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In a national park, an avalanche of opposition

An ex-National Party Cabinet minister is backing a plan to build an upmarket lodge in the Fiordland National Park. But, as David Williams reports, the proposal faces an avalanche of opposition.

Submitters were heard in a small conference room in a lakeside hotel. The hotel was a stone’s throw from Lake Te Anau and a short walk to the Department of Conservation’s Fiordland National Park visitor centre. But it was a long way from anywhere else.

At stake, the future of a small pocket of the golden-tussocked Eglinton Valley, along the famed Milford Road. The valley’s a biodiversity hotspot – a glacially carved, beech tree-lined home for rare species of bat, as well as mohua and kaka.

Path New Zealand Ltd wants to build a 20-room lodge, in four “pods” – director Abbe Hutchins, of Wellington, calls it a high-value “upmarket hut” – in a spot, invisible from the road, surrounded by red and silver beech forest. As part of its planned exclusive use of the national park, it also intends to build a 30-car car park, a 500m-long, wheelchair-accessible access track and a nature trail.

Critics argue it would be a major change for national parks and dismiss the proposal as a private operator’s chance to make pots of money from a protected public place.

In all, 153 people – individuals and interest groups – made submissions to DOC, 142 in opposition. But given the remoteness of Te Anau, eight-and-a-half hours’ drive from Christchurch, only 11 people were heard last Tuesday.

(Unlike a hearing in June about a controversial West Coast grazing licence, DOC decided not to make the submissions public before the hearing, limiting public attention. The submissions will be made public this week, DOC says.)

It’s yet another test for a beleaguered department. DOC is roiling with what some insiders and ex-staff call a toxic culture and under pressure, after years of job cuts and several restructures, to fight to save threatened species and cope with a skyrocketing number of tourists.

Fiordland roots

The name Hutchins is South Island tourism royalty. Abbe Hutchins’ grandfather, the late Sir Les, founded tourism company Fiordland Travel, now called Real Journeys. Her dad Bryan, a Path New Zealand advisory board member, is still a Real Journeys shareholder and significant shareholder.

But, as raised in a testimonial letter by a former National Party Cabinet minister, Abbe Hutchins is also a Parata. Former education minister Hekia Parata is the cousin of Abbe’s mother, Penny, a former Southland Conservation Board member. They’re descended from Tame Parata, the first southern Maori MP. 

“Our family takes our responsibilities to the community seriously,” Hekia Parata wrote. “[Abbe] has briefed me on this proposal and I am delighted to recommend her as exactly the sort of person that should be starting a new business in such a special area.”

Abbe Hutchins is a former bureaucrat for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Business Ministry who completed an MBA at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She’s also an avid tramper who, she tells Newsroom, wants to bring the national park to people who didn’t grow up on the fringes of Fiordland, like she did.

Path wants to create “an experience”, she says, rather than being seen as developing “physical structures” – a boutique lodge that charges $300-a-night. “People are wanting an authentic overnight experience immersed in nature.”

(The budget for the lodge and whether it’ll be bankrolled by the Hutchins family or a group of investors is commercially sensitive, she says.)

Reframing the argument

But can’t people already stay in the national park? Hutchins deflects that argument: “I don’t know that that’s the right question to be asking.” But her opponents are asking that question, so, surely it’s a fair question to put that to her.

She sticks to her original line: “We need to look at opportunities for people to enjoy the park. And have an authentic experience. People are looking for an in-nature experience within the park.”

Her opponents say the lodge isn’t necessary. Hutchins responds: “I think that’s kind of a hypothetical question, isn’t it? A lot of people said it should be built outside the national park and it’s like, well, but yes everything can happen outside the national park.”

There you go. A hypothetical lodge unable to be undone by a hypothetical question.

Early in the interview, Hutchins suggests people who might use the lodge include families with young children, older people, and those less physically able. But what research has Path done on these people supposedly excluded from the park, and how they’d like to be accommodated?

Hutchins goes off track again, saying while some people are against it, others think it’s a good idea and can “add value to visitors to the region”.

But is there demand for it? “Yep, there’s demand.”

Who are these people, though, and what’s the demographic?

“It’s not really about exclusion. It’s making the national park more... it’s opening it up to people who, for whatever reason, which could be preference, that’s fine, would not have the opportunity to stay overnight within the park, at the moment.”

Newsroom asks again who these people are. Hutchins: “They could be international, they could be domestic, they’re a range of different ages.” One submitter, she says, talked about not being able to use the DOC huts because he’s got small kids.

Intrinsic worth, public benefit

When it comes to the drier part of this proposal, the  legislation and policies governing what should happen in a national park, Hutchins seems on more solid ground.

Her reading of the National Parks Act is that the parks are not just protected for their “intrinsic worth”, but also for the benefit of the public. That ethic flows through the regulatory framework. “It is looking to encourage people to be in the park because of all the benefits that come with that sort of experience.”

Asked why there aren’t more lodges in national parks, Hutchins says: “I don’t know. I don’t know why other people haven’t looked into it.”

She correctly points out that the Fiordland National Park management plan deems that travellers’ accommodation is appropriate in what’s called the front country of the park. The plan, published in 2007, said further commercial development along Milford Rd that enhance visitor appreciation of the park “are likely to be acceptable”.

It went on: “The Department of Conservation considers that the preference would be for proposals to make use of existing modified sites (eg Knobs Flat) and to provide new opportunities that are not offered elsewhere in Fiordland National Park or the surrounding area, but are still in keeping with the national park setting.”

New accommodation proposals should be considered, the plan said. “However, in general, it is considered that there is adequate travellers’ accommodation provided within Fiordland National Park or at nearby locations.”

The planned lodge is about 3.5km north of Knobs Flat – the last settlement in the Eglinton Valley before reaching Milford Sound.

“Grant this one and the department must grant the others.” – Jan Finlayson

Environmental lobby group Forest & Bird says the lodge is contrary to the ethos of the country’s national parks, which would be degraded by the proposal. It also criticised Path’s application for a lack of detail.

(Hutchins: “DOC considered there was enough detail for people to make submissions.” She also points out if DOC approves Path’s concession it still needs a resource consent from Environment Southland.)

Federated Mountain Clubs says in its submission that private accommodation should generally be kept outside of national parks. The planned lodge doesn’t enhance what’s already there, it says.

“Instead, it caters for a niche market and goes against the ethos of public conservation lands being open for the benefit of enjoyment of all, regardless of socioeconomic status.”

There’s also concern it’ll open the door for similar facilities in national parks across the country.

(Hutchins says approval for Path’s plan doesn’t necessarily signal the approval of more accommodation for national parks. She says for the Milford Road in particular, there would be few suitable places for accommodation because of problems like steep terrain and natural hazards.)

FMC vice president Jan Finlayson, of Geraldine, says if this lodge gets approval, then it’s likely developers with deeper pockets, with more sophisticated plans, would pile in. “Grant this one and the department must grant the others,” she warns.

She was surprised the proposal went to a hearing.

“They [DOC] should have screened this one out far earlier than this. Individuals and NGOs and other groups should not have had to turn up to protest something that was DOC’s job to turn down.”

Committed opponent

Former NZ First press secretary and journalist Judith Hughey, of Wellington, drove from Canterbury club skifield Mt Cheeseman to Te Anau to attend the hearing. Her contention is that humans tend to destroy places and national parks don’t need more buildings. “We just don’t need sewerage and waste and greywater and trees being bowled for carparks in a national park.”

Hughey has written previously about the crossover between tourism and conservation. She advocated for Helen Clark’s government to buy St James Station, and said tourism should be used to keep public conservation land going. But she’s opposed to private enterprise taking advantage of a national park to claim a “remote experience”. “It’s really just an easy way to make a lot of money over summer.”

Hutchins is impressed Hughey drove all the way to Te Anau for last Tuesday’s hearing. She says it has been useful to hear submitters’ concerns about the Path proposal, so the company can try and mitigate the lodge’s impacts.

One issue identified, she says, is how much land the company wants to lease exclusively.

“We made that quite clear at the hearing on Tuesday, that provided various issues can be managed we’re quite happy to have a smaller footprint.”

However, for many opponents, who have asked DOC to reject the plan outright, any footprint would appear to be too much.

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