environment

Warning over tourism torrent for fragile caves

A multi-million-dollar plan to develop a sensitive part of a West Coast national park, attracting tens of thousands more tourists, might just ruin it, critics warn. David Williams reports.

As low coal and dairy prices buffeted the South Island’s West Coast, the Government tasked officials and consultants with creating a plan to turn its economic fortunes around.

The Coast’s economy had shrunk by about $200 million, at a loss of 900 jobs, over three years. It needed a plan to diversify, build on existing industries, and attract and retain talent, lest it continue to be at the mercy of international commodity prices. In September 2016, when Sir John Key was still prime minister, a Government report fingered tourism as the “major immediate opportunity to grow jobs” on the West Coast.

“The region can generate significantly more jobs and higher incomes from tourism by attracting more domestic visitors, developing a stronger set of iconic attractions and products that encourage visitors to travel across the region and stay longer, and by commercialising more experiences,” the report said.

A governance group explored opportunities, considered investments and identified growth areas. It was noted only 15 percent of the 1.2 million visitor “guest nights” arriving from the south ventured north into the Buller district. Few people went beyond Punakaiki’s famous Pancake Rocks. Only part of the 620-kilometre wind-swept coastline was firmly on the tourist trail.

It needed a world-class tourist attraction to get more people going north – to draw more people, keep them for longer, and get them spending more. Whatever it was had to feed into Tourism West Coast’s new brand: West Coast, Untamed Natural Wilderness.

The tourism body picked the 35 million-year-old Oparara Basin.

A natural wonder

As Tourism West Coast tells it, the complex of caves, three arches and channels – more than two hours’ drive north of Westport – are the largest limestone formations in the southern hemisphere. They boast “whiskey-coloured river, rainforest and moa bones, all within the Kahurangi National Park”.

The tourism body’s aim is to increase visitor arrivals to the West Coast by 25 percent, raking in an extra $340 million, and creating an extra 514 jobs. Oparara is part of Tourism West Coast’s “icon development programme”, of which the Department of Conservation (DOC) is noted as a “key enabler”.

The initial Oparara development plans, announced last year, were for walkways and an interactive visitor experience, including lighting of two arches. Visitor numbers were projected to increase rapidly from about 20,000 a year now to more than 60,000 in 2021. But conservationists opposed the plan, saying it would turn the historic caves into a “theme park”. Community leaders stepped back, describing the plans as “ideas only”.

In the face of massive derision, the “theme park” idea faded away. But the pot of money earmarked for the West Coast’s economic growth hadn’t.

In March of this year, the next step was announced. Consultants Tourism Resource Consultants and WSP-Opus were awarded contracts – paid for by the Business Ministry (MBIE) and Development West Coast – for a feasibility study and business case for the Oparara Arches. Tourism West Coast chief executive Jim Little said at the time that the consultants would be working closely with DOC, the Oparara Valley Trust (that runs guided tours in the Basin), iwi and “all other identified stakeholders” to ensure “transparency and local input”.

The public has heard very little since. Until now.

The Oparara Arches are off the beaten tourism track. Conservation groups want it to stay that way. Photo: Neil Silverwood

Tourism West Coast’s Little says recommendations from the feasibility study and business case have been circulated to the “key stakeholders” for their input. “We’re just waiting on the final one of those to come back before we can actually go public.” A proposal will likely be made to the Provincial Growth Fund in the next 10 days.

Will the public get a chance to see the plans before then?

Little: “All the key stakeholders have been consulted.”

Considering it’s a development in a national park, aren’t the New Zealand public a key stakeholder?

“Well, basically, it’s, uh, that’s, you know, where DOC comes in.”

But shouldn’t the public get a chance to have a look at it, before a proposal goes to the Government?

“It just wasn’t part of the process that I was involved in.”

Pressed on when Tourism West Coast will publicly release full details of what’s proposed, Little suggests Newsroom call him on September 17, including to ask how much the studies cost. (On that point, he referred us to Development West Coast, whose chief executive Chris Mackenzie didn’t respond to our email.)

While he doesn’t go into detail about what’s proposed, Little says “everybody is very, very sensitive to the fact that it’s a very, very special area”. “There’s no recommendation whatsoever that there’s going to impact on the fragile nature of the area.”

He confirms DOC didn’t support all of its recommendations, but rejects the idea that’s a sign the proposals aren’t as sensitive as they could be. “No, not all. You’re trying to put words in my mouth, mate.”

Little says the proposed development at Oparara is “mainly around the road; the access road going in and out”. That might be true in dollar terms, perhaps, but it’s not the road upgrade that worries conservationists.

“Surely it’s for other groups to submit and for DOC to judge. The big question is, who’s in charge here?” – Jan Finlayson

What’s proposed, Newsroom has been told, is up to $8.8 million of work in three stages, more than half spent on sealing and improving the access road. More contentious are plans for a suspended walkway through the Oparara Arch, linking up with a new loop track, and a jetty built over Mirror Tarn. A $2 million research and education facility is also in the mix.

DOC’s operations director western South Island, Mark Davies, confirms it has given feedback to Tourism West Coast on the development plans. Any development needs DOC’s permission, Davies says, and it hasn’t received any official proposal yet.

Some might think that DOC being involved at this early stage would soothe the fears of groups like Forest & Bird, Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) and the New Zealand Speleological Society (the national body for recreational cavers). Those groups say it’s inappropriate for a proposed development in a national park to be pushed by a tourism body – that it’s a sign that economic interests are trumping environmental ones. They want to see DOC, with its statutory duties, in control, right now.

FMC vice-president Jan Finlayson, of Geraldine, says it’s also inappropriate that DOC has submitted to Tourism West Coast’s early plans. It has shown support for aspects of the development concept that it’ll have to make a judgement call on later. “Surely it’s for other groups to submit and for DOC to judge,” she says. “The big question is, who’s in charge here?”

But Davies argues “pre-application work” might improve an application, shaping it so natural values are better considered. Any early work doesn’t change the fact that gaining permission to undertake an activity or create facilities in a national park is a rigorous one, he says.

“As well as an assessment of environmental effects which states the activity and how this would impact the environment, and what mitigation measures would be put in place to protect the environment, any proposal would need to comply with relevant DOC standards in relation to tracks and structures plus meet strict engineering design and geotechnical assessments. If appropriate safeguards and measures cannot be put in place, an application would be declined.”

Business before conservation

Blackball’s Neil Silverwood, a cave specialist and outdoor instructor and guide, remains worried, however. He says DOC hasn’t listened to expert advice about the Oparara plans, to date. The department’s managers are putting “business interests before conservation”, he says. He tells Newsroom if officials or politicians want to put tourism developments ahead of conservation there should be a national discussion.

Of Oparara itself, he says it’s a wild, untamed, natural place, which allows people to get off the beaten tourist track. Pristine karst landforms (limestone caves and features carved by rivers) are surrounded by mature podocarp forest. It’s a fragile place. Silverwood says there’s not only little assessment of the environmental effects of Tourism West Coast’s plans, it’s not clear whether this special corner of the Kahurangi is even coping with current demand.

“There’s no room for growth here whatsoever. In fact we’ve gone way too far already.”

(He also worries about the risk to visitors from collapses and rock shedding under the largest arch.)

If DOC is concerned about crashes on the unsealed Oparara road (there were 47 last year), then it should consider a park-and-ride, Silverwood says. It’ll reduce the crash rate, he says, and at $25-a-head, it might raise as much as $750,000 a year.

Time to find a backbone

FMC’s Finlayson says when it comes to tourism plans for the Oparara, DOC appears to have Stockholm Syndrome – when the kidnapped start to feel affection for their captors.

She thinks DOC is afraid to say no to the proposals; that it’s trying to appease all interests. She suggests it’s time the department “find its backbone”.

There are plenty of other options to draw tourists into the Buller, north of Westport. She points to the Old Ghost Road, an old gold miners’ road becoming increasingly used by trampers and mountain bikers, plus the Heaphy-Wangapeka circuit and the wind-swept Scotts Beach walk.

“This is not a choice between doing nothing and doing something inappropriate and harmful,” Finlayson says of the Oparara development plans. “This is the most fragile environment I’ve ever been in. It’s hard to imagine another so delicate.”

Tourism West Coast might want to wait until September 17 to make its plans public. By then, Little says, it’ll have its “ducks in a row”. Whatever the public mood for development, it’s clear Finlayson’s feathers will remain ruffled. She says: “They’re the wrong ducks and the wrong row.”

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