Ecologist annoyed at secrecy over monorail

Last updated 05:00 26/12/2013

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A renowned Otago ecologist and conservationist says the Department of Conservation is hiding behind a veil of secrecy surrounding its decision for a proposed monorail through a World Heritage Area.

Emeritus Professor Sir Alan Mark said he has made four official requests to the department for an Assessment of Environmental Effects report, requested by Unesco, on the proposed monorail as part of the Fiordland Link Experience which would cut through Snowden Forest.

He has been rebuffed every time, he said.

The first request was lodged in late July and it had been renewed three times since then in the expectation it would become available before the Minister of Conservation Dr Nick Smith announced his decision on the proposal, Prof Mark said.

DOC deputy director-general policy and regulatory services Doris Johnston said the documents requested by Professor Mark were a report the department had prepared for Unesco about the impacts of the monorail on the world heritage site. They formed part of Dr Smith's decision-making process and would not be released.

Under Section 9(2)(f)(iv) of the Official Information Act documents do not have to be publicly released if they related to "the confidentiality of advice tendered by ministers of the Crown and officials", she said.

There would be no reason the documents would not be released after a decision was made about the monorail, she said.

However, Prof Mark said it was his understanding that Assessments of Environmental Effects were documents normally released for public information, particularly in cases involving public conservation land such as the Snowden Forest Conservation Area.

Prof Mark is a professional plant ecologist, former Otago Conservation Board Chairman and New Zealand Conservation Authority member. He wrote a submission in opposition to the proposal based on his knowledge of the Snowden Forest and the South West New Zealand World Heritage Area, of which it is a part. He is also patron of the Save Fiordland Group.

"I feel I have a genuine interest in this issue, which is currently receiving much media attention, and on which a ministerial decision is expected in the near future," he said.

"I claimed an interest greater than that of the general public, so I am both surprised and concerned to read that this document may not ever become available to the interested public."

Frustrated at the DOC roadblock, Prof Mark has formally asked the Ombudsman to review of the department's stand.

This week, Dr Smith said he needed more advice before deciding whether to allow the monorail through conservation land in Fiordland.

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A decision was originally expected before Christmas but Dr Smith has now called for a financial viability report before making a final ruling in 2014.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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