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DOC timid, weak on ‘illegal’ heli-hiking: FMC

The Department of Conservation is again being accused of being soft on helicopter firms in Fiordland. David Williams reports.

Mt Titiroa stands like a sentinel over Lake Manapouri, a moonscape of granite above native forest with views, on a good day, to Stewart Island.

But the Government sentinel that’s meant to protect this remote part of Fiordland from inappropriate heli-hiking is being accused of not doing its job.

It’s a continuing theme for the Department of Conservation (DOC), which, earlier this year, was excoriated by the Ombudsman for unreasonably, and possibly illegally, permitting helicopter companies to increase glacier landings in another corner of Fiordland. The implication is that the protector of public conservation land is too permissive, even in Te Wāhipounamu, a UNESCO World Heritage Area.

The situation – and DOC’s seeming unwillingness to enforce its own management plans, especially when regulating tourism – has led to a call for the establishment of an independent oversight and audit agency to monitor the department.

The plan forbids it

Outdoor recreation body Federated Mountain Clubs was tipped off in August that a commercial guiding company, Trips & Tramps, was advertising heli-hikes on Mt Titiroa. Upon further investigation, it found three other companies – Southern Lakes Helicopters, Adventure Walks and Bush Bash – were doing the same, or offering something similar. (Bush Bash has subsequently removed Titiroa heli-hiking from its website.)

Heli-hiking to Mt Titiroa is expressly forbidden in the Fiordland National Park management plan, a document published in 2007 after extensive public consultation. It’s part of the so-called Eastern Remote Setting which is meant to be managed to preserve its remote values. The plan says: “Concession heli-hiking opportunities should not be granted on Mt Titiroa.”

Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) complained to DOC in September and waited two months for a reply.

In a letter sent last Friday, DOC’s southern South Island operations director Aaron Fleming said none of the companies “appears to be engaging in heli-hiking as that term is understood” and there appears to be a loophole. He promised to investigate further.

(Yesterday, Trips & Tramps' website touted its trip as “Mt Titiroa guided heli hike”, while Southern Lakes Helicopters offered a “Mt Titiroa heli-hike”. Adventure Walks, meanwhile, offered a multi-day “remote bush hike” starting with a “stunning flight to Mount Titiroa across Lake Manapouri”.)

Fleming tells Newsroom there is an issue, but none of the companies are breaching their individual concessions. It’s complex, he explains. Helicopter companies have permits to land at Mt Titiroa and guiding companies have permits to guide. The grey area appears to be in the interpretation of heli-hiking. “And that is where the department is focusing its continued investigations.”

DOC will decide on what action to take, if any, when the investigation concludes, Fleming says.

“The only conflict is because they have a culture of conflict-aversion and timidity.” – Peter Wilson

DOC’s response has frustrated and disappointed FMC president Peter Wilson, who calls it “weak”. He says the situation is clear: the activity is blatantly illegal and it should stop immediately.

“That’s our bottom line. FMC needs to find a way that that happens. It’s DOC’s job but I wouldn’t rule out us doing something.”

Tourism, conservation and recreation can exist side-by-side, Wilson says. “That’s why we have management plans – I used to write them for DOC; I know them quite well.”

He adds: “The only conflict is because they have a culture of conflict-aversion and timidity.”

All DOC needs to do, Wilson says, is enforce its management plans. “There is no rule of law if the public writes a management plan, and the Minister signs it off, and DOC don’t enforce it. That’s the law of the jungle not the rule of law.”

Wilson says the heli-hiking issue in Fiordland is the tip of the iceberg. “I don’t have confidence right now in DOC’s system for managing concessions and given that tourism numbers are booming in this country, I think the New Zealand public should be worried.”

Fleming, however, rejects the claim that DOC’s timid with tourism operators. “DOC takes the issue of compliance and law enforcement seriously and have made this one of our key priorities.” As per the department’s latest national compliance strategy, he says DOC will be more proactive with compliance investigations and step up its monitoring of concessionaires.

Wilson’s unmoved. He’s calling for an independent conservation review office that can audit DOC’s decisions and take complaints from the public. “I don’t have confidence that DOC can do this internally; I’ve lost confidence in their ability to regulate tourism.”

Mt Titiroa’s distinctive granite gravel field. Photo: Danilo Hegg/Southern Alps Photography

Trips & Tramps, Southern Lakes Helicopters and Adventure Walks seem to be singing from the same song sheet – that the heli-hiking hullabaloo is essentially a misunderstanding and no one was trying to do anything wrong.

Southern Lakes operations manager Lloyd Matheson says the company has an approved concession and respects the weekend and public holiday restrictions on aircraft activity.

Adventure Walks director Lee Saunders is adamant it’s not operating illegally and “ours is not a heli-hike”. The company’s multi-day hike incorrectly suggests it involves a helicopter landing, he says. “This tour involves a scenic flyover of the area so I apologise for any confusion and we’re working on updating the website as a priority.”

Trips & Tramps owner Steve Norris – an FMC member through his local tramping club – rang Wilson yesterday after he received Newsroom’s request for comment. It was the first time they’d talked.

“If they’d rung me three months ago I’d have said, shit, I never realised that, we’ll get it fixed right now,” Norris says. “It could have been sorted out in a five-minute phone call.”

He paints a picture of a small, family-run business – it takes about 3000 people a year on guided walks, mostly on the Milford Track – caught up in the bureaucracy of national park management plans. The decision to advertise a heli-hike, after consultation with helicopter companies, was based on Trips & Tramps’ existing concession.

Norris: “We’re allowed to guide on Mt Titiroa, the helicopter companies are allowed to land on Mt Titiroa – but never should the two meet and advertise a joint product.” Separately the activities are legal, he says, but together, he’s been told, they’re “illegal”. Norris admits he hadn’t read the Fiordland plan “from page one to page 5062”. (For the record, it has 366 pages, including the index.)

Trips & Tramps will be removing the reference to heli-hiking from its website. But will it continue to offer its clients helicopter trips to Mt Titiroa? Norris doesn’t rule it out. “We’d probably just have to look at that. What I’ve said to DOC is if we do get any enquiries I’ll be contacting them and letting them know what the people would like to do and it would have to come with their blessing.”

Landings lifted in trial

DOC’s Fiordland office has form when it comes to helicopters.

For years, it had ignored specified landing limits in the park’s management plan for the Ngapunatoru Plateau – part of the Darran Remote Setting. (The Fiordland National Park management plan is due for renewal this year but DOC’s website says “review not yet scheduled”.)

Then, after being pressured by the aviation tourism industry in 2015, the department concocted a two-year trial to increase the limits – by huge amounts.

Under the plan, up to five concessions could be issued for up to 10 landings a day, in total, at Ngapunatoru, with an annual maximum of 500 a year. (The whole park has an annual landings limit of 5493.) Under DOC’s trial, however, seven concessionaires were granted 10 landings a day, for a total of 70. One concessionaire, Milford Helicopters, was allowed 2000 landings a year – four times the mandated maximum for all operators.

DOC tried to pass off the changes as minor or technical. But FMC complained and took it further. In April, Ombudsman Leo Donnelly said in an official report that the trial was “unreasonable” and the department’s decision not to enforce the landing limits “appears to have been contrary to law”. His series of recommendations included cancelling the trial, ensuring concessions were consistent with the park plan and creating a better way of allocating landings.

Fleming, DOC’s southern South Island operations director, says the department is in the process of implementing the Ombudsman’s recommendations. The Ombudsman’s office didn’t respond to Newsroom’s question about whether it was satisfied with DOC’s progress.

Change in attitude, revolving door

Under the previous National Government, DOC staff endured several restructurings, involving huge layoffs, and was told to take the begging bowl to big business. Some say that has led to a more corporate-friendly attitude.

This year, DOC has defended itself from accusations of a culture war, caused by friction over decisions by some managers not to fight for special, rare and threatened places in case it upsets “relationships”. Insiders and ex-staffers said the department’s embrace of corporate management tools was another sign it had lost its way.

In a series of articles by Newsroom, DOC has had to explain such things as its support for the extension of a Queenstown skifield that destroyed a regionally significant wetland and its role as a “key enabler” for a plan to redevelop the area around a 35 million-year-old cave complex in the Kahurangi National Park.

Several applications that worry conservationists are yet to be decided, including plans for an upmarket lodge in the Fiordland National Park and a cattle grazing licence renewal in the Mt Aspiring National Park.

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