Felling trees in a national park went beyond the Conservation Department’s mandate, an internal report finds. David Williams reports.

The Department of Conservation’s top Canterbury boss has criticised a decision to fell trees along walking tracks in a national park to protect trampers.

Last October, Newsroom reported ecologist Mike Harding’s complaint to DoC after finding dozens of trees felled along walking tracks in the Arthur’s Pass National Park.

He believed the department botched the job, unreasonably putting public safety – despite a tiny risk – ahead of its statutory obligations to preserve nature.

(The tension between tourism and nature seems an increasingly common theme, including the blasting of a millions-of-years-old rock overhang in the Paparoa National Park.)

The felling of seemingly healthy trees in a national park seemed indefensible at the time, and so it has proved.

In a memo shared with director-general Lou Sanson and the New Zealand Conservation Authority, DoC’s operations director for the eastern South Island, Nicola Toki, says local staff didn’t properly consider the national park’s management plan, the general policy for national parks, and went beyond its visitor safety policy. Treaty partners and “other stakeholders” weren’t consulted, as was required.

‘Best of intentions’

The memo – written last November and released to Newsroom last week – said staff did the work with the best of intentions and the trees were considered hazardous. (At least 290 trees or limbs were felled, the memo says, some for power line maintenance.)

But there was “project creep” and staff should have sought further guidance, including from an ecologist, and referred the decision to management.

Toki wrote: “Discretion and judgement should always be applied by staff in the field, as the issue of trees is not black and white, but in this instance the work focused strongly on visitor risk while neglecting assessment of intrinsic biodiversity values and without sufficient consultation. If they had consulted more widely, it is likely that fewer trees would have been cut down.”

The debrief includes operations managers and the regional planning manager being reminded of statutory considerations, and reviewing guiding documents. Senior chainsaw operators are getting extra training.

For the foreseeable future, Toki – the department’s former threatened species ambassador – will approve natural hazard management work. DoC ecologists will also be involved in planning for large-scale track maintenance or developments, and where there are threatened species or ecosystems.

(Toki is filling in for six months, she says, while Andy Roberts “develops a key piece of strategy work on our short walks and day hikes in the visitor and heritage team”.)

In an email, Toki says valuable lessons have been learned from the Arthur’s Pass review.

“I am really disappointed that, while there was the best of intentions in improving visitor safety for Arthur’s Pass, the tree felling went too far. Arthur’s Pass National Park is an incredible place of natural beauty. These new processes will ensure that greater care and consideration in assessing and felling trees occurs in future.”

“National parks are our premier protected areas and they should be protected, and we’re relying on the department to do that.” – Mike Harding

In some ways, DoC’s admission of a mistake is unsurprising, given the weight of clear policies and plans. (Visitor safety is important, but in national parks the priority is to protect natural and intrinsic values, where possible.)

What’s refreshing is a change from a dig-in-the-heels, always right, back-staff-to-the-hilt ethic that seems to pervade some government agencies. It also vindicates the decision by ecologist Harding to, perhaps uncomfortably, speak out.

“It’s good that the department’s acknowledged that they got it wrong, and it’s also reassuring that they seem sincere in their attempt to prevent it occurring again,” Harding tells Newsroom.

DoC took the issue seriously, he says. “National parks are our premier protected areas and they should be protected, and we’re relying on the department to do that.”

The department has put a greater focus on visitor safety after two high-profile incidents last year – a falling tree seriously injuring a Wellington family at a DoC reserve near Queenstown, where tourism firm Shotover Jet is based, and two South Korean tourists injured in a cliff collapse on a DoC-promoted walk at Cape Kidnappers in Hawkes Bay.

DoC’s policy on hazardous trees focuses on high-use areas where people are likely to stop, such as campsites, amenity areas, car parks, huts, and viewing structures. However, the risk is lower along walking tracks as people are generally moving through.

A fragile rock overhang in a West Coast national park was controversially removed. Photo: DoC

There are questions about DoC’s priorities – including from the New Zealand Conservation Authority.

In December, authority member Gerry McSweeney, who runs nature tourism lodges in Canterbury and West Coast, penned a report identifying what he called a pattern of behaviour by DoC staff. They seemed to be approving developments largely to cater for greater numbers of tourists, he wrote. However, this was being done, in his opinion, without appropriate consultation with conservation boards and the community, and seemingly against plans, strategies and the Conservation Act itself.

He raised the large-scale tree clearance at Arthur’s Pass, and the destruction of the sandstone overhang at Truman Track, as examples.

(A report to the West Coast Conservation Board said the “unnecessary” blasting was based on “flawed” interpretation of legislation, contrary to various plans, and “cannot be justified by safety”. “If the department continues with its current policy the blasting and removal of all wave and wind-cut overhangs on the track will be inevitable as they are all naturally vulnerable to fracture and collapse,” the report said.)

Time for a reminder?

McSweeney mentioned two other South Island proposals that were altered or halted after opposition was raised – plans to clear beech forest for a car park in the Mt Aspiring National Park, and native forest at Lake Ianthe, on the West Coast, to develop a camping site.

The report to the authority meeting posed: “Is it time for the NZCA to remind the department of its primary obligations under statute and policy to protect natural areas and only promote recreation developments and allow tourism where this is not detrimental to the protection of nature and conservation values?”

In the wake of the tree-felling and overhang-blasting, Federated Mountain Clubs wrote to DoC deputy director-general of operations Mike Slater asking for a “systemic reset”. In a November letter, FMC president Jan Finlayson said the department’s approach to visitor safety was an “effective reversal of its mandate”, and described damaging conservation features to protect people as perverse.

Toki’s report might mark a change to this seemingly public-safety-first approach. Harding, the ecologist, says the report should have wider ramifications, beyond the borders of the eastern South Island area. The department reassured him its obligations to nature will not be trumped.

“They’ll be taking the protection of natural values into consideration, and I hope that is what happens,” Harding says.

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

Leave a comment