The Department of Conservation is accused of being overzealous in cutting down trees in a national park. David Williams reports.

Concerned about finding dozens of trees felled beside walking tracks in the South Island’s Arthur’s Pass National Park late last month, ecologist Mike Harding called the local Department of Conservation office.

It was for public safety, he was told – part of a national directive to make tracks safer. Unsafe trees had been selected and felled. But when the local manager, Chris Stewart, and North Canterbury operations boss Kingsley Timpson, offered different explanations about the expertise of those selecting the trees, Harding, who has a home at Arthur’s Pass, made his own assessment.

“The damage is horrific,” he says. “It does make you question the competence of the people either selecting the trees or felling them – whoever made the decision.”

Harding surveyed tracks in the Bealey Valley and the Klondyke Corner camping area, compiling a report which he sent to DoC’s director-general Lou Sanson. He found 94 large trees (with a stump diameter greater than 30cm) felled, and 101 medium trees (of between 10cm and 30cm stump diameter). The largest were more than 100 years old.

Many showed no sign of decay, Harding says. “Furthermore, you’d see one tree felled, which was quite healthy, and then just along the track would be a tree that would appear to be exactly the same which hasn’t been felled. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of rationale.”

At one location, along Arthur’s Pass Track, three quite large, healthy trees that were set back from the track, had been felled seemingly to create a view across the valley – “so not a public safety issue at all”.

The damage is excessive and unnecessary, Harding says, and the consideration of ecological effects inadequate. “The risk they appear to be addressing is incredibly low. I’m not aware of anyone being injured or killed by a falling tree in Arthur’s Pass National Park. The risk’s tiny, so it’s a huge over-reaction.”

Were trees well away from the Arthur’s Pass Track felled to create a view? Photo: Mike Harding

Accusations the department’s being overzealous in cutting down trees – in a national park, no less – comes as the Government is pushing for more trees to be planted to counter human-induced climate change. It also feeds into a narrative that the department has lost its way; that it’s putting tourism above nature.

DoC confirms there’s been a national exercise to assess general hazards on tracks ahead of the summer season. It is understandably touchy about safety after two South Korean tourists were injured by a rockfall at Cape Kidnappers in January, while on a DoC-promoted walk. An internal report, released in June, blamed “significant failures” by the department, including warnings not being responded to.

Acting North Canterbury operations manager Dean Turner says in an emailed statement that staff “experienced in tree hazard identification” have assessed risks, recently, on busy tracks throughout the country.

“The ongoing management of hazards such as trees, is a balance between mitigating ecological effects, and providing a safe experience for visitors. DoC takes a management approach in favour of a safe and quality visitor experience, especially in popular areas.”

“DoC is ensuring only hazardous trees are removed.” – Dean Turner

Turner doesn’t say which staff are assessing those risks or state what ecological assessments, if any, are done on trees before they’re felled. But he says the ecological effects have to be balanced with safety. “By managing tree hazards on an ongoing basis, DoC is ensuring only hazardous trees are removed and the majority of the landscape is left in its natural state, rather than only intervening when the problem is significantly worse and having to remove a larger number of hazardous trees.”

However, Harding says the department appears to be putting its responsibility for public safety over its statutory obligations to preserve nature. The purpose of the National Parks Act is to preserve the parks “as far as possible in their natural state” – making it a conflict to favour public safety. (Turner points out DoC also has a statutory responsibility for visitor safety, as outlined in its general policy.)

Harding says there needs to be a reassessment by DoC, at a national level, about its priorities. But, at Arthur’s Pass there should also be a “serious audit of competence” of what he believes has been a botched job.

“The area that they have felled trees on is pretty special. It’s old-growth beech forest on moraine. It’s gobsmacking, really, that those trees could be felled without any ecological assessment.”

Further felling along the Bridal Veil Track. Photo: Mike Harding

Arthur’s Pass was used by Canterbury-based Māori, Ngāi Tahu, to enter the pounamu-rich lands of the West Coast (Tai Poutini). After European settlement, Māori helped surveyor Arthur Dudley Dobson, after whom the pass is named, “discover” it in 1864. The gold rush started a year later, and with it a relentless drive to establish a reliable route to the West Coast.

The national park was created in 1929 – the South Island’s first national park, and the country’s third. Straddling the Southern Alps (Kā Tiritiri o te Moana), it sprawls over 1185 square kilometres, featuring striking mountains, glacier-sculpted valleys, and gravel-rich braided rivers. It’s an alpine playground, oft-used by mountaineers, skiers, and trampers. But the mountainous environment is dangerous.

The park’s management plan, published in 2007, says Arthur’s Pass has one of the highest fatality rates in the New Zealand back country. “A reduced fatality rate is a priority for department action.”

In July, the body of Korean tourist Ho Jung Kim was found in the park. He became separated from his walking partner on the Bealey Spur Track, and is thought to have died after falling down a steep bluff. Last year, an Australian woman died after falling about 100m in an abseiling accident at Twin Creek Falls, near Temple Basin.

Steve Taylor, director of heritage and visitors, says DoC couldn’t provide figures of injuries and deaths by falling trees in national parks “within your timeframe”.

“It’s distressing to see that it’s been damaged so callously when it’s treasured by so many people.” – Mike Harding

Turner, the acting DoC North Canterbury operations manager, says tree removal to improve safety is undertaken “as sensitively as possible”. “Rangers take a conservative approach with managing tree hazards and are aware the necessary removal of healthy but hazardous trees may temporarily impact on the visitor experience until vegetation regenerates.”

He adds: “Any hazardous trees that are removed are left to become part of the natural process of tree decay in the forest and create new opportunities for the regeneration of native trees and vegetation.”

Large trees are important to birdlife, providing roost and nest sites, as well as supporting other species, like mistletoes and lichen. They’re an important part of the forest ecosystem. Harding says opening the forest canopy, in a high-altitude valley floor that’s prone to strong winds, increases the risk of greater damage being done.

“The park is there because of the effort of a lot of people who, over the years, wanted to preserve those areas for public enjoyment. It’s distressing to see that it’s been damaged so callously when it’s treasured by so many people and so many have fought so hard to protect it.”

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

Leave a comment