Wild rivers park proposed for West Coast

A large park proposed on the South Island’s West Coast could protect pristine rivers on public conservation land from hydro schemes

A Wild Rivers park encompassing 5000 square kilometres of the West Coast has been proposed by the Federated Mountain Clubs.

Hokitika would be the gateway to the park, including 16 river systems - some which are white water, kayaking and canyoning hotspots.

Creating the park would give the rivers on stewardship land greater legal protection against commercial interests such as hydro schemes. 

Stewardship land is land in limbo. Allocated to the Department of Conservation (DoC) to administer in 1987 when the agency was formed, stewardship land was supposed to be reclassified based on its conservation values. Until it is reclassified, it doesn’t have the same protection as other conservation land.

The reclassification progress has been glacial to the point where it’s been called a debacle. Thirty-three years on and only 100,000 hectares have been reclassified. Currently over 2.5 million hectares - a third of all land managed by DoC - hovers in a stewardship holding pen. 

The stewardship status has been described as akin to an “open for business” sign on some of the country's most pristine landscapes. 

There are political calls to free up this land for extractive industries. New Zealand First’s Shane Jones is reported by RNZ as telling West Coast mayors in May that stewardship land would be open for business if New Zealand First had a position of power after September’s election.

“Vast tracts of it are overrun by vermin and rodents and weeds ... it was never meant to be treated as part of the core DoC estate."

Some stewardship land has low conservation value, but other parts are high value. Part of the Te Wahipounamu South West New Zealand UNESCO World Heritage area is stewardship land.

The reduced legal protection of stewardship land allows DoC to sell it or trade it for other land or services that have a conservation benefit.

Former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright wrote reports in 2012 and 2013 looking at hydroelectricity and wild rivers and the related issue of the slow pace of stewardship land reclassification. She had urged land with wild rivers be identified. 

Since then, the Mokihinui River catchment has been added to Kahurangi National Park but little else has been done. 

Speaking to Newsroom last week she said she thinks the reclassification is “still stuck in the too hard basket”.

Costs have been suggested as one reason for the slow process. Reclassification involves surveying land and a scientific analysis of the species and ecosystems present. Treaty partners and the public are also consulted. 

Water Conservation Orders are another way to protect a river's natural qualities. Fifteen New Zealand rivers are protected this way, but no applications for new orders have been approved in over a decade. An attempt by the Waitaha Executive Grandmothers’ Council to protect 38 West Coast rivers with one order in 2017 went nowhere. 

Proposed Wild Rivers park highlighted in yellow. Image: Wild Rivers park webpage

Stewardship land swaps

A commercial venture on conservation land must get a concession. This involves the Minister of Conservation. For hydro electric schemes the minister must consider whether a scheme would compromise of the purpose of the land’s status, or if it could be done elsewhere with less impact.

If the scheme is proposed on stewardship land there’s another option - a land exchange. The only consideration the minister makes is whether the swap represents an overall conservation benefit.

There’s another wrinkle in this which Wright highlighted in her 2012 ‘Hydroelectricity or wild rivers?’ report.

River beds on conservation land aren’t administered by DoC, they’re administered by Land Information New Zealand (LINZ). When DoC gets a land swap proposal it can’t include the value of the riverbed itself as conservation value - even if the river is the most important feature of the land requested for exchange.

Sorting this out was one of Wright’s 2012 recommendations. It hasn’t happened. She still finds the anomaly of not being able to include riverbeds when assessing an area’s conservation value befuddling.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) president Jan Finlayson said much of the proposed wild rivers park is on stewardship land.

The organisation has been active submitting its views on a number of small hydro schemes proposed in the area.

“The ongoing dithering about reclassification just allows threats to amass, to gather force.”

Hydro schemes have been granted at McCullough’s creek, Griffin creek, Whataroa and Inchbonnie. 

An application for a Waitaha hydro scheme was declined. The gorge the Waitaha river runs through has legendary status among kayakers, who refer to it as the Mt Everest of white water runs. The scheme proposed a maximum of 26 cubic metres of water per second (cumecs) would be diverted, leaving a minimum of 3.5 cumecs flowing through the gorge. Kayakers estimated the 17-22 cumecs for it to be viable. In November, former National Party leader Simon Bridges promised the project would get the green light should National be in a position of power after the election.

As well as reducing water flow, hydro schemes can involve the clearing of forest to make way for buildings, pipes and vehicle access. 

A change in land status could effectively turn off the tap for future hydro schemes.

"This issue has been bubbling along for a long time. DoC need to know what the land values are before it can manage them properly." 

Until it's assessed, she says the land is open to "repeated targeting by dinosaur commercial interests".

"This remarkable place with its wild rivers needs focused management and protection. That comes down to having the right classification."

The FMC has purposefully left the ‘p’ in Wild Rivers park lowercase, saying the exact legal classification would be defined through DoC’s scientific assessment of conservation values.

"Free-flowing rivers that aren't deemed for extraction are very rare, in Aotearoa and internationally. Unusually in the Wild Rivers park they're the majority."

Environment versus environment

With hydro schemes, it’s often a case of balancing out two environmental goods, explained Wright, where you need to weigh up the good of clean electricity against local ecosystems.  

She thinks New Zealand should be doing more with renewable energy such as wind and with hydro, however, her preference isn’t for several small hydro schemes. 

“I suspect building a lot of dams on little rivers, you don’t get economies of scale with it.”

She suggests these would be “more environmentally destructive and not as useful as the odd big one”.

“The West Coasters are very keen to have some more dams and the reasons they’ll give you is security of supply and price.”

She worries the way the system is currently set up, where projects are assessed individually, isn’t the best way to go about it.

“There is no process whereby you look at the Coast and you go, ‘Right, they want a bit more local electricity, where would be the best place to put it that would be both economically sensible, but also environmentally least damaging?’

“There's no room for that to happen. That’s just not the way it works. It strikes me as quite a big problem.”

She said she’s not advocating numerous large dams but one project she would like taken seriously is a pumped hydro scheme at Lake Onslow. 

When electricity prices were low, water would be pumped from low-lying Lake Roxburgh up to Lake Onslow.

When needed, the water would travel down the hill through turbines and generate electricity. During the weekend, it was announced $30 million would be put toward investigating various renewable energy options for dry years. Much of this will go toward investigating Lake Onslow.

A Wild Rivers park

Wright thinks the proposal for a Wild Rivers park draws public attention to beautiful rivers that don’t have adequate legal protection because of the sluggish "debacle" of a reclassification process, but she thinks forming a park could be an uphill battle. 

If the hope is for a final classification as a National Park, she thinks the hurdles to get it approved could be high.

“Politically it would be extremely difficult.”

The proposed Wild Rivers park would include 16 significant river systems, 3330 kilometres of waterways, 75 named glaciers, 122 named mountain peaks, 112 kilometres of forested coast, significant wetlands, a portion of Te Wahipounamu – South West New Zealand UNESCO World Heritage area, 517 kilometres of formed tramping tracks and 84 DoC huts, 18 iconic whitewater rafting runs, three canyons considered nationally significant by canyoners.

The FMC thinks if managed sustainably, the park could contribute to the West Coast's Covid-19 recovery.

Finlayson said the response to date for the Wild Rivers park proposal has been "enormously supportive".

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