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A fresh look at the sustainability of air access in Westland and Aoraki Mount Cook national parks

By Shane Orchard

This year marks the start of a review process for two of our iconic parks. The result will be new National Park management plans for Westland Tai Poutini and Aoraki Mount Cook national parks. Air access and climate change are two of the big issues to tackle.

Park access is a constantly shifting challenge, especially in alpine areas. Both Westland Tai Poutini and Aoraki Mount Cook national parks have extremely dynamic natural processes as a result of high winds, rainfall, temperature extremes, glacier movement and fault lines. The management plans have a ten-year lifespan and it’s not surprising that the landscape has changed a lot in that time. In addition, we now know more about climate change. Future proofing against the likely effects of climate change over the next ten years is part of the management challenge.

Currently the parks are well served by road access to key destinations, and boats provide access on some lakes and waterways. There are many short walks suitable for short-stay visitors, and backcountry travellers are well served by an impressive track and hut network in more remote areas. The challenge is keeping those types of services available and sustainable in the face of environmental extremes. There are obvious cost considerations, especially in the glacial valleys where erosion and rockfall cause frequent maintenance concerns. Less obvious are incremental changes to the landscape on a very large scale. Loss of glacial ice is one of the key changes. Others include changing riverbeds, moraine walls and active rockfall areas—all of which may change the character of the mountains themselves.

Those dynamics make it difficult to decide what infrastructure to put where, and how long it will last. It’s also worth noting that maintaining or creating recreational access is not the primary management objective for national parks.

Primary objectives for management in both parks

Objective 1

To preserve in their natural state, as far as possible, the landscapes, indigenous ecosystems and natural features of [the National Park].

Objective 2

To preserve the character of [the National Park] as a natural area of exceptional beauty, geological significance and biological diversity and for the benefit, use and enjoyment of the general public to the extent that this is compatible with Objective 1.

Objective 3

To give effect to the principles of the Tiriti o Waitangi/Treaty of Waitangi to the extent that the provisions of the National Parks Act 1980 are clearly not inconsistent with them.

Considering these priorities, proposals that would increase the impacts of recreation are generally not a good idea. Instead, objectives for access in national parks focus on fostering public use consistent with ‘the preservation and protection of the park’s landscapes, natural features, biological processes and plant and animal life’. Those objectives must also account for visitor safety, prescribed visitor management settings, and minimisation of conflict between visitor groups.

The last point above is a key one, as visitors can have adverse effects on each other as well as on the natural environment. That means that air access, as a way to avoid dangerous rivers, eroding slopes and the like, is no panacea for national park access issues. It has its own impacts on many user groups. Debates on air access have been around for a long time and there are no easy answers. Typically, there’s a status quo for a while, and then there’s a review and new arrangements are made. When this happens, it is important to look at the reference state or ‘baseline’ we are supposed to be managing for, to ensure that values aren’t slowly degraded over time.

The DOC visitor management settings go some way towards resolving these issues by providing a framework for designating what happens where. The settings make a lot of sense, especially if everyone is happy with where they apply. Even so, tough decisions come in at least two forms: Should the designated visitor settings be changed? And what level of impact is acceptable within any one of the areas so defined?

Examples of DOC visitor management settings and target visitor groups
See doc.govt.nz for more detail.

Visitor management setting                                               Target visitor group

Remote Experience

Remoteness seekers

Backcountry with Facilities

Backcountry comfort seekers, Backcountry adventurers

Frontcountry with Facilities

Day visitors, overnighters

Highways, Roadside Opportunities & Visitor Service Nodes

Short stop travellers, day visitors, overnighters

Intense interest sites

Short stop travellers, day visitors

These aspects are especially relevant to air access considerations that will play out over the next few months as there will be changes to the current arrangements in the two parks. The impacts, both positive and negative, need to be well considered prior to decisions being made. Importantly, these impacts relate to more than landing sites and frequency. They relate to flight plans and the effects of the aircraft using them. Both have negative impacts and yet are desirable forms of access for some user groups.

Ultimately, the arrangements for the next ten years will be up to us. DOC will be looking for solutions consistent with the priorities for national parks that best cater for access needs. There will be no unified view and hearing different perspectives can only help the process. If you have a view or might be affected by changes then get involved. Look carefully at the proposed changes, as some are difficult to spot. Open days and public meetings facilitated by DOC and others will help. Above all else make sure you make a submission on the draft plan. There will certainly be changes to access arrangements in these plans and you can be a part of deciding what sustainable air access looks like in our national parks. This is an important opportunity and the results will affect how we all experience the amazing mountains of New Zealand.

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Posted: 13/10/16

Posted By: Kester Brown