Flights in breach of Doc plan

Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson
Internal documents reveal the Department of Conservation received payments for glacier landings which breached its own management plan for Fiordland National Park.

This follows the Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) saying it would ask the Ombudsman to intervene, after documents obtained under the Official Information Act (OIA) revealed Doc and the aviation industry held closed-door meetings in a bid to significantly increase helicopter landings on a Fiordland National Park ice plateau.

Doc yesterday denied the plan to increase the number of landings per day on Mt Tutoko's Ngapunatoru Ice Plateau to up to 80 breached the management plan, which allows for only 10 per day.

Doc planning and permissions director Marie Long said the 12-month increase was part of a "research programme'' which would help inform a review of the management plan in January next year.

FMC president Peter Wilson strongly disputed Ms Long's comments, saying that arguing the increase was research was equivalent "to the Japanese saying their whaling programme was scientific''.

The OIA documents, which were supplied to the Otago Daily Times, also revealed Doc accepted daily landing limits in the area were already being broken and the department was under "significant pressure'' from the tourism industry to flout rules.

It also believed the Fiordland helicopter industry had "compliance'' and safety issues.

In the document prepared by Doc permissions adviser Vicki Crosbie and accounts manager Mark Beardsley, the department said it knew of operators who landed at unauthorised sites and did more landings each day than allowed.

"The department is struggling to know what to do re compliance and has in some cases allowed by default landings to occur by collecting activity fees for unauthorised site landing or where limits have been breached.''

The document showed Doc profited by $22 per person from all new snow and glacier landing approvals.

When there was limited supply, Doc received an advance of $200 per landing.

"This reflects the value of the opportunity for these limited supply sites.

"This will ensure that the department is receiving the full benefit of these opportunities,'' the document said.

It was also revealed "the department does not have the ability to manage a booking system'' to prevent more than 10 landings per day at the Ngapunatoru Plateau, which is the most popular snow and glacier landing site in the national park.

The document said the significant pressure by the tourism industry to increase helicopter flights before the Chinese New Year meant proper consultation with affected parties including the Otago and Southland Conservation Boards and Ngai Tahu was not possible.

The document also outlined concerns raised by affected groups about a lack of consultation and detail about the increase in flights.

Ngai Tahu said it was concerned about the legality of the process, and that it could set a precedent that commercialised conservation and disregarded Treaty of Waitangi partnerships.

Listed under a "summary of critical issues'' about increasing daily limits, the document says: "We are ignoring the intent of the Fiordland National Park Management Plan''.

Ms Long said it was not breaching the plan, as it included a provision which allowed limits to be changed for the purpose of research.

"We think the plan enables us to do the research to help [determine] what we want to do in the future.''

Doc would monitor the increased number of landings using GPS data and by talking to the aviation companies, she said.

The increase was not a result of Doc caving in to pressure from the tourism industry and it had a "totally open mind'' about what the limits would be when the plan was reviewed next year.

Mr Wilson said Doc was just using the research clause as an excuse to increase the limit without going through the proper process.

"No-one's determined what the effects are on the site currently. They have just increased the landings and called it research.''

West Coast iwi Makaawhio is also crying foul.

Te Runanga o Makaawhio says the increased flights were not notified to Ngai Tahu, even though Mt Tutoko, the highest mountain in Fiordland and close to the ice plateau, has legal protection as a topuni, or place of special significance.

Makaawhio tumuaki (general manager) Susan Wallace said

the mountain had cultural values.

"Often when we reference who we are ... that's our ancestral mountain. It's part of our genealogy. There needs to be some place that remains silent.''

Miss Wallace said Mt Tutoko was not like the Franz Josef and Fox Glacier region, where there were lots of helicopter landings. It was remote and a wilderness area.

A staff member from the Minister of Conservation's office declined comment and referred any questions to Doc.

- Additional reporting Greymouth Star

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