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West Coast DOC Boss Ponders Cave Creek Disaster Daily

Cave Creek is something Mark Davies contemplates every day.

And after almost 47 years of serving the cause of conservation he is in a reflective mood.

"Cave Creek is in my DNA," he says quietly.

"It drives me everyday, the urgency and the promises made (to the families) at the time to ensure all visitors are safe."

The Department of Conservation's Western South Island operations director retires on May 3 after nine years in the role, and a 47-year career in conservation.

"I've been through an interesting decade in time," he says.

"The highlight is people. The place is special."

Leading a team and connecting it to the community has been the highlight.

"Serving the community and serving iwi, you certainly see how integrated iwi are to the community, in working together."

Davies leads a team of about 200 staff with oversight of 84% of the region's entire land area, which stretches over 600km and includes some of the country's most iconic visitor sites.

Mark Davies in characteristic explaining pose, during a visit by the former Conservation Minister Poto Williams following a Nature Heritage Fund purchase in October 2022 of farm land on the edge of the Paparoa National Park.

He is "the face" of the department, leads day-to-day operations, and is a figure at the regional leadership table.

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But in a profound reflection near the end of a long career, Davies pauses and notes the impact of the darkest of days for the Department: the Cave Creek disaster.

When a group of Tai Poutini Polytechnic students died after DOC viewing platform collapsed at Cave Creek on April 28, 1995, the public trust in the department profoundly shifted.

The tragedy continues to reverberate in the West Coast community.

Davies says it has driven him every day he has gone to work since, with the victims and their families' pain somehow always at the heart of what he does.

"The Cave Creek tragedy is defining in New Zealand's history and the history of DOC."

On April 28, in one of his final formal duties, Davies accompanied some of the victims' families as they walked to Cave Creek to remember.

He pays tribute to the families generosity, in continuing to walk alongside the department in the aftermath.

"DOC is a better organisation past Cave Creek," Davies says.

"I'm proud of our work both with the tangible infrastructure but also in intangible infrastructure."

Davies began his career on the doorstep of the West Coast in the Arthur's Pass National Park and fittingly he concludes his career back in the region.

Like many, he can trace West Coast roots: a grandmother born at Gladstone near Greymouth, and a Welsh-born grandfather migrating to Hector in northern Buller where he worked mining at Millerton.

In an age when the visibility of public servants has retrenched from the regions, the role Davies fulfils remains a key one.

The past decade has seen critical change as the West Coast inches towards greater internal alignment in local government.

Davies sees the department as moving more in tandem with the region.

Against this backdrop significant national policies affecting land use in the region have been played out and debated -- including the proposed combined district plan for the region.

The West Coast DOC area is unique in New Zealand for its integrated landscapes.

It includes five national parks with a diverse cross section of landscapes and biodiversity, which stretches from the Southern Alps to the sea..

"On the West Coast, DOC gets to manage landscapes whereas in the North Island you might be managing a patch of bush up the back.

"The West Coast has internationally recognised World Heritage sites with mountain to sea profile. That's a privilege."

He is hopeful he has helped build a legacy of the department making a better contribution but as he departs, Davies sees much greater opportunity for a more wholistic approach to managing the region.

Specifically where the department and the four councils could be more aligned to ensure the "aspirational" West Coast slogan of 'Untamed Natural Wilderness' being a reality.

"The biggest opportunity for the region going forward is getting the big regional issues and the review of the (West Coast) conservation management strategy (CMS) and the TTPP aligned -- so we have an integrated statutory framework to manage outcomes for the region."

Davies believes "West Coasters love their environment" and its residents have a pride in the diverse opportunities this represents.

The department's role is to both protect and support, while enabling residents and visitors alike to enjoy it, he says.

The need for greater collaboration across the region has seen key projects brought forward by DOC and, with local support, has won central government backing.

Greater economic wellbeing has been recognised within those projects, he says, but it reflects that crucial partnerships are for the region's betterment.

This includes the significant improvement to the Oparara Valley visitor area near Karamea, the development of the Paparoa Great Walk and Pike Memorial Track, the near complete $40 million-plus Dolomite Point redevelopment at Punakaiki, and the evolving approach to the key Glaciers visitor sites in South Westland.

"I'm not just a person who comes to work thinking 'legacy'," Davies says.

"But one of the things I'm most proud of on the West Coast is being given the opportunity for DOC to have a voice around the regional leadership tables -- investing time and listening to their story."

He is conscious the department oversees 84% of the land area, which impacts West Coasters ability to manage its affairs.

"We've worked hard to ensure that the management of public conservation land has tangible benefits for West Coasters."

He acknowledges the significant challenges -- not least the region's small residential population of 32,000 and its tiny rating base (about 22,000).

Davies says the department's key role in managing visitor sites hosting over 1 million visitors annually is hugely significant to the local economy.

It represents 45% of the region's GDP and the footprint the department contributes in that, "we do that well, we manage that well".

He is keen to emphasise collaborative, regional approach: "For me, that's been a huge privilege."

Christchurch-raised Davies began his conservation career years before what is now known as DOC was formed.

He began as cadet for the then Lands and Survey Department 47 years ago when he undertook a 12 month probationary period.

"At the end, my supervisor said, I don't know if this is for you Mark."

But Davies was determined and went to Lincoln College (now Lincoln University) to do the ranger course.

Afterwards he was accepted by Lands and Survey, starting at Arthur's Pass.

His 10 year stint at Arthur's Pass saw the Davies' begin to raise their three children.

From there Davies progressed to DOC roles across the central North Island, for over 20 years before returning south.

He foresees moving back to Taupo, the place his now adult children still regard as home.

Davies say the Department of Conservation has evolved significantly in his time.

"Going back to the 80s, we're a different organisation. Today our work contributes to greater outcomes for the region.

"I don't think the work has ever changed. The work the organisation does now is very similar to 40 years ago."

That is: controlling pests, maintaining visitor infrastructure, managing a visitor experience, tell a conservation and heritage stories, work with local businesses and concessionaires and iwi.

"How we do the work has changed. I think we do the work better."

Davies says advances in pest control have been huge.

The ideal of preventing the collapse of indigenous biodiversity seems possible, Davies says, and it now seems tangible for very large sections of the region to be 'pest free'.

"The hope that technology has brought, certainly over my time in eliminating pests, eliminating predators, was beyond even a pipe dream.

"I think it's real now. It is possible -- we can do it. It's really exciting."

The department offers "world class" visitor experiences including at Fox Glacier, Franz Josef, the Hokitika Gorge, Punakaiki, and Oparara, he says.

Davies says there is a greater sense of relationship and cites the development of iwi partnership as being "truly meaningful".

"The days of 'DOC knows best' or the Government knows best are truly over."

He suggests the department's role is much broader than some may think and is about ensuring the long-view to the environment.

"If you want to save the birds, you build a zoo but if you want to have healthy landscapes and ecosystems … our catchments need to be resilient."

This approach is acute, with the ongoing battle against possums, goats, stoats and deer pressing.

Days says browsing pests, putting forest canopies on the verge of collapse at a time of increasing extreme weather, presses the urgency.

Forest collapse and the direct correlation with river catchment impacts has been well known in New Zealand for 100 years.

He points out how this drove the first Government deer culling programme from the 1930s. It also led to the formation of the first Arthur's Pass National Park in 1929.

"People worked that out in the 1920s.

"Arthur's Pass, the first national park in 1929, it was about flood protection linked to Christchurch. We've understood these connections for a long time."

The feral goat problem on the West Coast has also seen the department implement a more strategic approach.

Davies says the scale of that problem is too big to rely on recreational hunters.

"We've set up a goat team -- you have to."

At the same time, the department still needs community buy-in to ensure any advances in stemming the goat tide is not undermined by feral populations on private land.

"The challenge is goats don't know boundaries and they drift in and out. Pest animals on private land are landowners responsibility."

Davies says the department contributes significantly to the social and economic wellbeing of the West Coast community -- and it has a clear mandate for that from central government.

He cites the success of the more recent Jobs for Nature programme and the ongoing infrastructure projects led by DOC with its regional partners such as the Dolomite Point development at Punakaiki.

"We've been asked to deliver big capital projects -- we're trusted to deliver by the region on behalf of iwi (and the Government)."

The Dolomite Point work with Te Rununga o Ngati Waewae is particularly special and he looks forward to being present in June as it is formally dedicated.

The retiring West Coast boss for DOC believes the next challenge for the region is to better align a good "statutory framework" to ensure the region truly is an 'untamed natural wilderness'.

"The biggest opportunity for the region going forward is to get the big regional issues in the view of the Conservation Management Strategy and the Te Tai o Poutini Plan, so we have an integrated statutory framework to manage outcomes for this region," he says.

Davies hands the reigns to Own Kilgour, a West Coaster who joined DOC after working overseas.

Davies says he is pleased Kilgour's capacities to be a leader have been able to be fostered through the department.

"I feel really proud to be able to hand over the role to Owen. To grow our regional leadership capability, and for Owen to be successful in the role, I feel is the icing on the cake.

"We need to grow our regional leadership capability and capacity, and DOC has taken a big step: we've done that. We've proved that can be done."

Davies say a real challenge for region is "growing our own", where historically many young people leave and never come back.

"The real strategic challenge is how do you encourage, demonstrate that going away and going to university sets you up so you can come back?"

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