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DoC’s Leniency On Air Access Criticised

The Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society is calling for a Ministerial inquiry into the Department of Conservation’s inadequate controls on air access to national parks and other conservation lands.

The expanding commercial interest in providing “heli-skiing”, “heli-biking”, “heli-hiking” and “heli-climbing” for tourists and recreationalists threatens the intrinsic values for which national parks and conservation lands are protected says Forest and Bird president, Dr Gerry McSweeney.

The Department of Conservation (DoC) yesterday issued a retrospective permit to the Helicopter Line which landed on an unauthorised site near the summit of Aoraki/Mt Cook to pick up double amputee, Mark Inglis after he had reached the top of the mountain.

Other climbers nearby felt their safety was jeopardised by a helicopter landing above them, threatening them with ice fall and avalanche.

“By law, aircraft landing within Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park are restricted to specific sites to protect the park’s wild and natural character, and safeguard the experience of other park users from the noise and intrusion of aircraft,” Dr McSweeney says.

“DoC is largely failing to safeguard the remoteness and intrinsic values on conservation lands because of its willingness to issue concessions for other than designated sites, and its inability to control over-flying of conservation land,” he says.

“There appears little to stop any climber who can afford it, having a helicopter circling the summit of Aoraki/Mt Cook recording their feat, yet compromising the experience for others and the supposed remoteness of the peak.

“DoC is increasingly reluctant to decline consent to commercial activities, no matter how disruptive they are of natural quiet or wilderness character. DoC needs to recognise that landforms and geography should be allowed to impose natural barriers to human access,” Dr McSweeney says.

He says examples of inappropriate air access approved by DoC include:

 the helicoptering of jet boats down the Hidden Falls waterfall on the Hollyford river under a departmental concession. This allows jet-boaters to access the vast wilderness of the Pyke, Lake Alabaster and Lake McKerrow area, which they could otherwise not reach. “In a world Heritage site there should be some respect for natural barriers.”

 a helicopter landing concession, which allows tourists to have champagne picnics on the Ngapunatoro ice plateau beneath Mt. Tutuko in the heart of Fiordland’s Darren Mountains. “It seems that no wild place is sacred.”

Dr McSweeney says DoC needs to be much firmer in restricting aircraft to identified landing sites, limiting the number of landings, and should establish extensive aircraft free areas. Changes to civil aviation legislation would be needed to achieve this to allow DoC to control over flying of conservation land. Under current legislation, the department can only control landings on conservation land.

Dr McSweeney says a major overhaul is also needed of the concessions provisions of the Conservation Act.

“Under the current “effects based” system of concessions management, DoC focuses on the physical impacts of commercial activities. It gives little consideration to cumulative effects, and impacts which are harder to quantify such as; crowding, loss of remoteness, and degradation of natural quiet (the sounds of nature),” he says.

Ends

Note to media:

The operational control of aircraft in airspace above national parks and other conservation lands is the responsibility of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). In general the CAA regulations state that aircraft shall not operate at less than 500 feet (or 1000 feet over identified sites such as Aoraki/Mt Cook Village) above any ground within a radius of 2000 feet around the aircraft unless they are landing, taking off, or forced lower due to weather conditions.

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