Review of access statute welcomed

The road that runs through Hunter Valley Station, Lake Hawea. Photo: Mark Price
The road that runs through Hunter Valley Station, Lake Hawea. Photo: Mark Price
A mandatory review this year of the statute underpinning the Walking Access Commission is timely, Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) president Peter Wilson says.

Mr Wilson said the commission had done a good job in the past decade but there was plenty of scope for improving its legislative framework.

That included a register of "past or potential access issues" that would place an obligation on government agencies to better consider opportunities for improving public access to the outdoors. The commission’s role includes resolving disputes over public access to the outdoors, negotiating new access and providing the public with information and maps.

The Walking Access Act was passed into law a decade ago with a clause requiring it be reviewed in 10 years.

Led by the Ministry for Primary Industries, the review will be conducted by a three-person independent panel. The commission’s chief executive, Ric Cullinane, said the review was an opportunity for people to have their say about public access to the outdoors.

Meetings with major stakeholders were held last month to highlight what the main issues were, and the public would be consulted in April and May.

Mr Wilson said the commission had "successfully navigated itself through tough times" and the access environment was better than it used to be.

"I think we’re in a better place at having access conversations between outdoor users and farmers now than we’ve probably been for the past 10 years."

That was despite "heated, one-off examples" such as FMC’s campaign over access across Hunter Valley Station, near Wanaka.

After a long-running dispute, the high country station’s owner, former American TV show host Matt Lauer, reached an agreement with government bodies that allows outdoor users access through the station to the Hawea Conservation Park, subject to a list of terms and conditions.

Mr Wilson said FMC wanted a "national access inventory" added to the legislation.

It would effectively be a register of areas of public land that did not have public access, but to which access was possible, or where access had been available in the past but subsequently lost.

"It’s an obligation that when opportunities arise, such as sale of leases or a change of landowner, you’ve got a list of places that can get some attention.

"It doesn’t guarantee that access will be put in place because it’s still private land, but it means that significant areas will get attention."

FMC also supported the idea of a "managed access system", in which outdoor users would register before crossing private land.

The tourist boom was putting pressure on some farmers, particularly in the high country, who were dealing with increasing "hordes" of overseas visitors on their land.

Such a system would allow traceability and place a "set of responsibilities and an obligation" on outdoor users, he said.

Otago Fish & Game officer Cliff Halford said his organisation would push for the commission to get more "legislative teeth" and be required to work more closely with district and regional councils.

Fish & Game had been advocating for years for the need to protect and enhance access to waterways for recreational freshwater fishing and game-bird hunting, Mr Halford said.

"Locally, rural areas in the Upper Clutha basin are quickly being urbanised, and historical access to the Clutha River is being lost through development and privatisation."

Federated Farmers Otago president Simon Davies said the organisation would push back against any changes to the Act with the potential to erode landowners’ property rights.

However, farmers were generally open to the idea of the public walking on designated tracks through their properties, provided it did not interfere with their farming operation or pose health and safety risks.

Overall, they wanted visitors to "respect the area they’re in".

Mr Davies said the review would need to consider the impact of the tourist boom on farmers, particular in the high country, and agreed with Mr Wilson that a managed access system held promise.

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