A popular multi-use trail in Fiordland is incomplete and the trust that created it in limbo as it waits for the Department of Conservation (DoC) to review plans that are years overdue

The 28km Lake2Lake Trail traversing stunning scenery between Te Anau and Manapouri is disjointed because a 2km section falls within Fiordland National Park.

Unable to bike in the National Park under DoC rules, cyclists must detour via a state highway, which has track creator Fiordland Trail Trust concerned about accidents.

Before work can start on the missing trail link, the Fiordland National Park management plan has to be changed to allow cycling.

“Everyone thinks it’s a no-brainer but all we get back is ‘you will have to wait for a park plan change’,” says trust chair John Greaney.

The management plan setting out regulations and determining permissions for operating in the national park is five years overdue having been earmarked for review in 2017. DoC now says there is no agreed time frame for the review to start.

Greaney says the trust has tried “every angle” to get permission to complete the final trail section along an existing decades-old walking track.

The public has been consulted, the backing of the local community obtained and the trust has a memorandum of understanding with Ōraka Aparima Rūnaka for the trail to pass through the national park. The Fiordland community board, Southland District Council, Great South and Waka Kotahi are all behind its completion, says Greaney.

The trail, which weaves through native beech forest alongside the Waiau River between Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri, is growing in popularity.

Greaney says it has about 40,000 users a year and the numbers are expected to grow with the return of international and domestic tourists.

Accident waiting to happen

The missing piece forces cyclists onto the Manapouri-Te Anau highway before they rejoin the trail near Manapouri.

“There’s going to be an accident and that could be the catalyst for change. I hope not, but it’s a worry for the trust,” says Greaney.

Fiordland Trail Trust secretary Jocelyn Hodges and chair John Greaney. Photograph: Vaneesa Bellew

A precedent of sorts has already been set by the New Zealand Conservation Authority, the body that provides statutory advice to DoC and Conservation Minister Poto Williams. In 2018, the authority approved a partial plan change in Tongariro National Park to allow multi-use trails to be created for off-road cyclists and walkers, a process that took six months.

But DoC regulatory services director Steve Taylor told Newsroom a partial plan change would not be implemented “as a full plan review is needed to address a number of matters and it isn’t efficient to undertake a partial review”.

Fiordland Trail trustee Heather Sinclair says trail creation has other benefits, including an increase in pest and weed eradication and native planting along the trail and in the area.

“If you let people into an area they are encouraged to protect it,” she says.

Once complete, the final section will be “the most phenomenal” part of the trail and will open up the location not only for cyclists but for other users of all ages and abilities, says Sinclair.

Wild Rides owner Garth Milicich says the incomplete trail is a source of surprise and disappointment for his customers.

“It affects some people’s experience and some choose not to ride it,” he says.

The trail’s popularity is down to its spectacular scenery. Once it is finished, and the road safety concerns are removed, Milicich expects a surge in riders.

Southland representative mountain runner Dwight Grieve, a regular on the trail, says the track is an amazing training ground and will be even more so once complete.

“It has been disappointing that we haven’t got it all the way to Manapouri yet and running on the roadside piece is definitely not as engaging and exciting as going through the beautiful New Zealand native bush.”

In August, a section of the cycle trail became the home of New Zealand’s newest parkrun, one of a 39 such locations for regular 5km runs. Grieve, a co-director of the Lake2Lake parkrun, says one runner came from Auckland to compete and out-of-town participants in the weekly events are multiplying.

For the past four years the trust has also run the Meridian Hydro half marathon and the Mitre 10 Te Anau 10km on the trail.

On Saturday, the Lake2Lake trail is set to be used for the Spring Challenge, an all-female adventure race. More than 1480 competitors are expected to take part in the multi-sport event.

High value, low impact

Southland MP Joseph Mooney says his understanding is that it should be simple to resolve the planning issue.

“It’s frustrating for me so I can only imagine how frustrating it is for the folks actually building the trail.

“To me it’s a no-brainer. If you want the high-value, low-impact tourism the tourism minister talks about, this is it.”

Mooney says Te Anau, a town built to cater for tourists, has suffered economically in the past few years, with floods in 2020 followed by Covid’s closure of tourism.

“It’s been one of the hardest-hit areas in the country. Why not just get the road block out of the way. They’ve got the funding, the desire, the passion to do it – let them do it,” says Mooney.

DoC’s Taylor says before the department begins any new plan reviews, a number of other statutory management planning documents have to be dealt with.

DoC also needs to ensure “we have an agreed way forward with our Treaty partners to be part of and help support the process”, he says.

Greaney would like the opportunity to tell Conservation Minister Williams and Tourism Minister Stuart Nash that the community backs the trail’s completion.

“I don’t think they understand we’ve got everyone behind us,” Greaney says.

A spokesperson for Williams told Newsroom it’s not possible for the minister to meet the trust at present, and since the plan review is an operational matter, referred questions to DoC.

Nash has not responded to Newsroom’s enquiries.

In the meantime, Greaney says the trust is not letting the delays deter it from getting permission to finish the Lake2Lake trail. “I’ve told them I’m not going to go away,” he says.

Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund

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