Blasting nature is a failure of duty

Tree-felling and rock-blasting in national parks seem to suggest the conservation department has lost its way, writes David Williams

OPINION: The Department of Conservation is flush with hard-working people who do a great job. They’re passionate about what they do, and probably work more hours than they should. After all, they’re responsible for looking after the country’s crown jewels, the awe-inspiring natural and historical places we enjoy and adore.

DoC staffers keep our tracks open, tell us when to avoid swollen rivers because of rain, protect our native flora and fauna, take our hut bookings. We’re lucky to have them.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the public should be shy about scrutinising DoC’s important work. As one set of eyes and ears for the public, that’s part of Newsroom’s job – to see if DoC, and other public agencies, are following the mandates enshrined in the acts of Parliament that created them.

The conservation department’s function is, primarily, to manage land and resources for conservation purposes. To preserve, protect, and advocate for conservation, and to foster recreation or tourism, where appropriate. This is paid for by the public and done on its behalf, over huge swathes of the country.

As American conservation biologist Edward O Wilson wrote: “Animals and plants are part of a country’s heritage; they are the result of millions of years of evolution in a particular place; they are at least as valuable as language or culture.”

Brutal, knee-jerk responses

There’s a huge amount riding on DoC getting it right. But it doesn’t always. Even in national parks.

In October, Newsroom reported of an ecologist’s concerns at finding dozens of trees felled beside walking tracks in the South Island’s Arthur’s Pass National Park.

A week later, we wrote of explosives being used to bring down a 70-tonne rock overhang, millions of years old, in the West Coast’s Paparoa National Park.

(The department also drew up plans to expand its campsite at Lake Ianthe, in Westland, by clearing native bush in a scenic reserve. The proposal was shelved after staunch opposition.)

The actions were described as a “huge over-reaction” and a “blast now and think later approach”. Brutal, knee-jerk responses done in the name of protecting people, but in somewhat of a thoughtless, illogical way.

The Arthur’s Pass trees were felled after a memo was sent out by operations group deputy director general Mike Slater. He told DoC’s operations directors that recent tree fall incidents had exposed a gap in the identification of hazardous trees, and asked for their immediate identification and management in high-risk areas.

The tree risk assessors would be “senior chainsaw operators” – not arborists in most cases – trained in “the basics of identifying and assessing hazardous trees”.

The request seems prudent considering that, in January this year, a tree fell on a holidaying family, seriously injuring two of them, on a public reserve near Queenstown at the operations site of Ngāi Tahu-owned Shotover Jet tourist ride.

DoC’s reputation for public safety was shredded by the 1995 Cave Creek disaster, in which a viewing platform in the Paparoa National Park collapsed, killing 14 people. Since then, it has worked hard to reverse a “do more with less” culture, and assess all its built structures. It has also, over the years, rebuilt public confidence.

A felled tree along the Bridal Veil Track. Photo: Mike Harding

There’s a difference, however, between protecting the public and overstepping your mandate. Some might say flouting.

Slater’s memo said the places at greatest risk of tree falls were those where people spent extended periods of time, such as campsites, viewing areas, car parks, and huts. It explicitly said that trees along tracks were not a priority because they were low-risk.

Yet that’s what happened in Arthur’s Pass. Over a distance of almost three kilometres, on four different tracks, ecologist Mike Harding counted 185 felled trees, big and small, many with no signs of decay. “The damage is horrific,” Harding says. Three trees were felled simply for blocking the view of a valley.

What is the risk from falling trees? A DoC register of “known windfall incidents” shows that, since 2002, 16 people injured, and none killed, by falling trees along public conservation walking tracks. Back in 1992, a tourist was killed by a falling tree while camping near the Routeburn Track.

This year, at the Truman Track, in the Paparoa National Park, an overhang was blasted after a four tonne block dropped near a set of timber steps descending from a viewing area.

DoC admitted in emails there was a planning fault with its initial design of the steps. Ironically, the Truman Track ends at a rock-strewn beach surrounded by sandstone overhangs that, presumably, are even more at risk of collapse because of wave action from rough seas.

Steve Taylor, DoC’s director of heritage and visitors, says the department is expected to assess and manage risks under its general policy for national parks. Yes, this should be done with “minimal interference”, but that doesn’t mean “take no action”, Taylor says.

DoC’s visitor risk management policy from 2017 notes visitors to conservation areas will be responsible for their own decisions, and on the risks they’re prepared to take. This country has a duty of care to its visitors and residents, but where does the department stop? Is it really its job to protect tourists from themselves?

“Nature needs time for growing and sleeping, free from automobile fumes and massive tractors, away from the cacophony of snowmobiles and trail bikes.” – Sir Edmund Hillary

DoC is needed now more than ever. As Conservation Minister Eugene Sage is fond of reminding us, the country is beset with a biodiversity crisis, with more than 4000 native plants and animals threatened or at risk of extinction. Introduced pests are the biggest threat, especially to birds. Sage also mentions our unique fungi, snails, insects, lizards, and fish.

Not to forget the landscapes, the flowing landforms, the habitat. In his seminal book, Ngā Uruora, the late Geoff Park wrote that New Zealand’s ecosystems are going the way of the huia and kākāpō, “vanished or down to a few survivors in need of intensive care, their wildness something to wonder at”.

DoC would do well to remember how we arrived at this peril. By draining swamps, felling forests, planting exotic plants, and introducing exotic pests. By thinking we knew best. Nature needs to be treated with respect, not as an enemy.

The department should re-explore its roots, remembering its own sense of place on this island that has enjoyed isolation from other landmasses for 70 million years, creating the very things it is responsible for protecting.

New Zealand’s first national park – and the world’s fourth – was precipitated by the gifting of Tongariro’s volcanic peaks in 1887 by Horonuku Te Heu Heu Tukino, of Ngāti Tūwharetoa.

Alarmed at the disappearance of many native birds, Cambridge professor Alfred Newton wrote in the late 19th century: “I would ask you to bear in mind that these indigenous species of New Zealand are, with scarcely an exception, peculiar to your country, and form every scientific point of view of the most instructive character. They supply a link with the past that once lost can never be recovered.”

Leonard Cockayne, held up as the country’s greatest botanist, wrote in 1923: “Our flora is famous the world over. Nor is this to be wondered at when it is remembered that more than four-fifths of the flowering plants are to be found growing wild in no other land; they are, indeed, true New Zealanders.”

If a more well-known and recent figure of history is preferred, hear the words of Sir Edmund Hillary: “Nature needs time for growing and sleeping, free from automobile fumes and massive tractors, away from the cacophony of snowmobiles and trail bikes. There are plenty of tamed wonders for all to goggle at through vehicle windows – we must also retain our wilderness areas where nature can develop in its own calm way and where only those humans who are prepared to walk and sweat a little qualify to go.”

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