy – part of a bill that had its second reading in Parliament last month – is a big discussion point for islanders.

Making the national park accessible and tourist-friendly, while maintaining the conservation that has kept the island pristine, was still being achieved, he says.

"For a lot of people who come to the island it's a notch in the belt – they've ticked off a national park. For others, they go there to take a deep breath and say 'this is what New Zealand was like 100 years ago'."

The Southland Times