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Should people be allowed to drive vehicles on beaches? It's a divisive question in Clutha District. As well as hearing from ecology experts, Bruce Munro talks to those up-in-arms on both sides of the argument and discovers a surprising, potentially flammable, point of agreement.
It is a quintessential Kiwi Christmas Day in one of New Zealand’s premier natural beauty areas - picnic lunch at Owaka Heads, in the Catlins.
A couple are sitting, enjoying their food and the view, when two people drive up in a large SUV and, instead of stopping in the car park, park on the rocks directly in front, blocking their view of the sea.
"They didn’t even get out of their vehicle," the woman recounting the incident says with feeling.
But as annoying as it is for the couple, it is worse for another beach user.
"We could choose to move somewhere else. Not so, the oystercatcher that had attempted to nest at almost the same spot."
Later, when the couple check on the oystercatcher nest, they spot one egg but no chicks or parents. And right next to the remaining egg - large tyre marks.
This week, Clutha District Council has started listening to oral submissions on what is proving to be a highly controversial and divisive issue - a proposed bylaw banning most vehicles from eight of the district’s main beaches.
Feelings are running deep and patience short. Tit-for-tat petitions, vocal outbursts and hundreds of public submissions have fuelled the fire. One side argues vehicles on beaches are endangering people, wildlife and ecosystems. The other contends the bylaw is a largely unneeded intrusion on a time-honoured tradition. Both cannot be correct. But despite being in opposing corners, the two sides do agree on one point - for opposite reasons.
The beaches are Taieri Mouth, Kaka Point, Cannibal Bay, Surat Bay, Jacks Bay, Purakaunui Bay, Tahakopa and Tautuku.
The only exemptions would be for emergency services, boat access, and access to property, such as cribs, otherwise inaccessible by road.
All beaches in the district would become subject to other provisions under the proposed bylaw. These include a 30kmh speed limit; avoiding dunes except for beach access; driving in a "courteous, appropriate, safe, and responsible manner"; and, respecting other beach users and wildlife.
The council has held six, sometimes heated, community consultation meetings. Its postal and email inboxes filled with more than 1000 submissions, dozens of them wanting to speak during hearings that began on Thursday.
How many submissions were for, and how many against, was unclear at the time of writing because they were still being processed by council staff.
Noticeable momentum for a vehicle ban began with a petition launched by Invercargill conservationist Sian Mair, 18 months ago.
Mair, founder of environmental group Sea Society, urged people to sign her online petition calling on the CDC to ban vehicles from Surat and Cannibal Bays in order to protect the beaches’ New Zealand sea lions. More than 5200 people have signed Mair’s petition.
Also strongly in support of the proposed bylaw is the South Otago branch of Forest & Bird.
Jane Young is chair of the independent conservation organisation. She is at pains to point out she is not speaking on her own but on behalf of all members of the South Otago branch.
"We welcome the opportunity to explain why we feel so strongly about this issue," Young says.
"In the Clutha District, sea lions are making a slow comeback, yellow-eyed penguins are on a precipitous downhill slide ... the shore birds of the Catlins are all at risk or declining ... plus the less-obvious invertebrates can be harmed or killed when vehicles are driven on beaches."
Yellow-eyed penguins, if disturbed when trying to come ashore, will stay in the water and digest food that was supposed to be for their chicks. Shoreline nests, such as those of oystercatchers, can be hard to see even if someone is trying to drive carefully, she says.
"It makes us sad and angry that a minority of people - and we believe they are in a minority - believe that they should be able to have unrestricted vehicle access to beaches regardless of how much it interferes with the enjoyment and safety of others or how much environmental damage it causes.
"People are saying ‘We have a right to recreational activities, because we’ve always done it’ ... We think the rights of wildlife are much more important.
"As sea level rise continues to shrink their habitat, it's vital that we do everything we can to protect our amazing wild animals."
Ellis objected to Mair, "from Invercargill", launching an "international petition".
"This is the start of the downfall of Kiwis’ rights to access the beaches," Ellis wrote.
"Don’t let non-local people decide on your local rights ...
"Please help us here in the Catlins to maintain control over our own decisions."
Almost 600 people have signed the petition.
Emotions were also running high at last month’s bylaw community consultation at the Owaka Community Centre.
Raymond Burleigh, who has a beach access-only crib at Tautuku, was reported saying the bylaw would only inconvenience the law-abiding.
"Families have used vehicles on the beaches for generations with no ill effect on wildlife," Burleigh said.
"There’s no need for more bylaws to solve a problem that doesn’t exist."
Like Forest & Bird’s chair, Marion Leslie also emphasises she is speaking on behalf of a wider group.
Owaka Going Forward (OGF) is an umbrella organisation for a range of groups including Owaka Lions Club, Owaka Plunket, Owaka Garden Club, Owaka Senior Citizens, Catlins Promotions, Catlins Community Company, Catlins Historical Society and Catlins Area School.
Instead of a bylaw banning access there should be more public education and more signage.
"We think most people probably don’t know that road rules apply on beaches," Leslie says.
Asked whether the ban is needed to keep people and animals safe and protect shoreline ecosystems, she replies, "Generally, there is a sensible, considerate majority that are being overpowered by the bad behaviour of a few idiots".
The only bit of the proposal OGF supports is the plan to introduce a 30kmh speed limit on Clutha beaches.
Then comes the surprising meeting of the minds.
It is strangely similar to the caveat those in favour of the bylaw are adding to their support.
Richard Schofield says the beaches that are part of the council’s proposed vehicle ban are not the most important bird areas in the district.
The Balclutha-based regional recorder for Birds New Zealand reels off a bunch of beaches not on the list that are home to vulnerable or endangered birds. Cabbage Point, on the Catlins River estuary, is a major roosting site for bar-tailed godwits, has up to 60 pairs of banded dotterel over-wintering there (plus a couple of breeding pairs), some Caspian and other terns and, all year round, up to 300 South Island pied oystercatchers. Then there is Molyneux Bay (banded dotterel, possibly breeding, and variable oystercatchers, breeding), Willsher Bay (roosting site for oystercatchers and gulls), Nugget Stream (roosting site for red-billed gulls, white and black-fronted terns, variable oystercatchers and pied stilts).
Both sides are making the point that there is wildlife on beaches that vehicles would still be able to access. Both say that is inconsistent.
One uses it as an argument for why there should not be a ban on any Clutha beaches; the other to argue it should be extended to all of them.
"The feedback from our member groups was [in favour of] the status quo - no vehicle ban on beaches."
"We feel it would be much more straightforward to simply ban vehicles from all beaches, though with the exemptions proposed in the bylaw," Young says.
"Instead of this piecemeal approach the council is proposing ... we propose they say ‘In Clutha District you don’t drive on beaches’."
Scientific evidence clearly points to the harm vehicles can do to beach ecosystems.
Candida Savage is an associate professor in the University of Otago’s Department of Marine Science.
Plants along shorelines and estuary edges provide important habitat for a diverse range of wildlife, but the vegetation can be slow growing and fragile, the marine ecologist says.
Driving on to and along beaches can damage vegetation, disrupt breeding birds and other animals and compact sand, changing the shape of the beach.
Prof Savage points to a Department of Conservation (Doc) paper giving a New Zealand perspective on international research into vehicle impacts on beaches.
The paper says those overseas studies have shown vehicles have a "severe" impact on coastal flora and fauna.
"A similar situation can be expected for the backshore of sandy beaches and for coastal dunes in New Zealand," the Doc paper states.
"Some of these ecosystems are quite stressed already.
"Then there’s sea level rise and what that’s going to do to these systems. So, if you have that on top of further erosion created by accessing beaches with cars ... the interaction of those stressors could have significant consequences for these systems."
Changing the proposed bylaw to address the inconsistency that both sides acknowledge seems unlikely, and would likely enrage whichever side lost out.
Clutha District Council appears determined to steer a middle course.
Chief executive Steve Hill says the council has received increasing numbers of reports and complaints about wildlife and humans being disturbed and endangered by vehicles on Clutha beaches.
Throughout New Zealand, a dozen local councils use bylaws to manage the impact of vehicles on beaches. In the South, Clutha’s proposed bylaw would be "similar to Invercargill but less restrictive than Dunedin", he says.
CDC is hearing oral submissions now and will make a decision by July 20.
Whatever the council decides, the bylaw will come into force on January 1.
The likelihood is no-one will be particularly happy, including the wildlife.
"As far as I’m aware, penguins can’t read maps. So, they won’t know they should go to a particular area if they want to be safe," Young says.