Opinion awaits Doc response

An ombudsman's opinion criticising the Department of Conservation's approval of a concession application ''raises some interesting questions'', Doc deputy director-general, policy, Doris Johnston says.

Ombudsman Ron Paterson called Doc's explanation of ''exceptional circumstances'' in granting Routeburn Walks Ltd extra overnight guided walkers ''nonsense on stilts''.

The opinion came in response to a complaint from Dunedin man Chas Tanner that Doc's decision contravened the Mount Aspiring National Park management plan.

The ombudsman also questioned Doc's opinion that strict adherence to the plan would be unlawful fettering of the Minister of Conservation's statutory discretion.

''I have asked the department to advise by January 15 what actions it intends to take to review its processes for handling applications for concessions in national parks in light of my report; and what it has done about a public apology on its website.''

Ms Johnston said Doc had only just received the report. It wanted to talk to the Otago Conservation Board and the New Zealand Conservation Authority to develop a response.

''Doc expects to respond to the ombudsman in the new year.''

Existing guided operations on the Routeburn would continue as normal, she said.

Otago Conservation Board chairman Pat Garden said as he had not seen the detail of the opinion and was not on the board during the period of the development of the plan, he was not in a position to comment. However, he would look into the situation.

Minister of Conservation Maggie Barry, through her press secretary, declined to comment on the opinion, saying it was an operational matter for Doc to comment on.

The ombudsman's website said under New Zealand's freedom of information legislation, any recommendations of the ombudsman to an agency became a public duty for the agency to observe on the 21st working day after they were made, unless the governor-general, by order in council, directed otherwise.

While the ombudsman was unable to enforce recommendations, almost all the recommendations made during the past 50 years had been accepted and implemented by New Zealand's state sector agencies, it said.

Sir John Davies, of Routeburn Walks Ltd, declined to comment yesterday, saying there would be a press release today.


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