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Fiordland: the Political Third Rail?

Fiordland: the Political Third Rail?

July 22, 2013

Conservation Minister Dr Nick Smith has said ‘no’ to the Milford Dart bus tunnel beneath Mt Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks; the monorail decision remains on his desk. Bound by relevant considerations under the relevant law, the decision is also a huge political risk for Dr Smith. New Zealanders hold Fiordland in their hearts - the last and loveliest wilderness, where the ground shakes beneath mighty ravines and politicians shall not pass.

Dr Smith won public support for his ‘Stop the Tunnel’ decision, with hardly a dissenting voice - the exception being National Party blogger David Farrar, whose commenters didn’t really share his disappointment. It was a New Zealand story of national public interest. Unequivocally, according to the New Zealand Herald, the Minister’s grit on tunnel must extend to monorail: “Dr Smith has made one brave decision. Now he needs to make another.”

What’s at stake here now goes deeper than the swathe that would be cut for the train through 67ha of magical, mossy old-growth beech forest, home to rare mohua, and 17 other threatened species including bats and birds.

This is the Snowdon Forest Conservation Area, in the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area - with impacts described here by NZ Wilderness, which risk likely compromise to that World Heritage status. UNESCO will investigate the effects of the developments, may put the area on a danger list, and won’t rule out removing its status altogether - in a deep embarrassment for DOC.

Based on Smith’s own reasons for denying concession for the tunnel, the monorail may fall at similar hurdles - spoil on the airstrip beside the river, for example, raising its level by seven metres - although it will be assessed under Conservation Act, not National Parks Act provisions. And a sleeper concession for Ngai Tahu which, as North & South explains, could see two projects allowed de facto, by reason of concession being given on one.

All this for the sake of an alternative “link experience” from Queenstown to Te Anau Downs (halfway between Te Anau and Milford) - taking in a boat ride across Lake Wakatipu, an all-terrain back country drive, completed by the monorail zipping through the trees - and enhanced opportunities for access and recreation, for traffic of up to a million visitors per year, for those who like that sort of access and recreation better than what is currently available to those being guided quietly, on foot, into a New Zealand wilderness.

These are the primary considerations for Dr Smith.

Beneath all this lies New Zealanders’ unspoken commitment to Fiordland - and DOC’s commitment to New Zealanders, in the form of the honest handshake and the promise that national park and conservation management plans were supposed to represent.

Conservation management plans are done by communities, through their local conservation boards. They’re a partnership - in DOC’s new terms - DOC having just been restructured to focus on partnership alongside conservation. They are the democratic basis of our public conservation land management.

North & South’s ‘Furore in Fiordland’ describes the conservation management strategy for Snowdon Forest, which includes the objective “To provide and maintain the central Snowdon Forest area as a remote area with opportunities for low-impact recreation remote from high-use areas and extensive facilities”.

“This is a landmark case. It’s a watershed for us. It attacks everything we believe in – the value of democracy, the principles, all the statutory documents and legislation – and it deals a huge blow to the environment. There’s nothing they don’t have a crack at. Bring it on,” Federated Mountain Clubs’ President Robin McNeill says.

Dr Smith freely admits that he’s in the middle of rewriting conservation management laws - coloured by his Director-General Al Morrison’s observations that the role of local boards is a bit of an anachronism, as well as a nuisance to DOC when it is trying to get its business strategy sorted out.

And yet, Smith may recall that in 1960 the National party was New Zealand’s first political party to make conservation a key plank of its policy; and that values about the ethic of stewardship, and legacy of our natural heritage are strongly held among his voters.

There’s something about Fiordland. Hardly any of us live there. But 264,000 New Zealanders said it was unacceptable, to raise the level of Lake Manapouri for hydropower; forms signed by people opposed to the proposal were arriving at a rate of 4,000 to 5,000 a day.

In 2010, when drafts of Cabinet papers were leaked showing that Mt Aspiring National Park had been in contemplation for mining, Gerry Brownlee swiftly ruled it out, but too late: it was a pivotal moment in the Schedule 4 debate.

Nick Smith doesn’t have an easy decision. Unlike his predecessor Kate Wilkinson, he has bravely taken it on. On behalf of New Zealand, all he needs to do and can do is what the law requires - and so we wait, to find out whether the fences we built around Fiordland are strong enough.


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