Lessons for Conservation Department

The Department of Conservation should have learned.

After being roundly told off by the Ombudsman in 2014 for ignoring the Mt Aspiring National Park Management Plan,  Doc has been doing something similar in the Fiordland National Park.

The egregious flouting of the Fiordland plan is for helicopter flights rather than numbers of walkers, as previously. But the point, plain to see in both instances, is that the two plans, after much consultation and lots of public input, were overridden.

While, inevitably, compromises are reached when plans are compiled, they are the department’s own documents setting out the guidelines.  Doc, of all organisations, should be following them.

To come up with spurious justifications to ignore plan provisions mocks the process of public consultation.  It mocks all the efforts to produce a carefully considered document.  It undermines public participation.

In 2014 the Ombudsman’s decision said a concession to a Routeburn guided-walk business contradicted the limit on walkers in the plan.  The issue was not  how many guided trampers should be allowed  — it was that Doc ignoring the plan when granting the concession extension.

Ombudsman Ron Paterson called Doc’s use of an "exceptional circumstances" provision "nonsense on stilts".

He said, colourfully, the decision to allow a 66% increase in overnight guided walkers daily  "drives a horse and carriage through" the Mt Aspiring National Park Plan.

This time, the fundamental issue is the same. From when the Fiordland plan came into force in 2007, Doc did nothing to stop flight numbers to the Ngapunatoru Glacier (north of Milford Sound) exceeding those allowed.

Under pressure from increased tourism and from concessionaires,  the department agreed to a Clayton’s trial in February 2016, supposedly to research the effects of increased aircraft activity.

Up to 70 flights a day could land in the remote place near Mt Tutoko, compared with the plan’s limit of 10.

Ombudsman Leo Donnelly’s report lacks the rich language of Mr Paterson’s.  But the conclusions are the same.

The department’s decision to increase allowable flight numbers was "unreasonable, and aspects of this decision appear to have been contrary to law".

In 2016, Doc got away with a telling off and some work on due processes. The extra walkers’ concession stayed in place. This time Mr Donnelly has been strong in recommending Doc cancel the decision on extra flights and make sure existing concessionaires adhere to the original limits.

Doc accepts this approach and has said it will work towards implementing them "as soon as is reasonably practicable".

It told Mr Donnelly it accepted that, despite its best intentions, its decision to trial an increase in the number of aircraft landings on the plateau was ill-advised.

Previously,  it took a concerned Dunedin individual, Chas Tanner, who had been a member of the Otago Conservation Board, to raise the Routeburn issue with the Ombudsman.

This time it took the Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) to complain.

Its president, Peter Wilson, said the Ombudsman’s decision was "a victory for the outdoor community, for the rule of law on public land and for the intrinsic values of Fiordland".

Although the department undertakes wonderful work in all sorts of areas, and although it needs to raise money through concessions, it must be prepared to resist pressure from tourism companies in the interest of the wider good. Doc must think long term about  its "conservation" and preservation roles. This has become all the more important as tourist numbers soar.

Hopefully, Doc this time has learned its lesson. Hopefully too, with a different Government, it will not feel the same need to bend to commercial influence.

Its response to the latest Ombudsman’s decision is more promising. That is a good start.

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