Almost two years after a review of cycling on conservation land was flagged, DoC is in ‘preparatory and planning’ mode. David Williams reports

The pressure increased in 2009.

That was when Prime Minister John Key announced his government would spend $50 million to create a national cycle trail network. The idea captured the public’s imagination, and sparked a flurry of activity by fundraising groups, trail-cutters and tourist operators eager to cash in.

By 2016, there were 22 so-called “great rides” – including a few re-badged, existing trails – drawing about 1.3 million users, and bringing in an estimated $37.4 million, rejuvenating some off-the-beaten-track towns. (There are now 23 great rides.)

That same year, Key’s government set aside another $25 million, including $13 million to connect and extend Otago’s trail network, in the hope of making it a cycle tourism “mecca”.

Cycle trails were growing in popularity but when it came to building on public conservation land, would-be track builders – largely community groups – often stumbled upon a stop sign wrapped in red tape.

In the Byzantine world of conservation bureaucracy, mountain bikes and other bicycles are considered “vehicles”. Where these vehicles could be used on public conservation land (and waters) had to be identified in conservation management strategies and plans in each region.

Many strategies are out-of-date and inadequate. Those approved since 2005 have identified specific areas appropriate for such “vehicle” use. Even strategies updated since 2014 contain a clause which says access outside identified areas can only be granted through a review or amendment.

“This approach has proven inflexible, cumbersome, and frustrating,” says an internal Department of Conservation document from 2020, in a frank piece of self-reflection about requests to build bike trails on public conservation land not provided for in the country’s 16 conservation management strategies (CMSs).

A DoC planning document drafted in May of this year noted: “Government policy promoting a national cycleway network has recognised the tourism potential and community and public benefits that biking opportunities provide.”

The under-pressure department slipped, however.

A “considerable number” of new cycleways already built on conservation land don’t comply with the region’s CMS. Other proposals, some of which attracted funding from the Provincial Growth Fund, were endorsed or agreed to by local DoC offices despite being inconsistent with the local strategy.

In March 2020, as a Covid-enforced lockdown loomed, DoC announced a partial review of the Otago CMS, as the department was blamed for holding up a trail through the Kawarau Gorge linked to Key’s “mecca” announcement in 2016.

But it wasn’t just Otago feeling the heat. The inflexible approach was frustrating “biking interest groups, agencies funding tracks and DoC operational staff”, an internal memo reveals.

“An alternative mechanism is needed to address these issues,” DoC’s director of planning, permissions and land Natasha Hayward wrote in December 2020.

A year later, DoC announced it was planning a nationwide partial review of all CMSs to allow for more biking. “The process to be followed is yet to be confirmed,” says a specific DoC webpage. Consideration within national parks are exempt.

Little has been said publicly about it, even after the Otago CMS partial review was approved by the Conservation Authority in July – more than two years after it was launched.

Documents released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act shed more light on what DoC proposes to do – which is “unlike anything we have done to date”. It seems the trail towards more biking on conservation land will be a slow ride.

Wider questions remain. While recreational activities are seen as important, how much weight will be given to conservation values, the conservation status of particular parcels of land, and who will pay for trail building and maintenance?

Tasked with navigating new approach

Hayward’s 2020 memo is what’s called a task assignment, calling on DoC’s management planning team to lead “phase 1”, to “develop a new national approach and process” to provide for new and existing cycleways.

Clearly there was no rush. Recommendations for implementing phase two were expected by December 2021.

The project was “socialised” with the Conservation Authority’s management planning committee in 2020. In January last year, Hayward asked advocates to be part of a “cycling test group”, to which there was a positive response.

Lynn Hansberry, manager of DoC’s management planning team, and Katherine Hughes, the team’s national advisor, came back to Hayward in February last year with three options: a national focus group; a process led by regional operations staff; or policy developed after consulting the Conservation Authority and the cycling test group followed by public submissions.

Extra costs are an ever-present issue.

Hansberry and Hughes said there was no budget for a focus group, and it would take time – likely almost 12 months – to establish such a group.

A big factor about relying on public submissions, the third option, in a truncated consultation was the lack of involvement by iwi, something cemented in the Supreme Court’s Ngāi Tai decision.

The department needed to tread carefully. “We need to ensure we have thoroughly addressed all legislative and statutory requirements to minimise the risk of any judicial review,” another memo says.

An advantage of option two – putting the onus on regional operational teams – would be the use of “local relationships”, including with mana whenua, even though there might be a loss of national perspective.

That was Hansberry’s and Hughes’ favoured option, something Hayward endorsed a day later. “It seems to be the most efficient and cost effective.”

The move would have to be considered by DoC’s strategic unit, which manages the operational workload. “However, given how important this issue is for most regions I expect a high level of engagement and support,” Hayward wrote on February 24 last year.

The following month, DoC representatives discussed the proposed approach with the Conservation Authority’s management planning committee.

Specifically, the authority, a statutory advisory body, asked: “Given that this is a national policy approach that sits outside the usual CMS review process, how will things play out in practice once the policy is publicly notified?”

The details of the technical process hadn’t been determined, Hayward wrote to the committee in April last year – “including post-notification of the draft policies”. But what was envisaged was a partial review of all CMSs. 

The plan was to form a DoC governance group, involve all regional operations directors, and actively seek representatives to join a cycling test group, while determining the technical details and drafting the new policies.

Perhaps spooked by a project management “disaster” in the Mackenzie Basin, and given the scale, complexity and importance of the project, the department appointed an extenral project manager – consulting firm Boffa Miskell.

Hayward, now going by her married name, Ryburn, met with conservation board chairs at a national hui in November last year. But she neglected to mention the review of CMSs.

In a follow-up letter written weeks later, Ryburn said consideration of new biking opportunities had become a “significant issue across the country”, and the “high level of requests” needed to be addressed.

The likely approach (since confirmed) was to identify areas where biking is not allowed – such as national parks – and then establish policies to assess applications and proposals for new tracks in other areas, including potentially strict criteria.

Initial workshops were held with biking groups, and interest groups such as Federated Mountain Clubs and conservation lobby group Forest & Bird, on December 1 and 2 last year. Ryburn said a date for public notification would be confirmed in the New Year. But details seem elusive, even now.

“This is the first time we have carried out a national process in this way and we are aware of the potential risks associated with it.” – Internal DoC memo

DoC’s big bosses became formally involved early this year.

In January, Mike Slater, the deputy director-general of operations, set a new task assignment for Ryburn and two regional operations directors – Aaron Fleming (southern South Island) and Jack Mace (lower North Island) – to deliver the partial review of the 16 CMSs.

“My expectations are that the draft policies will be notified in the second half of 2022.”

Days later, Ryburn and Hansberry briefed director-general Penny Nelson, asking her to approve the national CMS partial review.

“This is the first time we have carried out a national process in this way and we are aware of the potential risks associated with it,” the pair wrote. “However, we face greater risks if we do not take action to address the current issue of not being able to allow biking on conservation areas due to the activity being inconsistent with relevant CMS.”

Some decisions to approve tracks had been made because of “issues with a lack of staff training and the perceived value of statutory planning documents across the department”. This was causing “regulatory and reputational risk”.

(A later memo upgraded that to “political and reputational risk”.)

On February 22, a letter signed by Nelson advised conservation board chairs she had initiated the review. “We are currently considering how we might engage with conservation boards to ensure your legislative role requirements are met.”

A cascade of groups – the project group, the operations group, and the technical working group – sit beneath the governance group on which Fleming, Ryburn and Mace sit.

There was a loose timeline. A task assignment from May said publicly notification and hearings – including a submission period expected to last at least 40 working days – would take place between this month and March. Revision and approval would take another year.

Approval by the Conservation Authority was expected in April 2024.

“Progress will mainly depend on progress on engagement with mana whenua and conservation boards,” says the May document, penned by Ryburn, Fleming and Mace.

DoC’s October 14 OIA response to Newsroom, from our questions in July, came from regulatory services director, Steve Taylor. He said the new approach to approving mountain biking on conservation land had been developed since 2019, starting with the partial review of the Otago CMS.

“We have never attempted to review all CMS at one time before,” Taylor says. “As a result, we are developing, adapting, and reviewing the process as we go.”

Timeframes seem to be slipping.

An update posted on DoC’s website last month said: “We are currently undertaking preparatory and planning work to ensure a legally robust review process is followed.”

Remember: This comes almost two years since the first task assignment document was written for this project.

“We understand there is concern at the time it is taking for us to outline the process and timelines for the review,” the update says.

“Once we have concluded our initial consultation with conservation boards and tangata whenua we will be able to determine the process we use. Timeframes will be determined by the process.”

Low expectations

The appetite is there for more biking – just look at the popularity of the Lake Dunstan Trail. And the pressure on DoC to open up more conservation land is breaking into the public domain.

Yet the process grinds on, mainly behind closed doors.

Rena Kohere (Ngāti Porou, Rongowhakaata, Te Aitanga a Māhaki, Ngāi Tahu), chairperson of the East Coast Hawke’s Bay Conservation Board, says via email: “At this stage there is little that I can comment on and value I can add given the age of the CMS for East Coast Hawke’s Bay and the lack of cycle trails on PCL [public conservation land] within the East Coast Hawke’s Bay region.”

CMSs should be reviewed within 10 years yet Hawke’s Bay’s is almost 30 years old.

Mountain Bike New Zealand president Ryan Hunt endorses the need for a DoC review, saying it’s crazy bikes are still defined as motor vehicles.

“In general, we’d definitely support the idea of having a bit more of a pragmatic approach around biking,” he says. “This isn’t saying every trail is going to have bikes, but it’s allowing that assessment to be made.”

Nicky Snoyink, of Forest & Bird, says DoC can’t become even more over-committed, or distracted from its core purpose of conservation.

Access to new areas for biking need to be undertaken with caution, she says.

“This is public conservation land held under the Conservation Act which sets out a very clear purpose to protect native species and its habitat, first and foremost, and to foster recreation, and allow tourism, subject to that protection.”

She adds: “Forest & Bird’s support for bicycling on public conservation land is conditional on ensuring protection of native species and habitat is prioritised, and further fragmentation of native habitat is avoided, existing tracks are utilised, and new proposals allowed only where they avoid damaging conservation values, and do not come at the expense of conservation in any way.”

Federated Mountain Clubs executive member Megan Dimozantos, a former director of the Rotorua Bike Festival, says most people involved in the review would say it’s not moving at the pace it should.

“I guess it risks being one of those things that they talk about, spend a bit of money on, and doesn’t really go anywhere.”

FMC is generally supportive of mountain biking on conservation land, Dimozantos says, as long as it’s in-keeping with the character of the landscape and environment around it.

She concludes with a phrase that has dogged DoC’s management planning in recent years, leading to court challenges and long delays: “The devil is in the detail.”

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

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