A review of the Conservation Department’s concessions management is “essential and urgent”, a recreation group says. David Williams reports

In 2010, Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson announced a revamp of her department’s concessions system.

A review had been launched the previous year, at the behest of Wilkinson’s predecessor, Tim Groser, over concerns the Department of Conservation’s processing took too long and wasn’t consistent.

This was during the time of Al Morrison, a director-general well-known for overseeing restructuring and budget cuts, who often paired the environment and economy, especially when it came to the tourism industry.

Among the changes announced by Wilkinson in 2010 were tighter timeframes for concession processing, and discounted fees if they were exceeded. “I expect the recommended changes will provide more certainty to the application process and make it more efficient,” a ministerial missive said.

Those changes a decade ago are now being pointed to as the start of problems with DOC’s concessions regime. Recreation group Federated Mountain Clubs has penned a report called ‘Conceding the commons … conceding nature?’, which calls for a fresh review of concessions, including law changes.

FMC president Jan Finlayson, of Geraldine, says 2010 was when the rot set in. It made processing speed and expedience “more important than thoroughness and high quality”. It’s a large factor that “twisted the system” towards commercial interests, she says.

Another factor is budgetary squeezes. The department’s budget has increased in recent times but remains pretty humble, in the scheme of things, she says. “Of course, that affects training, workload, expertise retention, morale. It gives little space for reflection and self-review.”

Conceding the Commons concludes a comprehensive review of DOC’s concessions management is “essential and urgent” – with some legislative tweaks.

The tourism industry, which, pre-Covid, earned the country more than $40 billion a year, almost 10 percent of gross domestic product, has similar views but for different reasons.

“We agree with FMC,” Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Chris Roberts says, pointing to its 2020 action plan for the next government. That plan says planning and concessions systems must be improved “to reduce unnecessary barriers to sustainable private sector activities, including an overdue upgrade of the concessions IT system”.

DOC is essentially unmoved. Natasha Hayward, the director of planning, permissions and land says a substantial review of its permissions systems was done two years ago and it made subsequent changes. “We will continue to make improvements,” she says. The legislation is fit for purpose, DOC believes.

Eugenie Sage, the Conservation Minister, doesn’t address the FMC report directly.

In an emailed statement, she says she recognises the frustration some applicants and interest groups have with the current concession system. Pre-Covid, the average time to consider and decide tourism applications was 57 working days.

“Applications should be considered and decided in a timely way, with DOC notifying applications which have potentially significant impacts for public comment.” (A law change in 2017 ensure every application for a lease or licence for a term of more than 10 years has to be publicly notified.)

Can public enjoyment live alongside commercial gain?

Conceding the Commons starts with language and legislation.

A concession means, fundamentally, conceding something – something of value. In this case it’s access to a public good, conservation land – about a third of New Zealand – which is held for the benefit of Kiwis. (Finlayson says public conservation land is Kiwis’ commons: “ground upon which we all stand equally and where we’ve agreed – by law – we must tread lightly out of respect for nature”.)

Primarily it’s there for conservation but, as long as it’s being preserved, for public enjoyment, also.

Concessions are governed by the Conservation Act, which tasks the department with managing land in a hierarchy: for conservation purposes, advocating for the conservation of natural and historic resources, and promoting the benefits of that conservation to present and future generations. A “natural resource” can be used for recreation and tourism If that use is consistent with conservation.

Behind the legislation is a cascade of policies, management strategies, and plans. Restrictions are greater in the National Parks Act.)

Minister Sage underlines this: “A commercial concession is a privilege, not a right, on public conservation land.” (There are more than 4000 concessions on conservation land, which in the last financial year, were expected to generate around $27 million of revenue.)

The Conservation Act sets parameters for the consideration of concessions, regarding impacts, transparency, consultation, and decision-making criteria. The Minister, or those acting on her behalf, aren’t obliged to say “yes”.
FMC says guidance to staff is complex and confusing. Finlayson says there are flaws at every stage: “It’s systematically awry.”

The report traverses problems with particular consents, many of them covered by Newsroom:

Inadequate supporting information and proceeding with a concession “fundamentally inconsistent with the Act”, for a lodge proposal in Fiordland National Park;

Poor DOC reports, and limited explanation of decision-making to say how statutory criteria were met, relating to a grazing application in the Haast valley;

So-called “project creep” by allegedly expanding an activity by chopping them into non-notifiable parts, related to a West Coast hydro scheme.

A lack of transparency, related to heli-hiking in Fiordland National Park, when DOC redacted large parts of documentation released under the Official Information Act.

And supposedly inappropriate sweeteners, relating to a West Coast hydro scheme.

Finlayson says: “It’s time to look up close at the whole apparatus, not just processing.”

She says while there’s no strong paper trail, she suspects the “human factor” might be important – especially when concessions are dealt with by junior staff, who are unsupported, and can feel pressure from the local community. A “necessary dispassion” needs to be brought to DOC’s decision-making, she says – a view likely shared by other non-government organisations (NGOs).

“FMC and other NGOs don’t want to have to do DOC’s job for it,” Finlayson says. “And we certainly don’t want to have to fight to get it to do its job.”

Conceding the Commons calls for nationally-consistent handling of concessions, better staff training, stronger lines of responsibility, and more concise, easy-to-use – and regularly updated – processing guidelines. Suggested tweaks to the Act include an applicant suitability test, penalties for condition breaches, and a review of a 12-month limitation on sanctions for concession breaches.

Plans and management strategies should be reviewed to ensure the concessions guidance is clear.

“An important thing is that concessions staff need thorough training that begins with the law, and they need to make decisions on applications that reflect what the law says,” Finlayson says. “That way New Zealand’s wild places will exists in our grandchildren’s time as they are now. That’s conservation. Conservation is about conserving.”

“They’re a government conglomerate with bureaucrats that don’t understand business.” – Hank Sproull

Of course, FMC doesn’t have a monopoly on views about DOC concessions or, indeed, on the department’s approach to commercial operators.

Air Milford owner and chief executive Hank Sproull is chairman of aviation safety body Queenstown-Milford User Group. “FMC? They’re an absolute pain in the arse,” he says. “Because they’re a group of people, they’re a minority group, and they try to push commercial operators, out of what we want to do to make money in the national park.”

(FMC’s website proudly states it has 21,000 members from all corners of the country.)

He’s similarly scathing of DOC, which, he says, has an attitude problem.

“They’re a government conglomerate with bureaucrats that don’t understand business,” he says. “It’s a big wall against commercial operators – they’re always trying to bat us out.”

(Pre-Covid, DOC was considering hiking concession fees to what it called a market value. After the virus hit, DOC went the other way – waiving some charges, including landing fees at Piopiotahi/Milford Sound. Covid-19 may also put plans for a bold re-shaping of Milford Sound on ice.)

The User Group has been used by operators to collectively fight for concessions. Sproull believes Air Milford’s is up for renewal in 2022.

Milford Sound, the tourist mecca that’s a must-do on the itinerary of many international visitors, sits within the Fiordland National Park, which was constituted in 1952 – the same year Milford’s airstrip had its first official landing.

The park spans 1.2 million hectares. Yet, Sproull complains, the only places a fixed wing aircraft can land is the Milford airstrip and “surrounding old bush strips”.

“DOC since 2002 have battled to us to try and remove us operators from Milford,” he says. “It’s been a mission from 2002 till now. It’s still ongoing. We’re not over it.”

Despite the squeeze on aviation concessionaires, the big problem with tourism pre-Covid, Sproull says, was overcrowding. Congested state highways rammed with campervans and buses. People everywhere. And few decent facilities to serve them.

“It’s been uncontrolled because DOC don’t know what to do,” he says. Yet the airstrip, which had received more than 90,000 people a year, doesn’t have a terminal building or toilet. “Can you believe that?”

(Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton last December accused successive governments of focusing too much on increasing tourism than controlling its impacts.)

Not that that’s a problem right now. While Sproull’s been happily surprised by how busy his company’s been with Kiwis, competition for the Kiwi dollar is fierce, with some big tourism operators cutting prices by $200 a ticket.

“The price we’re getting for a ticket is what we got 25 years ago so we’re making no money out of it. It’s a very sad situation.”

He adds: “I can’t see us coming out of this hole for another couple of years.”

Time to pivot

With no international visitors, many believe now is the perfect time for the tourism industry to make big changes. Indeed, Minister Kelvin Davis has tasked Tourism New Zealand, the Business Ministry and DOC with reimagining tourism.

With a general election looming, implementing that will fall to the next Government.

Part of the puzzle, as Upton pointed out last year, is managing the environmental impacts – something DOC does through the likes of national park plans and conservation management strategies.

Minister Sage says those instruments are taking too long to respond to current issues and are too cumbersome. “I have already asked the department to identify how the management planning process for conservation management strategies and national park plans could be overhauled and improved,” she says. “Improving the current conservation management planning system would be a sensible priority for an incoming minister.”

Victoria University of Wellington academic Dr Valentina Dinica published a paper in 2017 which critiqued the concession regime. She argued DOC operated under a “wait and see approach”, hoping demand could be managed and administrative efforts would be low – an approach that was likely deficient in the wake of the country’s tourism boom.

Increased funding for DOC in the 2018 Budget, plus money collected from the international visitor levy, has allowed the department to increase compliance and monitor tourism concessions, Sage says.

DOC director Hayward expands on her minister’s theme of conservation management. She says the department is undertaking a review to ensure statutory plans continue to meet legislative requirements, and provide appropriate guidance for the management and use of public places.

But in an argument about concessions, the department isn’t conceding everything – particularly when it comes to FMC’s report.

Hayward says: “The department does not accept all of the criticisms in the report toward the systems, processes, and staff, nor the decisions which have been made. We will engage with FMC to discuss their concerns.”

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

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