Draft management plans for two national parks are so flawed they should be withdrawn, the NZ Alpine Club says. David Williams reports.

If there’s one thing the Lake Manapouri saga can teach us, it’s that national parks are corruptible.

In January 1960, Wellington’s Evening Post newspaper broke the story that Walter Nash’s Government had signed a deal, behind the backs of environmental groups, to grant Australian mining company Consolidated Zinc Co (Comalco) exclusive right to use the water from Lake Manapouri and Lake Te Anau for power generation. The company was given permission to raise Manapouri’s water level by 30 metres.

All this within a national park, in violation of the National Parks Act, explains Catherine Knight in her book Beyond Manapouri.

The power station was built by the Government, after depressed world aluminium prices prompted Comalco to withdraw. But it would take another 13 years, after a national Save Manapouri campaign and the election of a Labour Government, for plans to raise the lake’s level to be dropped.

Unprecedented step

The National Parks Act is being invoked in protest again, this time against draft management plans produced for two national parks – Aoraki/Mt Cook and Westland Tai Poutini. Submissions close at 4pm today.

Recreational group New Zealand Alpine Club, which has more than 4200 members, is taking the unprecedented step of asking DOC to withdraw the draft plans and start again. A particularly abhorrent proposal is for an amenities area allowing a gondola to be built at Franz Josef Glacier/Kā Roimata o Hinehukatere Valley. The club’s submission says: “Ongoing change in the Franz Josef Glacier is a false premise on which to initiate development in the park.”

Another issue that crosses the line for the club is a move to aircraft landing “zones” instead of mandated landing areas. That would, the club says, increase landings and overflights, leading to more widespread noise and crowding, and eroding the remoteness found in the park.

Club president John Palmer says the draft plan for Aoraki/Mt Cook wasn’t as bad, but the plans had a number of “common, major flaws”. Fundamentally, they are inimical to what the National Parks Act is trying to achieve.

The Act says national parks are to be preserved, in perpetuity, “for their intrinsic worth and for the benefit, use, and enjoyment of the public” and “preserved as far as possible in their natural state”.

Palmer: “We just felt that the plans were heavily focused on development opportunities and addressing the massive increase in visitors, that that was being done really not within the framework set by the Act.”

The Alpine Club is walking a fine line. Access to national parks, including by helicopter, is important to climbers, and the club owns huts in both parks. So its accepts some measure of development is necessary. In its submissions, led by past presidents John Cocks and John Nankervis, the club’s careful not to criticise DOC. But it stays true to its mandate of preserving mountain and rock climbing regions.

The amenities area proposed for Westland/Tai Poutini “would take an extremely wild and decaying landscape and completely modify it”, Palmer says. Meanwhile, the change to aircraft landing zones in both parks is broadbrush and more permissive, he says. “It basically opens up large tracts of both parks to air access, which is a major departure from the existing approach.”

“On average, these landings would be well below the maximums they’re suggesting – at the moment, anyway.” – Tim Rayward

Stuff reported last month that the current Aoraki/Mt Cook plan limits commercial scenic landings a year, while the new draft allows 73,000 landings a year. That’s upset several conservation and recreational groups.

Lobby group Tourism Industry Aotearoa supports the change to landing zones. A draft submission on the Westland Tai Poutini draft plan, provided to Newsroom by TIA chief executive Chris Roberts, says DOC needs to consult with aircraft operators to ensure they’re safe. Landing areas should also avoid remote places sought out by park visitors trying to avoid aircraft.

TIA is also calling on proposed daily landing limits to be scrapped, in favour of the existing annual limits. The submission says the draft plan gives the misleading impression of high levels of use.

Family-owned alpine flight business Air Safaris operates above both national parks – mainly scenic flights and some landings via helicopter. Managing director Tim Rayward, of Lake Tekapo, suggests that large daily landing limits, as proposed for some areas, don’t take into account the natural limits set by the weather.

“Often people see these quite big numbers per day, but in reality they’ll probably never be reached. You might get three bad days in the peak time of the year and then one nice morning when the landings shoot up. On average, these landings would be well below the maximums they’re suggesting – at the moment, anyway.”

Aircraft are a way for people to engage in national parks and leave no footprint, he says, other than noise – which is something his company has tried to combat with bigger, quieter aircraft and higher flight paths.

An increase of short helicopter flights in the busy areas of national parks is not the best answer, Rayward says. He thinks a gondola could move large numbers of people efficiently and quietly. “As a long term goal it could be very good.”

For safety, reliability

Queenstown-headquartered tourism giant Skyline Enterprises wants to build a gondola at Franz Josef – but it needs DOC’s blessing. The Westland Tai Poutini draft marks the first time DOC has considered gazetting an amenities area in any conservation area for an activity that doesn’t already exist.

In a press release last October, Skyline’s chairman Mark Quickfall said the retreat of glaciers meant safe reliable access was a considerable challenge. Quickfall tells Newsroom that many people who leave Franz without seeing the glacier, often because of bad weather, are frustrated. He says the company’s many experts have given compelling evidence in favour of a gondola – which he prefers to call an “aerial cableway”.

“There are lots of examples around the world where it’s been done well. We’re confident we’re going to do it well. It’s not going to be right in your face because it’s such a vast landscape there. But the gondola, of course it’ll be visible, but I think the landscape will absorb it and I think the experience will certainly outweigh any negatives.”

Part of the positive argument is economic, of course, for the large capital investment and ongoing jobs.

The amenities area is step one for Skyline. Then there’s a DOC concession and, following detailed design work, a resource consent. So how long before spades could be in the ground? Quickfall: “If you’d have said five years, [that] would be ambitious. It’s a long term project.”

What of overtourism? Can the national parks absorb more people? Quickfall says New Zealand has to be careful of the “type of tourism” it promotes and manages. “And that gets back to marketing to spread the visitation throughout the year; the right type of visitor.”

Our changing view

Brent Lovelock is co-director at the University of Otago’s Centre for Recreation Research. He says some areas of New Zealand are already beyond their capacity for tourism. “We’re increasingly lowering our standards and lowering our expectations of wilderness and the wilderness experience.”

The tourism hotspots around the world that have approached sustainability have put limits on visitors or rationed access. There are various ways to do that, including setting absolute limits or charging visitors. “It’s not nice to have to do that but, ultimately, we have to get real – and the number one job of DOC is to look after natural and cultural resources. To look after tourism and recreation is a secondary objective.”

(Charging isn’t the whole answer, Lovelock says, because unless the charge is “dramatically high”, international experience shows the tourists keep coming. A broader approach could include “spatial redistribution” of visitors and “demarketing” of some sites, which could face industry pushback.)

Tourism pressures are going to be increasingly manifest themselves in the pages of other draft park management plans, Lovelock suggests. “And it’s not going to just be in some of the more remote parts of South Westland or Mt Cook, it’s going to be all over the country.”

Fears of plans being a template

That’s what worries NZ Alpine Club president Palmer – that the draft plans for Aoraki and Tai Poutini could become a template for future national park plan reviews, such as Kahurangi, Fiordland and Mt Aspiring.

“If that approach was going to be wheeled out across those as well, it would potentially affect all of the major places in the South Island where our members pursue their interests.”

Inevitably, though, some of those members will think there are valid arguments for economic development in small towns, like those on the West Coast, which is trying, more and more, to move away from mining and into tourism. The question is, are national parks an acceptable place for such developments? Are the costs – on amenity, landscape and the quiet enjoyment of our most special places – just too great?

Skyline’s Quickfall admits DOC has a difficult job, adding: “There’s a balance between what we’d love to do and what is acceptable.”

Palmer harks back to the National Parks Act as a starting point for answering the difficult questions posed by development and tourism pressures.

“How can we do that in a way that still allows people to interact with [national parks] and develop an affinity for them and recreate and all that other good stuff that has huge social benefits, but in a way that is not at the expense of those intrinsic values?”

David Thom’s history of national parks, the 1987 book Heritage: The Parks of the People, says they’re not just “for” New Zealanders and overseas visitors, but belong to New Zealanders. It’s clear some groups believe DOC’s draft management plans for Aoraki-Mt Cook and Westland Tai Poutini don’t reflect that.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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