Doc decision draws fire

Allowing more overnight guided walkers in Mt Aspiring National Park challenged the integrity of the ''careful and intensive consultative process'' it took to develop the park's management plan, the Otago Conservation Board says.

The comments come after the Ombudsman, late last year, heavily criticised a Department of Conservation decision to grant a concession allowing for a 66% increase in overnight guided walkers in the park.

The Ombudsman's opinion came after a former Otago Conservation Board member, Chas Tanner, of Dunedin, complained the decision by Doc was inconsistent with the Mount Aspiring National Park management plan and should have been declined.

The Otago Conservation Board, at its first meeting of the year on Monday, raised the Ombudsman's findings but declined to comment further until it had a non-public discussion on the topic with Doc's deputy director-general, policy and regulatory services, Doris Johnston.

On Wednesday, it released a statement saying the board strongly endorsed the previous board's statements that the granting of the concession was ''inconsistent'' with the plan.

The board at the time expressed deep concerns about Doc's approval to grant the increase in guided walkers, as the plan had just been through an extensive public consultation process and had been signed off by the Otago Conservation Board, the New Zealand Conservation Authority and Doc, the board said.

Doc had justified its decision as fitting the ''exceptional circumstances'' test but the Ombudsman disagreed.

The board agreed with the Ombudsman's view that the reasons given by Doc did not ''bear scrutiny''.

It was also concerned that by allowing the variation it ''challenged the integrity of the careful and intensive consultative'' process that went into its establishment, the board said.

However, it said the use of ''should'' in the plan implied a degree of flexibility.

This might become more relevant as the life of the plan matures towards its 10-year cycle, the board said.

It was critical to have a clear set of guidelines, publicly available, which would be used to advise Doc in considering the granting of concessions in National Parks.

Last month, Doc confirmed it would be developing such guidelines in conjunction with conservation boards and the New Zealand Conservation Authority.

A Doc spokesman said Doc acknowledged the board's statement and looked forward to working with it on new guidelines.

rebecca.fox@odt.co.nz

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