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D.O.C. Closes West Coast Tracks And Huts

As West Coasters debate this week whether to accept Government's $120 million offer, the Department of Conservation says because of lack of public use, it is closing West Coast walkways, downgrading tracks and closing back country huts. Scoop's West Coast Correspondent John Howard reports.

For more than 30 years, Coasters have been told that tourism will be the saviour of the West Coast.

Consistently unsupported and unsubstantiated statements have been made about tourism, mostly by city people who Coaster's describe as instant experts who falsely trot out the "tourism will save them" banner.

The figures don't stack-up but that hasn't stopped the Government now getting into the "tourism will save them" act either.

In the written settlement offer received by West Coast Mayors late last week, Treasurer and Minister of Finance, Dr Michael Cullen wrote: " The fund ($120 million) should be expended on projects that focus on building on the natural competitive advantage of the region in a way that generates national benefits and sustainable industries and jobs."

Since the Coast's natural competitive advantage of sustainable indigenous timber harvest and now gold mining is being taken from them, the only thing Dr Cullen can now mean is natural tourism or ecotourism.

Dr Cullen might also mean that if the Coast is to use the fund to generate " national benefits" then perhaps he might now also consider that the growth of Auckland, for example, might need to be curtailed because it's their high growth and life-style which raises interest rates for all Kiwi's.

Hardly generating a national benefit - but don't hold your breath that he'll tell the Auckland voters they have to change.

Yesterday, DOC spokesperson, Steve Addison, confirmed that his Department has been downgrading walkways, tracks and closing huts simply because not enough people are using them and maintenance costs are high.

DOC gets $10 million annually to manage a West Coast area bigger than some countries.

Mr Addison said " It is not a question of a lack of money, but simply because we've found that most people who come to the West Coast mostly visit our icons at the Cape Foulwind seal colony, Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki and the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers."

"We have found that those who visited the high-quality walkways usually only walk in for around 300 metres and the turn around and come back," he said.

That's disasterous news for people at Lake Kaniere just outside Hokitika.

In the 1980's DOC and PEP workers built a magnificent 14 kilometer high-quality walkway on the western shore which traversed native trees, ferns, bush, creeks and streams. People could even walk underneath a waterfall. But that's now ending.

Around 2 years ago the walkway was downgraded to a track. Now 12 kilometers of it is to be down-graded further to a back country route meaning that in the last month bridges and boardwalks have been removed by contractors and culverts put in their place.

Just one kilometer at each end of the previous 14 kilometers will be upgraded again to walkway standard for visitors. But unlike overseas parks where you can even hire a golf-cart to ride, our disabled and wheelchair-bound visitors may still have difficulty.

And it doesn't end there. At Mt Brown, in the same area, a beautiful track was left to overgrow a few years ago and even the directional signs telling people about the track have now been removed.

Perhaps that's why people don't use them - the signs telling them about the track have been removed.

Coaster's say you would need a roll of toilet paper to write down the number of walkways, tracks and huts that have been closed by DOC on the West Coast in the last few years.

Yet Coaster's don't blame local DOC staff. They blame the politicians and bureaucrats in Wellington for what they describe as idiotic polices and for playing the false "tourism will save them" propaganda to the general New Zealand public.

The statistics apparently show that most West Coast visitors don't walk through the forests, which is constantly being claimed by politicians and extreme environmentalists and, moreover, those that do are in the minority and they are not even New Zealanders.

Sure, hardy trampers use the back country routes - but they're not the majority of visitors.

The majority of the visitors to the West Coast are from overseas, so those living in the city's who claim they want to save the trees for future generations to visit, have not even visited the area themselves. Nor do the majority of New Zealanders who do visit the West Coast walk in the forests.

One Hokitika resident who does have a problem with DOC is Bruce Smith.

In 1991 Mr Smith, along with investors he had arranged from Christchurch and the United States, wanted to build a one kilometer tree-top walkway from the DOC information centre at Franz Josef across the State Highway, overlooking wetlands and looping around stands of indigneous forest and bush.

Similar tree-top walkways operate very successfully in Maine in the United States and in Scotland.

Mr Smith's venture was to cost around $1 million and he was prepared to allow DOC to run it charging $5 for the walk.

Thinking he was on the right track, so to speak, he applied for a DOC concession.

Transit New Zealand had given permission for the tree-top walkway to cross the State Highway within 30 days of receiving his application so he really didn't see any real problems with DOC

But Mr Smith says that in 1996, 5 years later and after numerous meetings with DOC and reams of correspondence, his other investors decided to pull out citing that the application for concession was a lost cause.

Mr Smith said " It is now 2000 and I have still never been officially advised of the outcome of my application."

The Government's interest now in vesting more trees into the DOC estate will not make the trees any greener, or taller, or suddenly create a myriad of new attractions.

Most people forget that tourism creates costs as well as revenue and if tourism was to be the saviour of the Coast it would, after more than 30 years of talk, already have happened.

Coasters say that you can bet your boots that anything they want to do to improve their lot with the $120 million will be locked-up in resource consent hearings and probably appeals for years to come.

But then, they say, talk is cheap and sophistry is easily believable when you live hundreds of kilometers from the forests and have never taken the time to visit.

© Scoop Media

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