Illegal heli landings continue

The Department of Conservation isn’t enforcing helicopter limits on a remote Fiordland glacier, nine months after a scathing Ombudsman report. David Williams reports.

Aircraft landings in the Fiordland National Park continue to create headaches for the Department of Conservation.

In April last year, the department (DOC) was told by Ombudsman Leo Donnelly it had acted unreasonably by concocting a way for helicopter operators to bypass landing limits – by thousands of landings a year – on the park’s Ngapunatoru Plateau. Donnelly suggested a DOC trial, through which extra landings were granted, was illegal.

DOC was ordered to cancel the “trial” and to create a new way to fairly allocate landings that complied with the park’s management plan. It was meant to do so within 60 working days. But as the country sits in peak tourist season, the department confirms to Newsroom it is yet to design a new system and the landings still don’t comply with the plan.

This news comes to light after a departmental U-turn over heli-hikes to picturesque Mt Titiroa in Fiordland. Also, DOC has raised the ire of aircraft operators by scrapping a supplementary pool of about 2500 extra landings at Milford’s airport.

Trial canned, Treaty issues arise

The Fiordland National Park management plan limits landings at Ngapunatoru to 500 a year, by up to five operators. Between them, those operators can land on the glacier up to 10 times a day. But under the DOC “trial”, seven operators were each allowed to land up to 10 times daily. Milford Helicopters was given 2000 landings a year – four times what the park plan allows for all operators.

Correspondence between DOC and the Ombudsman, released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act, shows the Ngapunatoru “trial” was officially cancelled in June last year.

On June 5, DOC’s director of planning, permissions and land, Marie Long, tasked one of her managers to design a new allocation process. A report was expected to be produced by July 4. But a week before that deadline, DOC’s Andrew Baucke, standing in for Long while she was on study leave, advised the Ombudsman it had hit a snag.

Section 4 of the Conservation Act says it must give effect to the Treaty of Waitangi. Baucke: “Ngāi Tahu Tourism is one of the [Ngapunatoru] operators and Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu is DOC’s Treaty partner.”

DOC needed to consult with Ngāi Tahu and better understand its section 4 obligations, regarding the new allocation process.

Baucke was also keeping a close eye on a Supreme Court case, centred on section 4, taken by the Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki Tribal Trust. Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu was given leave to intervene in the case, after claiming its mana whenua, and role as kaitiaki in its rohe, as well as its wider commercial, financial and reputational interests, would be directly affected by the judgment.

The decision, released last month, found the department erred by granting concessions to Fullers Group and Motutapu Island Restoration Trust for commercial tours of Rangitoto and Motutapu islands. The leading authority regarding section 4 is a Court of Appeal decision, known as the Whales case, about a potential competitor for Ngāi Tahu’s commercial whale watching business off the Kaikōura coast.

Baucke told the Ombudsman’s office in June: “DOC needs to tread cautiously. Unsurprisingly, DOC is liaising closely with the Crown Law Office.” (Unsurprisingly, DOC hasn’t released to Newsroom its legal team’s advice sent to the Ombudsman’s office.)

DOC initially requested an extension, to July 20, to the Ombudsman’s deadlines. But it was only in October that a meeting with Ngāi Tahu was scheduled. But that meeting was cancelled after two DOC workers died in a Wanaka helicopter crash in October.

“They have to get a wriggle-on.” – Peter Wilson

The Ombudsman’s report was prompted by a complaint by Federated Mountain Clubs. Its president, Peter Wilson, tells Newsroom that DOC has to implement the Ombudsman’s rulings, because that’s what it has been ordered to do.

“They have to get a wriggle-on,” he says. “We understand that it’s hard, but they have to do it.”

Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu chief executive Arihia Bennett says in a statement it wants to resolve the landing issues “as soon as possible”.

“However, considering the landmark Ngāi Tai appeal decision from the Supreme Court in December 2018, there are broader issues for us to consider as an iwi first.”

DOC’s director of the southern South Island, Aaron Fleming, confirms DOC has now met Ngāi Tahu “and all affected parties” and it wants to implement the Ombudsman’s recommendations as soon as possible.

“To make the number of landings consistent with the plan requires running an allocation process that is still being designed,” he says. “It’s a complex matter that needs some deep thinking and involves consultation with all parties.”

DOC says landings at Ngapunatoru have reverted to pre-trial levels.

Lloyd Matheson, operations manager of Southern Lakes Helicopters, is president of Aviation New Zealand and a member of the Queenstown-Milford User Group. He says: “It is a frustrating period whilst operators wait for an outcome particularly at this busy time at the height of the summer season with each operator faced with a limited number of landings.

“However, if DOC’s process is robust with negotiations they are undertaking with Ngai Tahu, and there can be some form of compromise that will help provide some relief, then the wait will certainly have been worthwhile.”

Credit where it’s due

FMC’s Wilson gives DOC and aircraft operators credit for dealing with another issue – heli-hikes to remote Mt Titiroa advertised in direct conflict with the Fiordland National Park’s management plan. After a complaint by FMC, the subject of a Newsroom story, concessions held by three walking companies were changed, with their consent, to change their practices related to Mt Titiroa.

“It’s a really good resolution,” Wilson says. “Something was identified, and while DOC were probably a little bit slow in getting onto it, and needed a bit of nagging, they have done the right thing and the operators have done the right thing, too.”

In September – the month FMC complained about the Mt Titiroa heli-hikes – DOC told Milford airport users that it was cancelling its supplementary landing pool, which operators could apply for once they’d used 80 percent of their allocation.

Matheson tells Newsroom that in the wake of the Ombudsman’s ruling it appears DOC is running scared.

Fleming, the DOC director, says the supplementary pool was exhausted for the first time last year. It had become more difficult to manage and was disadvantaging some operators, he says.

Concessionaires can re-assign unused landings to other operators, with DOC’s approval. “These measures give operators the opportunity to manage their own activities within the landing limits,” Fleming says.

Operators have raised concerns. Despite the pool being scrapped from January 1, DOC’s now undertaking an “engagement period” which finishes on March 29. After this date, DOC will “reconsider its decision”, Fleming says.

“Any solution needs to be within the rules of the Fiordland National Park Management Plan.”

DOC has started internal planning for a review of the management plan which is expected to take three-to-four years.

* This story has been updated with additional comments from Lloyd Matheson.

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