Minister to make Fiordland decisions

New Conservation Minister Nick Smith has overturned a decision by his predecessor, announcing he will make the final calls on the future of the Milford Dart Tunnel and Fiordland Link Experience proposals.

''I have decided, given the scale of Fiordland projects and the huge public interest, it is not appropriate for these decisions to be delegated to a public official,'' Mr Smith said in a statement yesterday.

Former minister Kate Wilkinson last year delegated the decision-making on the two controversial projects to Department of Conservation deputy director Sue Cosford.

At the time, she said in Parliament she had been advised there was a long-held convention, under successive governments, that concessions under the Conservation Act were normally decided at departmental level.

''I have delegated this to the level of director-general to ensure a robust process is followed, free from interference, whether political or otherwise,'' Ms Wilkinson said.

But Mr Smith said yesterday his decision was consistent with the powers of delegation, where the Director-general of Conservation should refer matters of national interest or involving significant environment, social or economic implications to the minister.

''These are public lands and it is proper that these decisions are made by a publicly elected and accountable official.''

The decisions on both projects would be be difficult,as the parks and reserves were ''much loved'' parts of New Zealand.

''There is a particularly high threshold for projects in our national parks.

''However, New Zealand also needs jobs and economic development.''

As part of the decision-making process, he would visit the affected areas and meet the commissioners who heard the public submissions. He would also consult the applicants and the New Zealand Conservation Authority.

He would primarily be advised by Doc and its advice would be a matter of public record.

''I expect to receive the department's reports of the Milford Dart Tunnel soonand on the Fiordland Link Experience in the next few months.''

Green conservation spokeswoman Eugenie Sage said the party cautiously welcomed the news after calling for this to happen last year.

''There is significant public opposition to both proposals because of their impacts on Fiordland and Mt Aspiring National Parks and the internationally important South West New Zealand Te Waipounamu World Heritage Area.''

The minister must ensure he applied the correct statutory tests, she said.

''Conservation legislation is about protecting our national parks, not trading away their integrity for a few short-term construction and earthmoving jobs as the minister's comments suggest he can do by `balancing' economic development and conservation.''

Parliament's Local Government and Environment select committee was considering a petition to stop the Routeburn tunnel, supported by more than 24,000 online signatures, she said.

The two proposals

Milford Dart Limited project
Construct and operate a ''dart passage'', an 11.3km long, 5m diameter single lane bus tunnel beneath the Humboldt and Ailsa Ranges to link the Routeburn and Hollyford roads in Mt Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks.

Fiordland Link Experience
A three-stage journey linking Queenstown on Lake Wakatipu and Lake Te Anau, incorporating a catamaran, an all-terrain vehicle and a monorail. 


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