Opinion: The New Zealand backcountry is for many of us the place of our adventures, ambitions, and the backdrop and stage to our most poignant memories. It contains more than 900 huts and thousands of kilometres of tracks which have built up since people were walking through the landscape.

For the most part, they reflect who we are. Simple, rugged structures that withstand the elements, and have proven to be remarkably resilient. Many people have the not unreasonable view that our hut and track network is the best in the world, that it is at the core of our identity.

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However, despite its core place in our national psyche, huts and tracks have never had an easy fit with the Crown accounts. This issue, dating back nearly 40 years, is now in sharp focus with the news that the Department of Conservation has a $300 million backlog of maintenance, with suggestions that huts and tracks may be divested, closed, or removed entirely.

If DoC rangers want to replace a hut roof in their day jobs, to conserve a facility, then DoC gets additional capital charges for doing what most people see as a maintenance job

Accounting has a tough time quantifying the importance of this network to heritage, culture and the use value for important biodiversity work – values that don’t easily translate to an Excel spreadsheet.

DoC currently subjects itself to a perverse set of rules for huts and tracks – a triple whammy. First, it is charged by Treasury a capital asset charge of about 7 percent interest a year for just having the huts and other structures, such as boardwalks and bridges, on its books. Then it gets charged depreciation, on structures that are in many cases over 50 years old. Finally, any maintenance or upgrades on huts and tracks often results in a revaluation, whereby DoC receive additional capital asset charges and the cycle starts again.

The absurd accounting scenario exists that if DoC rangers want to replace a hut roof in their day jobs, to conserve a facility, then DoC gets additional capital charges for doing what most people see as a maintenance job.

DoC’s own internal systems, many of which are significantly more stringent than the legal building or engineering codes, make it worse. Its own asset management system records compliance issues, but in many cases the focus can be on urgent safety issues and the routine maintenance has just built up over time to levels that are difficult to manage.

Rather than coming up with a workable maintenance plan, these inspection results get fed into a cumbersome planning and decision loop that often results in very little work being done to fix the identified problems. A hut can sit with a broken window for 10 years, to the point where the frame rots from moisture, simply because the army of planners and ‘integration’ managers in Wellington will not approve maintenance expenditure on remote huts that get limited use.

For DoC, limited use means anything that doesn’t have seven nights a week occupancy. In other words, anything that is used by Kiwis on their weekends. This approach misses the bigger picture and the wider value to the New Zealand community.

The common refrain of conservationists that if only we give DoC more money, doesn’t help. It should be obvious that the more money that goes to ineffectual systems, the less effective they become. Since 2017, DoC has added 800 staff, and far less work is happening in the field.

Vote Conservation allocates DoC a recreation and heritage budget of over $200m a year, and this needs to stretch across everything from managing the concessions role of DoC to getting the work done on the ground. Some of these things, such as front country tourism sites and Great Walks, are expensive so it does mean DoC needs to work smart to manage the complete set of responsibilities that New Zealand taxpayers expect.

However, there are solutions:  

Over the past 10 years, a phenomenal effort by volunteers, supported by regional DoC staff and trade contractors, has resulted in the resolution of a substantial proportion of the maintenance backlog on huts. More than 280 huts and 1500km of track have received maintenance, some for the first time in 30 years, involving 900 volunteers and support from the remaining regional DoC staff and contractors.

This work has been largely coordinated by the Backcountry Trust, and has cost about $6m. That is a fraction of DoC’s annual budgets over the same period for huts that are now fit for another 50 years.

The team that renovated Te Ao Tūpare Hut, Ruahine Forest Park. Photo: Megan Dimozantos/New Zealand Backcountry Trust

Treasury’s own guidelines provide an exemption to the capital asset charge and depreciation regime for “heritage” assets, and explicitly state that this includes national parks, conservation areas, including many of their huts and tracks.

This would alleviate the burden, and more appropriately treat the 500 or so heritage huts as a cultural collection – similar to library or museum holdings. It is common practice in the management of overseas national parks to have provision for the cultural and heritage value of a recreational ‘asset’, meaning they have a deeper value than just the physical tin and timber.

However, despite the obvious gains to be made through harnessing community goodwill, the DoC position on future funding is at best uncertain and unclear. There does not seem to have been constructive dialogue between DoC and Treasury as to just what the appropriate accounting standards should be for huts and tracks whose value goes far beyond just the physical asset.

With so many New Zealanders wanting to contribute to conservation, it’s important that DoC remain open to others to get the job done. It doesn’t cost a lot to maintain our huts and tracks. However, performance measures on how well DoC is working with communities is rarely reported to the public and politicians.

The lack of clarity about whether DoC is committed to working with others is causing a lot of frustration, and we are past the time for politeness. If the Department of Conservation genuinely wants to assist, it needs to urgently discuss matters with the outdoor community who want to roll up their sleeves and help. Otherwise, we need to prepare to fight to defend some of our greatest assets from the very organisation that is charged with protecting them.

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