The Department of Conservation is told, again, to prioritise nature over tourists. David Williams reports

Blasting a millions-of-years-old rock overhang in a national park wasn’t a good idea, the Department of Conservation has found.

Multiple failures have been identified leading up to the decision, made last August, to bring down a 70-tonne sandstone overhang along Truman Track, in the Paparoa National Park, to protect tourists. About 37,000 people walk the track each year.

Ironically, DoC’s report has landed at a time when no one is visiting – because of the Covid-19-enforced national lockdown.

The incident exposed failings in the department’s visitor risk management system. A “re-think” is now underway, the report says.

Critics would say, however, what’s needed is critical thinking and leadership, so DoC staff always place conservation above tourism. In other words, keeping the country’s wild places wild.

Over-zealous DoC staff also felled hundreds of trees along walking tracks in the Arthur’s Pass National Park last year, leading to a similar rebuke.

This pattern seems to highlight an under-pressure, and likely under-funded department struggling to cope with – pre-Covid-19, at least – a recent surge in tourism numbers to the conservation estate, which covers a third of the country. (It’s also a response to two high profile incidents, at Cape Kidnappers and on a DoC reserve near Queenstown, in which tourists were injured.)

A 2017 analysis showed 1.7 million international visitors, or 53 percent, visited national parks during their stay. The annual growth rate between 2014 and 2017 was 11 percent.

That has put huge pressure on DoC. And if recent reports are anything to go by, it’s a topic that’s not going away anytime soon.

The remediated Truman Track site. Photo: DoC

The Truman Track incident began in July last year when a four-tonne rock sheared, landing next to a set of steps. DoC staff cordoned the area and erected warning signs.

Geotechnical advice was sought and the 70-tonne overhang was removed using explosives the following month.

(Yet people walking past where the overhang once stood emerge onto a rock-strewn beach with warning signs about rogue waves and dangerous cliffs and caverns.)

DoC’s report says other options to manage the hazard “were not adequately explored” and staff didn’t properly consider – or seek technical advice on – whether removing the overhang was consistent with legislation, statutory documents and policies.

Iwi and other parties weren’t consulted. The site should have been inspected by an archaeologist.

DoC operations staff felt a “high level of accountability for visitor safety”, the report said. But that shouldn’t mean the decision exceeded the department’s statutory responsibilities.

These failures have been pitched at DoC’s Wellington headquarters.

Steve Taylor, the director of heritage and visitors, has been tasked with fixing the visitor risk management system, including providing extra staff training once a pilot programme is finished. Better guidance on managing natural hazards might be spliced into various policies and management plans.

Meanwhile, director of planning permissions and land, Natasha Haywood, must develop a new approach that prompts decision-making staff to think about statutory responsibilities.

The department is also reassessing which managers can make decisions about “intolerable” hazards, and which staff are capable of providing and reviewing geotechnical advice.

Mark Davies, the western South Island operations director, has to undertake a field inspection of archaeological sites in the vicinity of the Truman Track to confirm their location and, if necessary, update DoC’s records.

Overhang should have stayed

In a press statement yesterday, Davies said DoC got it wrong by blasting the overhang.

“If we had made all the appropriate considerations, we would have endeavored to leave the overhang in place, and instead taken steps to manage the safety of visitors at the site differently.”

Federated Mountain Clubs president Jan Finlayson, who initially scolded DoC for its “blast now and think later approach”, says DoC’s review affirms the law and the department’s purpose.

“It should raise standards in a national and consistent way.

“Sticking with that will be an issue. That will require constant reviews with fresh eyes. I want to see well-constructed, useable guidance that constantly reminds staff of their statutory obligations.”

Neil Silverwood, a photojournalist and cave expert who sits on the West Coast Tai Poutini Conservation Board, notes Truman Track leads to a dangerous beach known for rogue waves. He says soon after the overhang was blasted two tourists were swept away on that beach.

“Placing a tourist walkway down to the beach is foolish,” he says. “DoC is prioritising tourism development, designed to lift the local economy, over conservation and safety.”

DoC in the spotlight

There are hints the department’s tourist-related legislation and tourism management role might soon be reviewed.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, expects to publish a report by the end of the year recommending changes to the way tourism is managed.

He told Newsroom last week access to the conservation estate has to be on terms New Zealanders are happy with.

“That has to be terms which mean that many of the essential qualities that we associate with these very special places are preserved.”

He raises the example of aircraft noise in remote places. Is that being dealt with appropriately? Does DoC have the appropriate management tools? “Those are appropriate questions to ask,” Upton says.

Last week, the Environmental Defence Society published a report calling for the tourism industry to be reset, including recreating the Ministry for Tourism, and developing a “fairer and more sustainable” funding model.

The report recommends reviewing the Conservation Act’s concessions system.

A stronger link between tourism and landscape protection is suggested by report writers Raewyn Peart and Cordelia Woodhouse. That might involve preparing destination management plans and “linking such plans with conservation management strategies and plans under the Conservation Act”.

With Tourism New Zealand leading a project to “reimagine tourism”, at the behest of Minister Kelvin Davis, it seems there might be a greater focus on the industry than there has been for years.

Fundamentally, however, authorities can’t protect people from themselves. On natural hazards, the general policy for national parks says: “People are responsible for their own decisions on risks they are prepared to take.”

The Truman Track debacle highlights what happens when, despite policies that give nature primacy, people try to turn those tables.

If tourism changes, and a reimagining puts more of it in national parks, the public might want to consider just how wild our wild places will remain.

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

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