A flawed development plan for a fragile national park site must be stopped, opponents say. David Williams reports

In November 2018, Jacinda Ardern announced a $140 million “investment package” for the South Island’s West Coast, through the cash-dispersing, regions-boosting provincial growth fund.

Using symbolism that would fit neatly today, in a country pouring billions into its post-pandemic economic recovery, Regional Development Minister Shane Jones brandished a shovel.

Ardern said: “This Government is committed to funding regional growth because local jobs and businesses drive resilient, thriving communities and the West Coast has so much potential.”

As part of the package, $5.7 million was earmarked for the Ōpārara Arches project. According to the Beehive blurb, it aims to “improve tourism infrastructure to protect the unique environment and enhance visitor safety”.

(In May last year, Ministers rejigged the apportionment, to spend more on upgrading the 16km road, and a “substantial reduction” on improving tourism infrastructure.)

Work has started. A fortnight ago, DoC announced, with the move to alert level two, it was triggering the development’s first stage: upgrading existing track surfaces, installing flush toilets, and putting surveillance cameras at the entrance to the restricted Honeycomb Hill Caves.

Further work’s planned, DoC said in its press statement, and a completed assessment of environmental effects recommends how to “reduce the effect” of work in the sensitive natural environment.

This seems to be the final straw for frustrated environmental and recreational groups. Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) wrote to Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage on Sunday night, urging her to halt the project and review it. President Jan Finlayson calls the project “fundamentally flawed”and the process followed by DoC “Kafkaesque”.

However, Finlayson’s plea seems to be drowned out by the clamour for “shovel-ready” projects. In an emailed statement, Sage says she expects the department to apply the “very highest standards” to the project, in which the major cost is upgrading the road.

“The work on the project is expected to provide jobs for 35-40 people which is especially important right now. The PGF funding which has been allocated means it can proceed.”

The hopes of FMC, Forest & Bird and other groups are now pinned on the Nelson Marlborough Conservation Board, which has asked the department for more information. Deputy chair Bev Doole, who heads a working group looking at the Ōpārara project, warns: “I think stage two’s going to be quite a bit gnarlier.”

The Ōpārara is a rare, unmodified karst landscape. Photo: Neil Silverwood

A confluence of fragility and rarity at Ōpārara makes conservation and recreation groups wary of any development.

Nestled in the Kahurangi National Park, more than two hours’ drive north of Westport, the 35-million-year-old Ōpārara Basin boasts three impressive natural arches and more than 60 caves, some of which have been carved by a whiskey-coloured river.

Arches are basically fragments of a collapsing cave system.

Like the layering that created Punakaiki’s Pancake Rocks, limestone layers are held together by thinner, mud-rich layers – a phenomenon called stylobedding. Over time, water seeps through cracks into the layers of mud and causes shedding, or rock falls. Of course, given the West Coast’s active geology, another source of collapses is earthquakes.

Ōpārara is one of the only places in New Zealand you can find an unmodified karst (rocks that dissolve in freshwater) landscape – indeed, it’s internationally significant.

The area, geologically linked to the formation of New Zealand from Gondwana, is also a haven for rare and threatened species.

Whio/blue duck are found there, as are roroa/great spotted kiwi, the giant snail known as Powelliphanta annectens, and the long-tailed bat. It’s also one of the few places to find the weta-chomping Nelson cave spider, which is protected under the Wildlife Act. The nationally critical endemic moss Epipterygium opararense is found on a single rock face.

The Ōpārara project has certainly evolved from the first plan, which featured a light show and a giant moa installation.

The Disney-like idea, dubbed ‘Moa Town’, was hatched by the Department of Conservation (DoC) and the Business Ministry, MBIE. Other controversial ideas have also been dropped, like putting a suspended walkway through the Ōpārara Arch.

The latest iteration, which secured the $5.7 million, came from an application to the provincial growth fund by Tourism West Coast, working with the Oparara Valley Trust. (The trust, formed by the local community in 2002, has a memorandum with DoC which says the trust will fundraise and develop visitor opportunities. It also operates guided walks.)

The money is to be transferred to DoC, as project manager, giving it the appearance of a kind of public-private partnership. The department has no economic mandate – it’s meant to manage public conservation land. At the Ōpārara, the criticism is it’s working with other organisations, without proper public input, to push a development, in a national park, designed to boost economic growth.

That increases the importance of the project’s assessment of environment effects (AEE).

Westport ecologist Richard Nichol finished his draft AEE for DoC just before Christmas. After receiving feedback, the final version was delivered on April 2, eight days into the country’s Covid-19 lockdown.

DoC’s statement from two weeks ago said the report was “completed”. However, the striking thing is not what’s in the 137-page report, but what isn’t.

“If you dug a hole, it would consider the effects of digging that hole, but it doesn’t consider where you throw the dirt.” – Neil Silverwood

Seventeen months after Ardern’s announcement, and less than four months from an election, several aspects of the Ōpārara project lack detail – raising questions over the report’s utility.

For the largest and most expensive part of the project, the road upgrade, there’s yet to be detailed geotechnical or engineering assessments. That may change slope steepness and the cuts made for the road, which may have vegetation and instream effects. Indigenous fish are found in roadside culverts.

The “concept plan” for a viewing platform on Mirror Tarn – overall effect: “negligible” – is a hand-drawn sketch.

An upgrade to the 1km Ōpārara Arch track will replace two sections with an elevated walkway/bridge/track section and a realigned portion. But Nichol’s report says detailed design drawings for the elevated walkway aren’t finalised “and therefore a landscape assessment was prepared without the benefit of having a full schedule of detail”.

A geotechnical assessment is required “to determine whether the structure is feasible”.

Safety is an important consideration for track work. A walker was injured after falling from the track in a “recent incident”. Also, part of the track is being moved from the rare moss, Epipterygium opararense.

The alternative, of upgrading the existing track, “was not considered in any detail”.

Source: Ōpārara project assessment of environmental effects

The track will be shifted to avoid a potential fracture zone in the smaller of two arches, but “the length of new track has not been accurately determined”.

Whio experts are yet to meet to consider how the estimated 81 hours of helicopter time for the track work will disrupt a known breeding pair in the area. Snail monitoring plots can be found in several areas, the report says, but results were “not examined”.

Other work includes a new 330m-long trail between the Mirror Tarn car park, back to the access road, and stainless steel steps installed for access to the Moria Gate viewing area.

(DoC relies on an exemption from having to apply for land use consents based on tracks having to be maintained to an acceptable standard and carrying capacity. The West Coast conservation management strategy says if there’s uncertainty about potential adverse effects of recreational facilities, “a precautionary approach should be adopted”.)

Neil Silverwood is a karst expert and member of the West Coast Tai Poutini Conservation Board and FMC.

Silverwood and FMC president Finlayson wrote a withering assessment of the draft AEE, calling it “largely meaningless and strongly misleading”. The report quoted legislation that suited the project’s intent, they said, and ignored inconvenient sections – “where no doubt it has found more room to wriggle”, Finlayson says.

Their critique says: “The proposed project is inconsistent with the Conservation Act, the National Parks Act, the Kahurangi national park management plan, and other related statutory and non-statutory mechanisms.”

Silverwood says the report’s not fit for purpose. “If you dug a hole, it would consider the effects of digging that hole, but it doesn’t consider where you throw the dirt – it doesn’t look at what the effect of increased tourist numbers are.”

The Ōpārara needs a management plan, not a development, he says. “I really think the plan needs to be scrapped and started again.”

Forest & Bird’s Canterbury/West Coast regional manager Nicky Snoyink says the valley deserves the utmost respect – it’s the cream of the cream of natural places that needs to be protected. She thinks the money could be spent easily at myriad other worthy tourist-attracting sites on the West Coast.

“Given the complete change in landscape for tourism that’s happened in the last couple of months, it needs to be re-thought completely.”

Steering, without hands on the wheel

The public tongue-lashing for DoC is a failure of its attempt to mollify groups like Federated Mountain Clubs and Forest & Bird by creating a “steering group”. Its chair is Wellington-based DoC project manager Aideen Larkin, who, in a draft terms of reference written nearly a year ago, mandated the group’s purpose was to “support and drive delivery” of the project.

The group has only met face-to-face twice. The draft terms have never been confirmed.

Finlayson says FMC just wanted to be consulted, and expected DoC might take its advice to follow its legislation and proper process. “Seemingly not.”

Snoyink, of Forest & Bird, agrees the committee’s been a bit of a sop. “We don’t think we have really been listened to.”

In an emailed statement, Larkin says the department has listened “to the advice it has received”. “The robust process we have undertaken has given the project team assurance that the work can and should proceed as planned.”

As to diverting the Ōpārara money to alternatives, such as upgrading the Wangapeka Track – a 60km, four-to-six day tramp in the national park – Larkin says that hasn’t been considered.

“The Wangapeka Track facilities are fit for purpose and not under such pressure from visitors.”

The DoC staffer turns the tables on Snoyink’s argument that the development should be halted because of Covid-19. Most of the visitors to the valley – estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000 people a year – are Kiwis, Larkin says. She even suggests the upgrade will improve the environment.

“As well as being safety related, the work is being done to better protect the values of the place so pausing this would be detrimental.”

She adds: “We need to update the infrastructure to ensure that it guides people appropriately to stay on track, that we can monitor any illegal entry to [Honeycomb Hill] caves, and we reroute pathways away from sensitive species.”

However, she’s unable to point to any research showing how increased tourism will affect the sensitive landscape, rare native species like the Nelson cave spider, whio, and kiwi, or the threatened moss Epipterygium opararense.

DoC’s planning advice, which is restricted to the first stage, states: “An increase in visitors are coming to the Ōpārara Basin and the current infrastructure is inadequate to protect the area and keep visitors safe.”

Larkin says managing tourists will involve “some low key infrastructure” and claims the AEE report “has assessed the proposed works as being able to be managed within the statutory requirements and provides mitigation measures to manage impacts”.

(“These are intrusive structures,” Finlayson says. “It doesn’t matter how much green paint you put on them.”)

An increasing volume of visitors to the Ōpārara is a clear concern. Tourism West Coast chief executive Jim Little claims, however, his organisation is sensitive to the basin’s fragility – “at no point has this been about big numbers”.

He says via email: “We want to enhance the experience and while we are hopeful of a few more people staying in Karamea it’s about quality for a select group of people who care about these environments.”

But Little appears to have forgotten a West Coast growth study from 2016, which identified development of the Ōpārara into an iconic attraction “as a major opportunity to stimulate development of the local and regional economy”. Or Tourism West Coast’s 2017 marketing plan, which wanted to create a “major world class visitor attraction” at Ōpārara, to increase visitors from 20,000 in 2016 to 67,000 by 2021. There’s also the 2018 business case for the development, commissioned by Tourism West Coast, which said the arches had been identified by the tourism body “as a potential iconic attraction that will encourage visitors to travel north to the Buller District”.  

(Francois Tumahai, chairman of Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Waewae and a West Coast Tai Poutini Conservation Board member, was approached for comment.)

Newsroom asked DoC’s Larkin why the department is pushing a tourist development in a national park, despite having a mandate to protect nature. Her response: “DoC is making improvements to existing visitor infrastructure to ensure that people can visit this special area safely and the environment is protected.”

Keeping a close eye

Something Larkin doesn’t mention is a request to DoC for further information from the Nelson Marlborough Conservation Board, whose responsibilities extend into the Kahurangi National Park.

Deputy chair Doole, who heads a working group into the project, says the board agreed with DoC’s advice that stage one met the national park plan and could proceed.

However, it’s concerned that not enough has been done to assess what damage greater tourist numbers might cause. The department has been asked to provide reports on human and social impacts of the development, as well as a geotechnical report and an analysis of possible effects on the karst landscapes.

Doole, who lives at Rarangi, near Blenheim, on Marlborough’s Cloudy Bay, says the Ōpārara is a significant project for the department, and notes the pressure for greater tourism investment and economic development on the West Coast.

“Our board feels very strongly that our mandate under the Conservation Act is to be managing for conservation purposes of the land and the natural resources, and then secondary to that is fostering recreation and tourism on conservation land.”

In saying that, it can only offer non-binding advice.

Board chair Gina Solomon (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Kuri) has been the Ngāi Tahu representative since 2006, when she replaced her mother.

Her father, a fisherman, talked of harvesting kai sustainably. While the word conservation wasn’t used, Solomon says her parents’ ethics was not to take too much from the environment, because you’ll need it tomorrow.

The board doesn’t always agree with the department, she says, but they’ve got to work together. “I’ve got every confidence that our board is keeping a very close eye on the Ōpārara,” she says.

Solomon comes from the tourist town of Kaikōura, which has been devastated by Covid-19.

Speaking generally, she says it’s a good time to pause and reflect on how tourist experiences can be created without damaging the environment. “I think we’ve got time to get things right.”

Finlayson, of FMC, meanwhile, senses an acceleration in pace of the Ōpārara development, as the weight of money, and expectation of progress, bear down. The last few years have been energy-sapping and expensive, she says – “and for what?”

In her mind, the development has a “poor genesis”. But as people and groups – she doesn’t name DoC specifically – have become wedded to it, there seems to be more dignity to lose by admitting it’s a bad idea.

“The opposition groups are the groups that have been sticking up for the law and good process – not the ones whose mandated job it is to do that.”

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

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