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Minister declines Milford Dart Tunnel proposal

For full-size version see this PDF map

Hon Dr Nick Smith
Minister of Conservation

17 July 2013 Media Statement
Minister declines Milford Dart Tunnel proposal

The tunnel project proposed by Milford Dart Limited, through the Fiordland and Mt Aspiring National Parks, has been declined, Conservation Minister Dr Nick Smith announced today.

“I am declining this tunnel proposal because the environmental impacts are significant and beyond what is appropriate in two of New Zealand’s most spectacular National Parks and a World Heritage Area,” Dr Smith says.

The five-metre diameter, 11.3-kilometre long, one lane bus tunnel was proposed between the Dart Valley, adjacent to the Routeburn Track, through to Hollyford Valley. The $180 million project would have halved the travel time for the 420,000 visitors per year who visit Milford Sound.

“This is a significant decision and I have given it a great deal of thought and consideration. I have met the applicants, studied the major reports, sought thorough advice, visited the site, and weighed up strong views of both the supporters and opponents,” he says.

“There are three major reasons for declining this tunnel application. The first is that depositing half a million tonnes of tunnel spoil would permanently damage the natural and landscape values in Hollyford Valley. The second is the impact of the new roads and portals at each end, and particularly the impacts on visitors at the entrance to the Routeburn track. My third concern is that the engineering works and tunnel are inconsistent with the Fiordland and Mt Aspiring National Park Management Plans.

“I also have concerns about the economic viability and safety of this tunnel proposal. These issues are interrelated in that making a long narrow tunnel safe requires huge investment in ventilation and emergency systems. I am not satisfied that the tunnel can be safely built for a price that makes it economically viable. The risk for the Government under these circumstances is that corners are cut or the project is left half-completed with a clean-up liability for the public.

“Milford Dart Ltd late last week outlined an alternative tunnel that would be approximately two kilometres longer and which would relocate the eastern portal about three kilometres south east. This is a significantly different proposal on which I have not received any technical advice, and of which neither the public nor the hearing commissioner has had the opportunity to consider. I have determined that I have insufficient information to make a decision on this alternative.

“I appreciate my decision will be a disappointment to the applicants and their supporters. I do not in any way criticise them for their entrepreneurial spirit or ambition to ease access for the hundreds of thousands of people who visit Milford Sound. This is a conservative decision in which I have decided that nature deserves the benefit of any doubt.”

Reports and advice regarding this decision can be found at


1. Questions and Answers
2. Milford Map [Milford_Map.pdf]

Milford Tunnel Questions and Answers

1. What has been the process for considering this application?

Milford Dart Ltd (MDL) lodged their initial application to construct a tunnel in 2005 but lodged the application in its current form in March 2011. The Department of Conservation assessed this according to legal requirements and recommended in its initial report that it could be granted subject to certain conditions and the consideration of public submissions.

The application was notified for public submissions in November 2011 and the submission period extended due to the high level of public interest and the large amount of complex information accompanying the proposal.

Submissions closed in February 2012, with 1260 written submissions received - 400 supporting, 859 opposed and one neutral.

Public hearings were held in Te Anau, Invercargill and Queenstown in March 2012. MDL presented their right of reply in Queenstown in April and provided a further written response in May.

The resulting report from the hearing commissioner recommended that the application be declined on the basis of information raised in submissions. This included additional details on the adverse effects on the natural values of Fiordland and Mt Aspiring National Parks, effects on other users, and inconsistency with National Park management plans.

The Minister received all the relevant reports and information in May 2013. He visited the proposed sites and met with the applicants, the hearing commissioner and the New Zealand Conservation Authority (NZCA) in June.

Advice from the NZCA was shared with MDL.

2. Why did the Minister choose to make a decision on this application as opposed to the Department of Conservation?

The Conservation and National Parks Acts provide for decisions on concession applications and proposals for roads in National Parks to be made by the Minister of Conservation.

The Minister decided that given the scale of this proposal and the degree of public interest, it was not appropriate that the decision be delegated to a DOC official.

This decision is consistent with the powers of delegation, where the Director- General of Conservation shall refer matters of national interest or involving significant environment, social or economic implications to the Minister.

3. What are the considerations under the National Parks and Conservation Acts that the Minister is required to have regards to in deciding on such an application?

The National Parks Act aims to permanently preserve those parts of the country that contain scenery of such distinctive quality, ecological systems, or natural features so beautiful, unique, or scientifically important that they should be preserved as far as possible for their intrinsic worth and for the enjoyment of the public.

Specific considerations required under the Conservation Act for any concession are the nature of the activity; the effects of the activity, structure or facility; any measures to avoid, remedy or mitigate adverse effects; any environmental impact assessment or audit, and oral and written submissions.

4. What advice has the Minister received from his department on the tunnel proposal?

The Department of Conservation advised the Minister about the relevant information that needed to be considered in making his decision. This included Milford Dart’s application, DOC’s initial assessment and report, the public submissions and the hearing commissioner’s assessment of these in his report, the additional information obtained on the effects of the proposal on the values of the World Heritage Area, and MDL’s responses to this and matters in submissions. Advice was also provided by the New Zealand Conservation Authority.

The department’s initial report recommended the concession be granted subject to certain conditions and the hearing of public submissions. Additional information and evidence presented through the public consultation process led the hearing commissioner to recommend in his report that the application be declined.

All department reports, the extra information on World Heritage values and the NZCA’s advice are available on DOC’s website.

5. Who did the Minister meet with in considering this application?

The Minister met with Department of Conservation officials, the applicants Milford Dart Ltd, the hearing commissioner who considered the 1260 submissions and the New Zealand Conservation Authority - an independent advisory body on conservation matters.

The Minister also visited the site of the proposed roading and tunnel portals, walked the first section of the Routeburn Track that would be most affected, and inspected the Hollyford airfield where the tunnel spoil was proposed to be spread.

6. Why did the Minister not meet with opponents of the tunnel proposal?

The Minister received legal advice from his department which outlined that public submissions were to be heard by the hearing commissioner who is then required to report to the Minister.

It would have been unfair and a breach of natural justice if the Minister had chosen to meet with only some of the large number of people and groups who submitted on the proposal.

7. What was the advice the Minister received from the New Zealand Conservation Authority?

The NZCA advised the Minister to consider the integrity of the management planning processes for the two National Parks and the public confidence in these processes, and also the need to protect the natural values of the National Parks and World Heritage Area.

8. How has the area having World Heritage status affected the process and decision?

The World Heritage Area of Te Wahipounamu was granted by UNESCO in 1990. This status has no specific impact on domestic legislation nor the obligations the Minister must consider under the Conservation Act and National Parks Act in making his decision.

However, UNESCO may review World Heritage status for any area if it believes it has been compromised by any particular development or damage.

UNESCO sought additional information from DOC about the effects of the tunnel last October. They did not make any judgement on whether the tunnel would or would not affect the World Heritage status but simply sought information. At the request of the Minister, DOC commissioned additional information on the effects of the World Heritage Area statement of values to assist in his decision. It is unlikely the tunnel would have impacted on the area’s World Heritage status given that the Manapouri tailrace tunnel of similar scale caused UNESCO no concern and that other developments for visitor facilities in World Heritage Areas around the world has not seen any area declassified.

Milford Dart Limited was also given this information. The Minister considered this as part of his overall decision but the dominant reasons for decline was the requirements under the Conservation Act and National Parks Act.

9. Where is the Minister up to with making a decision on the monorail concession application?

Riverstone Holding’s application for the Fiordland Link Experience (to take passengers from Queenstown to Te Anau Downs via catamaran, all-terrain vehicle and monorail through the Snowdon Forest stewardship area) is still being processed. The hearing commissioner is preparing a report on information gathered from public submissions. The Minister intends to follow a similar process as for the Milford Dart Tunnel once he receives the hearing commissioner’s report.

10. Why has the Minister not considered the alternative tunnel proposal put forward by Milford Dart Ltd last week?

The alternative tunnel is about two kilometres longer and relocates the eastern portal approximately three kilometres to the south east. The Minister has not received any technical advice on this alternative. The alternative was raised orally with the Minister when he met with the applicants on 6 June and in writing by the applicant on Thursday evening on 11 July. The public nor the hearing commissioner has not had the opportunity to comment on the alternative tunnel.

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