The intention may have been good when the government granted open access to precious Central Otago high country 13 years ago.
But since guardianship of the Mt Ida Conservation Area was taken from its long-time users, the area has suffered, many say.
For some visitors the vast rugged range is perfect for a rip-roaring hoon: no locked gates or security cameras, no one around to see what you’re up to and endless terrain.
Delicate ecosystems are being destroyed, vegetation damaged, historic gold-mining relics trashed and access roads cut up.
There are sheep where there shouldn’t be but no sheep allowed in another area where farmers claim they’ve been grazing for over 100 years without harming the land.
It’s become too much for Naseby’s Sam Inder.
He’s closing his tour business that takes visitors into an area now managed by the Department of Conservation (DoC).
Tourists don’t want to see historic sites that have been damaged by rogue off-roaders, Inder says, and safety is becoming a concern where roads are not being maintained.
“DoC has opened the gates to hell and it’s now got the consequences to deal with.
“There’s been more damage done in the past 10 years, and particularly the last five, than in the previous 120 years.
“Some of them have been driving in the peat bogs, which are crucial to the environment and take thousands of years to develop.
“They’re the super sponges that sop up the moisture from snow melt and keep the streams flowing in the summer.”
But the bogs are draining through off-roaders’ wheel tracks, Inder says.
For 125 years Mt Ida Syndicate families used the block which now links parts of the wider Oteake Conservation Park for summer sheep grazing.
They fought to retain those rights on the Mt Ida section when the status of the land was reviewed 15 years ago.
It wasn’t just the loss of grazing they were worried about.
Inder says the farmers were the gatekeepers for visitors who requested permission to access the land.
The system meant someone always knew who was visiting and people felt accountable.
“It was the sheer fact that there was an element of stewardship … that people had to get through to access the area.”
Tourists in droves
At the official opening of the 65,000ha Oteake Conservation Park in St Bathans in 2010, then Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson told the crowd DoC had been “working hard to improve the conservation values and recreational opportunities in the Central Otago and Maniototo areas”.
“It [the park] joins New Zealand’s network of high-country parks that offer amazing new recreational opportunities to the public while protecting their special natural and historic heritage.
“Tourists will be coming here in droves to enjoy it and New Zealanders should too,” Wilkinson said.
And they did. Many have been responsible, particularly trampers, hunters, horse riders and four-wheel-drive clubs. But not all.
Inder says word has got around and every year the tussock-covered ranges are discovered by more uncaring “dirt-bikers and hotdog 4×4 drivers”.
“They go out there to get stuck and have fun. They have no empathy for the country up there whatsoever.”
Every year there’s more damage, some of which could now be irreparable.
He says when he reports this to DoC it requires details such as names of offenders before it can act.
Syndicate representative Alistair Scott told Newsroom there was no upkeep on tracks and flowing water was creating trenches some of which are “three or four feet” deep.
“People drive off the track into the tussocks and that makes a problem somewhere else. It’s just expanding.”
Fences are also being neglected and over time roads are likely to become impassable.
Hamish McKenzie’s family was pleased to hand over 10,000ha of Kyeburn Station – some of it 40 years ago – which has become part of the Oteake Conservation Park.
However he says lack of care of the area since is disheartening.
“DoC hasn’t managed the Oteake park at all well by letting the hoon element in.
“But it also doesn’t seem to care that there are still sheep grazing continuously when it specifically said within our tenure review that post-2010 there would be no grazing.”
He believes the Crown has failed in not providing enough resources for looking after the land and ensuring it is respected by the public.
“The ground was set aside for soil and water conservation. It wasn’t set aside for Joe Bloggs to jump in his four-wheel-drive and go and tear the place apart.”
An end to traditions
On the Mt Ida block three principal families – the Inders, Scotts and Hores – grazed the land from 1897.
The Mt Ida Syndicate’s week-long treks herding sheep from lower-lying farms into the mountains for summer then bringing them home three months later were much-anticipated adventures.
Pack mules and tents were used in the days before huts, which made life easier especially for the camp cook.
There was no more clearing snow from the ground with a frying pan outside the tent to make a fire at dawn.
Waking after a night in a saggy bunk to the billy boiling, then saddling up and heading out on horseback at first light to muster merinos before they scatter, is something few Kiwis have experienced.
Inder says the rule was once you were old enough to catch and saddle a pony on your own you were allowed to go.
“You got to follow the mob out on your pony and feel like you were helping.
“It was about a three-day drive – first day from the farm to the holding paddock, next day to the foot of the mountain, then up over the top and on to the plateau out the back.
“A key reason for taking off the family grazing was to open the land to all New Zealand, not just a few privileged farmers.
“I don’t think in the years we’ve been involved we ever turned anyone down from going there as long as we knew who and when they were going.
“There’s a folder a foot thick of thank-you letters from people over those years.”
The park in its entirety covers much of the St Bathans, Hawkdun, Ida, Ewe and St Mary ranges. Since 1897 a fixed-term pastoral occupation licence had been allowed at Mt Ida.
In 2008 the Commissioner of Crown Lands designated the land for vesting in the Department of Conservation for conservation purposes.
The area is home to dozens of native plant species, many endangered, and DoC acknowledges it has a legal responsibility to manage the land “so that its natural and historic resources are protected”.
Nicola Holmes, DoC’s Central Otago pou matarautaki-operations manager, says the appropriate management goal for Mt Ida Conservation Area is ecological restoration.
“Grazing stock on native subalpine vegetation is not consistent with this goal.”
She says a phasing-out period has been granted to farmers to “provide time for the Mt Ida Syndicate to plan its transition from using public conservation land for private farming activities”.
Regarding damage to the area and what DoC could do to remedy the situation, Holmes says the department undertook “a varied work programme”.
This includeds lizard studies, regular hut maintenance and weed control at three locations.
She says because grazing has been taking place in the area for more than a century, most of the effects on the ecosystem would have occurred decades ago, which is why recent monitoring does not show significant impact.
“It’s not getting worse, but it’s not getting better. It is time to let the land recover.”
Scott says the ecological science has been shown to be on the side of farmers.
That and any consideration of historical stewardship of the land has been disregarded during the legal process.
“They want us out and that’s it. We feel it’s a political battle and we can’t win it.”
Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund