Behind the battle lines

Fiordlanders beat big business

Last updated 11:31 10/07/2014
Save Fiordland
BARRY HARCOURT/Fairfax NZ

HAPPY RESPONSE: Long time Save Fiordland supporter and signwriter Ray Willett shows his gratitude to Conservation Minister Nick Smith who declined the proposal to build a monorail in Fiordland.

Save Fiordland
BARRY HARCOURT/Fairfax NZ
GNOME KNEES-UP: Gnome folk of Fiordland (Gnuffs) from left Claire Maley-Shaw, former Southland District Mayor Frana Cardno and Mary Hill members of the Save Fiordland Campaign take the fight to save Fiordland to Wellington.

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When a sales pitch was made to bring a monorail to Fiordland, a small community decided it wasn't the kind of tourism development they wanted. Save Fiordland was formed in the confines of a Te Anau hotel to de-rail the project. Ordinary Te Anau and Fiordland folk signed up to fight the proposal. Almost two years after attending that meeting, Neil Ratley returns to the front line in Te Anau where the war has been won.

The war to save Fiordland is over and in Te Anau, the front line of the battle, those who enlisted are getting back to normal life.

And like almost all wars, it was one those who took up arms saying it should never have been fought.

About 30km west of Te Anau is a patch of straw-coloured grass.

A cold wind rustles across the empty section and low-lying clouds rest on the lake that gives the town its name.

I'm standing on Te Anau Downs.

It was going to be the monorail terminus for part of an ambitious journey linking Queenstown to Milford Sound involving boats, ATVs, monorails and buses.

But a long campaign by a small Southland community that garnered national and international support has derailed the ambitions of those behind the proposal.

Nearby, the Fiordland National Park Lodge - owned by the developers of the monorail - sits waiting for a train that will never arrive.

There won't be a bustling terminus on this quiet spot at the edge of the lake or appropriately-themed eatery, no visitor information centre, and no public toilets.

In the silence, broken only by a bus half full of passengers charging towards Milford Sound, it feels like a deserted battlefield.

The fight to save Fiordland, from what some Te Anau residents decried as a "goddam Disneyland" monorail cutting a swath through the conservation estate, was one many believed should never have been fought.

Opponents of the proposal lay the blame for the battle at the feet of the Department of Conservation. The very organisation that is supposed to protect New Zealand's wilderness.

"Save Fiordland, and the campaigns it fought, came about because of the concern that the processes handling the concession applications for the monorail were corrupt," Save Fiordland group chairman Bill Jarvie says in the warmth of the Sandfly Cafe.

Jarvie, a Fish & Game officer who has called Te Anau home for 32 years, says the DOC's "unbelievable" decision to give a thumbs-up to both the monorail and Milford Dart tunnel projects, subject to public submissions, was "so wrong" it forced him and many others to make a stand.

"DOC were not upholding their own mandate or operating in a transparent way. The group that formed as a result and the hundreds that joined it became Save Fiordland," Jarvie says.

Management documents, such as the Conservation Management Strategy and the Fiordland National Park Management Plan, have been prepared in extensive consultation with interested groups, such as recreational users and conservationists, and are extremely important to safeguard the protection of our wilderness, he explains.

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Yet prior to any public consultation, and in contradiction to the objectives and contents of these documents, the monorail was given initial approval to go ahead by the Department of Conservation.

"Had the concession applications been dealt with appropriately Save Fiordland may not have come about," he says.

"It was a broad cross section of the community, with different concerns and values, who decided there was no benefit to Te Anau if the monorail was sanctioned."

Ordinary folk, including dentists, farmers, pharmacists, tourism operators and concessionaires, restaurant and cafe owners as well as kindergarten teachers - from all political walks of life - would not have taken up placards, petitioned, studied thousands of pages of Government documents or sacrificed hundreds of hours of their time.

After two years on the frontline to save Fiordland it is still hard to believe it's all over, he says.

There is a sense of relief as well.

"In the position I was in, you got the feeling it's your responsibility and if you don't do as much as you can it will be seen as your failure. I didn't want it [monorail] to be my own personal failure or legacy."

Beneath a Save Fiordland poster superimposed with a "saved" sticker hanging from the wall of her cafe, Carolyn Fox tells me she didn't see any long-term benefits for the businesses in town.

"We rely on traffic passing through Te Anau and on our summer trade," she says.

"I don't think those people arriving at a terminus at Te Anau Downs will backtrack into the town."

The off-season is tough to survive in a town reliant on tourism and any developments driving tourists away will hit hard, Fox says.

It is a view relayed by a host of hospitality industry operators and other business owners.

Dentist Rex Forrest - described as a National-voting fly-fishing dentist who hasn't protested about anything since the Vietnam War - said there would have been serious economic ramifications for Te Anau and other communities in northern Southland if the monorail had gone ahead.

"I think Te Anau and towns on the road from Queenstown to Milford Sound, like Athol, Lumsden and Mossburn, can move forward now," Forrest says.

Smart businesses did not buy into the developer's sales pitch the monorail would increase the number of visitors staying over in Te Anau or using Te Anau as a base for tourist activities further south, Forrest says.

The best way to experience Fiordland was to stay in Te Anau. And if you needed a dentist, you could find one or a pharmacist or supermarket.

Te Anau was not closed to development but it had to be good development, Forrest says.

"We already have lots of concessionary businesses. They look at Fiordland as a way to earn a livelihood not something to be raped and plundered which the monorail and tunnel seemed to whiff of."

The strength of the Save Fiordland campaign was that it wasn't just a bunch of greenies jumping up and down singing songs and waving signs, Forrest says.

"The fight would have failed if that was all it was. One or two extreme radicals or Taliban conservationists were around at the start but the war was won with an assault of facts, facts and more facts," he says.

Conservation Minister Nick Smith's dismissal of the monorail proposal shows small communities won't lie down and be steam-rolled by big business, Forrest says.

It also means he can go back to fly- fishing and he will still vote National.

The winter sun sinks behind the snow-capped peaks watching over Lake Te Anau like sentinels.

It is quiet on Lakefront Drive and hotel vacancy signs illuminate the fact it's the off-season in the settling mist.

In the morning the mist defiantly lingers on the quite road.

Almost two years to the day, also on a misty morning, another defiant element gathered on the lake front in one of the largest protests in Te Anau since another environmental fight raged - The Save Manapouri campaign in the 1960s.

The diverse Fiordland community including former Southland mayor Frana Cardno braved the freeze in Te Anau and confronted former Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson who had come to town.

"I remember that cold day when the community came out and let the minister know in no uncertain terms the people of Fiordland did not want the monorail," Cardno says in an early morning call from San Diego.

DOC had not followed its own rules and that was an arrow through the heart of those who believe they are here to protect the conservation estate, she says.

"Many of us have operated businesses under a DOC concession and have had to follow very strict rules. We were happy to follow these rules because we knew it would mean leaving a small footprint. The initial decision by DOC to approve the monorail put all those values aside," Cardno says.

"We had all submitted on the CMS and that was our say. But it was all ignored."

Cardno said she was very proud of the community who had fought a David and Goliath battle.

In a shed in the Te Anau industrial estate Daphne Taylor is placing a metal spring into a long wooden box. She is surrounded by dozens of stoat traps that will be used to protect New Zealand's endangered species.

Taylor and her partner Bill arrived in Te Anau 20 years ago to set up a kayaking business.

Fiordland's wilderness and remoteness was the attraction.

"There are very few places in the world that are this special and even fewer with World Heritage status," Taylor says.

A private person, Taylor recalls the snowy June night in Te Anau when Save Fiordland was formerly charted and she would soon be thrust into the spotlight as the first chairwoman of the Save Fiordland group.

"I was standing outside the hotel and there was nobody there."

But when the meeting began it was standing room only and Taylor was reassured the fight - which would turn out to be much longer than she anticipated - was worth it.

"I naively expected a result after one year," she smiles.

Hundreds of hours in the trenches eventually took its toll and Taylor handed over the front line command to Jarvie.

However, she remained in the fight and turned her efforts to highlighting the environmental costs a monorail in Fiordland would bring.

The project would tear through the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area and compromise its status with UNESCO, Taylor says passionately.

A population of critically endangered South Island long-tailed bats also lies in the path of the monorail.

"DOC are crying out for money to save the two only other known populations of these bats in Fiordland but here they were effectively giving the green light to build a monorail through this population," Taylor says.

Across from Te Anau Downs amidst the valleys and hills, there is a place called Kiwi Burn which was identified as the ideal spot for the monorail's eastern terminus.

It is also the ideal bush experience for Kiwis of all ages, Taylor says.

"Our kids can walk in there. They can get their feet dirty and their clothes dirty. In only one and-a-half hours families can have a backcountry experience. You don't need a monorail to access that."

While Jarvie, Taylor and Cardno may have become the faces for the Save Fiordland campaign countless hours were given up by so many behind the scenes in Te Anau and the other communities in Fiordland and northern Southland.

All three believe Conservation Minister Nick Smith, who replaced Wilkinson to the relief of many, made the only decision he could.

But the battle to de-rail a monorail and save Fiordland should be remembered as a fight by people from all walks of life - like kindergarten teacher Claire Maley-Shaw, Leona McCracken who owns the Olive Tree Cafe and pizzeria owner Finn Murphy - coming together to safeguard what is special about the place they call home.

Smith says he couldn't be swayed by the passion and noise made by a few thousand people. His decision to decline the monorail application was made for the benefit of 4.5 million Kiwis.

However, the Save Fiordland campaign was a sign of a healthy democracy and showed the passion New Zealanders had for environmental issues.

"It also shows even a small community like Te Anau can be heard," he says.

Forrest the fly-fishing dentist whose faith in his preferred political leaders has been restored, just in time for an election, perhaps summed it up best.

"Now we can maybe find time to return to enjoying our tramping, fishing and other pursuits.

"But as a community we also need to understand some development or ways to entice business to town is needed."

The late afternoon sun sinks behind white-capped mountains as I drive out of town. Several camper vans approach the "Welcome to Te Anau" sign and indicate their intentions to pull in.

For the past two years, there have been other signs at the "gateway" to Milford Sound and Fiordland National Park.

"Save Fiordland", "Stop the Monorail", and several others.

But those making the stunning drive from Queenstown to the end of the Milford Road (via Te Anau) won't see them now.

Fiordland has been saved and the signs have all come down.

- The Southland Times

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