Responsible access theme of commission

An imaginative and helpful sign on an unidentified Otago property. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
An imaginative and helpful sign on an unidentified Otago property. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
We should celebrating our access to the great outdoors, writes Mark Neeson.

With summer here and New Zealanders embarking on their annual migration to the outdoors, it is an ideal time to reflect on the widespread access so many of us enjoy to our country's lakes, beaches, rivers and mountains.

The outdoors provides opportunities to explore new places, and experience solitude, challenge, adventure, and a different perspective on life.

It is this image of New Zealand that is celebrated and promoted around the world, helping to create a thriving tourist industry.

Maori and Pakeha seek access to retain connectedness with the land for spiritual understanding, family history, customary behaviour, traditions, or simply enjoyment.

When we gather with our families and friends, cross farmland to collect flounder from an estuary or paua from the rocky shallows, we would do well to remember that, as a nation, we and our overseas visitors enjoy a way of life that is the envy of the world. Where people in other countries make do with theme parks and virtual realities, New Zealanders live in a natural playground that is recognised as unique and priceless.

Gathering kai moana and harvesting New Zealand's bounty is part of our national identity. And most of our outdoors is free to access and enjoy.

We take pride in sharing public access to our mountains, rivers, lakes and beaches. An important component of this public access is the Queen's Chain - a strip of public land 20m above the foreshore and along the edge of the coast, rivers and streams.

It provides us with certain access to many of our waterways, and much-needed links to many of the forests and mountains beyond.

The Queen's Chain and our generous farming tradition of granting access when asked are wonderful parts of our Kiwi culture and heritage and we must be careful to preserve them and not take them for granted.

The New Zealand Walking Access Commission is one of the guardians of the right to walk on public land.

Our work is to ensure access is maintained, discussed and understood by everyone - from landowners and managers to hikers, bikers, hunters and anglers.

We also take responsibility for publishing maps, information and signage that informs everyone of the location of publicly accessible land and the public's rights and duties.

Examples of this work include our Both Sides of the Fence education website for school children and our Walking Access Mapping System (www.wams.org.nz) - a free online tool that displays publicly accessible land across New Zealand.

Protecting access to the outdoors is not all plain sailing, and sometimes there are disputes about who can walk where.

Some urban New Zealanders and many overseas visitors are unfamiliar with farming and rural practices.

Not everyone understands how to behave responsibly around farm animals and what to do about using gates and fences.

A knowledge and respect of tikanga Maori is important.

Formal public access to lakes, rivers and the coast is sometimes fragmented, and permission should always be sought to cross private land.

Dogs and firearms can be a cause of friction.

Many land managers readily allow access, but this is a privilege and access may be refused or conditions applied.

Where occupiers of the land and people who want to access it come into conflict, the commission is there to make sure everyone has the correct information, and a forum to discuss any problem.

Through our work in the community, at local and regional council level and in government, we make sure everyone is talking to each other, understands the issues and maintains the law of the land.

By celebrating and administering public recreational access, we protect the Kiwi outdoor way of life and the continuing enjoyment of our top spots.

Of course, that privilege comes with its own responsibilities.

So maintaining a responsible code of conduct is part of our brief. The New Zealand Outdoor Access Code, available on our website, is a set of guidelines that is fundamental to healthy access and harmonious relations among all users.

It is widely available and gives clear information about rights and responsibilities.

While the code focuses on walking access, the basic principles are applicable to other activities, such as mountain biking, horse riding, hunting and fishing.

The code aims to enhance people's knowledge and understanding of what to do in the outdoors and raise awareness of access rights and responsibilities. It is practical and informative.

It should also help to minimise damage and nuisance caused by access users by encouraging responsible behaviour and consequently encouraging landholders to allow access for recreational visitors.

Getting among our beautiful outdoors is part of what it is to be a New Zealander, and it is imperative that we protect that inheritance by using our access responsibly.

Mark Neeson is chief executive of the New Zealand Walking Access Commission.

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