Erring on the side of nature

Image supplied.
Image supplied.
Conservation Minister Nick Smith took the correct approach and came to the best decision on the catamaran, all-terrain vehicle and monorail proposal between Queenstown and Te Anau Downs.

He, it seems, came in with an open mind, considered various matters carefully and in the end made his tough call.

There are those whose knee-jerk reaction is to reject any incursion at all into a national park or the World Heritage Area in southwest New Zealand.

And there are also those who, no doubt, see scope for development and business and are alarmed so much of this country is locked up. An in-between approach but tilted towards protection is most sensible.

New Zealand, it must be said, does have to earn its way in the world. Tourism is a central part of that mix and new developments can bolster the numbers of visitors and the returns from them. At the same time, this country's tourist mecca, Queenstown, regularly needs refreshment and new attractions.

The Fiordland-Link monorail could well have helped on both accounts.

Nonetheless, any project in conservation areas and with substantial environmental impacts should have to clear high hurdles. The national parks in particular are precious projected areas with both real and symbolic value and can only be tampered with at great peril.

As it happens, while the project did touch on the Fiordland National Park near Te Anau Downs, the monorail's main impact would have been down the Kiwi Burn and including the Snowdon Forest.

It seems, according to the reports, there was concern that the swath through the trees would have to be wide and that effects on ''the naturalness'' caused by the corridor would be substantial. As Dr Smith said, ''there would be significant impact on the area's flora, fauna and natural heritage.''

He also added the route was not sufficiently defined to properly assess the impacts.

One wonders if what decided the matter, though, was the economic viability of the project.

The Department of Conservation's independent review of Riverstone Holdings Ltd's business case concluded assumptions about ticket price, revenue increases, start-up time and overall size of the market for the Fiordland Link Experience were overly optimistic.

It concluded the monorail proposal was unlikely to be viable, conclusions disputed by Riverstone's ''expert advice''.

Although it might be thought that economic success or failure in a free market should be up to the promoters and developers, Dr Smith and his advisers must have been concerned about the horrendous and lasting eyesore if the monorail was only half finished or if the business later fell over and the infrastructure was abandoned.

Politically, it could also be argued Dr Smith had more to gain by turning down the project, especially in election year. While many or even most of the vociferous opponents would have been Labour or Greens supporters who would never vote for National in a year of Sundays, there are numerous middle-of-the-road voters who care about the environment, the outdoors and conservation.

There was also the strong and vocal opposition from Te Anau itself.

Dr Smith has now turned down both the monorail and the Milford Dart Tunnel, while the Sky Trail Milford Gondola through the Greenstone or Caples Valleys failed to get off the ground.

Last project standing now is one that faces mammoth issues - not to mention costs miles beyond those that have been suggested. The Haast-Hollyford toll road should and would face harder environment and economic questions than the monorail.

Dr Smith has said he did not want this decision interpreted as the Government and Doc being opposed to any proposal for alternative access options in Fiordland. He said the strategic issue of facilitating better transport options between Queenstown and Milford remains.

''The door is still open but proposals will need to be both environmentally sustainable and economically viable.''

Dr Smith is correct to approach developments in Fiordland cautiously. As he said, because the World Heritage Area has some of New Zealand's most highly valued and spectacular landscapes it required ''I err on the side of nature''.

 

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