A year ago, the then Conservation Minister Kiri Allan, speaking from the Tongariro northern circuit, celebrated 30 years of Great Walks.

“The outdoors and nature are a core part of our identity as New Zealanders and the origins of these walks are testament to this.”

The incredible popularity of the 10 walks was underlined last month when the booking website crashed after 10,000 people tried to book the Milford Track.

Crisis-hit Conservation Dept considers closures, offloads
What’s up with the tracks, DoC?

But has the establishment of these spectacular routes, and the near constant marketing to international visitors, created a rod for conservation’s back? There’s a suggestion it might have.

Yesterday, Newsroom revealed the Department of Conservation had, as of March last year, a $300 million backlog of deferred maintenance on huts, tracks and structures, leading it to consider closures and divestments.

Conservation Minister Willow-Jean Prime confirms she’s had initial briefings from officials regarding the asset management strategy.

Using language eerily similar to that used the previous day by Department officials, the minister says: “No decisions have been made on what Aotearoa’s future recreation network will look like.”

“It would be better if the department was honest early, rather than presenting the public with a list of proposed closures.”
– Eugenie Sage, Greens

But documents released under the Official Information Act reveal consideration of an “improvement” to the current, financially unsustainable position: “Develop and implement an approach to managing divestiture and closing assets.”

Without budget uplifts or increased revenue, changes to levels of service or asset disposal may be required, a briefing from March last year suggested.

Green MP Eugenie Sage, who was Conservation Minister from 2017 to 2020, says the prospect of the department divesting assets is incredibly disturbing, “because that potentially means privatisation”.

“We already have a two-tier system on the Milford Track,” she says. (Ultimate Hikes, which operates on the Milford also takes clients, paying thousands of dollars, on multi-day guided walks on the Routeburn Track. The company has private lodges on both tracks.)

Says Sage: “We do not want a proliferation of that. This is public conservation estate for all New Zealanders.”

Interestingly, the department didn’t reveal the quantum of its maintenance problems at December’s annual review before the environment select committee, chaired by Sage.

“It would have been helpful if the department had flagged this $300 million hole,” she says, while conceding politicians might not have asked the right questions.

Sage puts the blame for DoC’s financial crisis on systematic underfunding of her former department. She says there’s always a tension between funding biodiversity work and visitor infrastructure. (Under her tenure, biodiversity got the lion’s share of extra money.)

But the former minister also zeroes in on the Great Walks, and the way they’re marketed.

“Some of the focus on the Great Walks, and the large expenditure there to assist our tourism industry, potentially has been at the expense of the backcountry.”

She adds: “It probably does need to also look at the way it’s marketing.”

As expressed by Federated Mountain Clubs vice-president Allan Brent in our previous story, “Great Walks have become more and more like roads”.

This obviously makes them more attractive to a broader range of people, with differing abilities. But upgrading them to such a high standard requires more costly maintenance.

In 2018, while Sage was minister, the department undertook a differential pricing trial – charging international visitors roughly twice the price of New Zealand residents on the Milford, Kepler, Routeburn and Abel Tasman tracks.

One justification for the trial was, Sage said, DoC’s cost to maintain the Great Walks “exceeds the revenue from users’ hut fees by up to $3.8 million each year”.

Last month, the department announced it was increasing accommodation fees, including a hike in standard hut fees from $5 to $10, while serviced huts would cost $10 more, at $25-a-night.

DoC’s director of heritage and visitors Cat Wilson said at the time: “Visitor charges contribute to recovering the costs of providing DOC’s recreation accommodation, and balances the cost burden between users and taxpayers.”

An internal DoC presentation from last year, released to Newsroom, suggested its visitor network be reoriented “to areas of high visitor demand and where New Zealanders live and travel”.

In other words, spending on Great Walks could, in the future, be even larger as a proportion of DoC’s maintenance budget, which, in 2021, was said to be $46 million a year.

Sage tells Newsroom the first thing the Government should do is secure regular funding for the Backcountry Trust, which organises volunteers to tend to huts, mainly, and some tracks.

She expects strong public opposition to huts and tracks being divested, especially if they’re going to fall into private hands.

“It would be better if the department was honest early, rather than presenting the public with a list of proposed closures.”

The Department of Conservation is weighing up which tracks and huts to maintain. Video still: Department of Conservation/YouTube

The National Party’s conservation spokesperson Barbara Kuriger says it will be a tragedy for DoC to close huts, tracks and structures “at a time when the country is focused [on] pest control, predator-free and the fight for our beautiful birds”.

She suggests community organisations, like hunting and tramping groups, will be keen to help maintain assets; help that comes at a reasonable cost. “Those who use the huts will look after them.”

Kuriger uses the issue to attack the government’s “concept” of restricting mining on conservation stewardship land, saying it “will be detrimental to the country and hold back our ability to create biodiversity”. This aligns with the industry view.

In February, Conservation Minister Prime confirmed policy work was being done to consider further restrictions on mining but final decisions on any Bill hadn’t been made.

Prime tells Newsroom, in an emailed statement, she expects the department, as part of its consideration of an asset management strategy, to review its work programmes and priorities, including those involving popular but ageing visitor assets.

Making similar points to those of DoC deputy director-general Stephanie Rowe a day earlier, the minister says: “The recent extreme weather events along with Cyclone Gabrielle have all demonstrated the real impact of climate change on our facilities, both in terms of repair and ongoing maintenance required.

“We know Kiwis love to get out and enjoy te taiao [the natural world] by using DoC huts and tracks, so it is important that any future planning and investment in those assets takes into account weather resilience.”

Last year, when Kiri Allan was celebrating 30 years of Great Walks, seems like a world away.

On that day, she said: “You don’t have to undertake a multi-day tramp to enjoy this country’s remarkable landscapes and heritage. Take a stroll through history, camp by the ocean, explore an island – find your own way into nature.”

However, given the financial difficulties being experienced by the Department of Conservation, and its inability to carry out routine maintenance, those future tramps might look a little different, depending on the decisions that are made.

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

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