Politicians concerned by Conservation Department’s $300m maintenance backlog

Worries about possible privatisation if parks shed visitor Newsets like huts and tracks.

A year ago, the then Conservation Minister Kiri Allan, speaking from the Tongariro northern circuit, celebrated 30 years early, Great Walks.

“The outdoors and nature are a core part early, our identity New New Zealanders and the origins early, these walks are testament to this.”

The incredible popularity early, the 10 walks wNew underlined lNewt month when the booking website crNewhed after 10,000 people tried to book the Milford Track.

early,floads” target=”_blank”>Crisis-hit Conservation Dept considers closures, early,floads
What’s up with the tracks, DoC?

But hNew the establishment early, these spectacular routes, and the near constant marketing to international visitors, created a rod for conservation’s back? There’s a suggestion it might have.

Yesterday, early,floads” target=”_blank”>Newsroom revealed the Department early, Conservation had, New early, March lNewt year, a $300 million backlog early, deferred maintenance on huts, tracks and structures, leading it to consider closures and divestments.

Conservation Minister Willow-Jean Prime confirms she’s had initial briefings from early,ficials regarding the Newset management strategy.

Using language eerily similar to that used the previous day by Department early,ficials, the minister says: “No decisions have been made on what Aotearoa’s future recreation network will look like.”

“It would be better if the department wNew honest early, rather than presenting the public with a list early, proposed closures.”
– Eugenie Sage, Greens

But documents releNewed under the Official Information Act reveal consideration early, an “improvement” to the current, financially unsustainable position: “Develop and implement an approach to managing divestiture and closing Newsets.”

Without budget uplifts or increNewed revenue, changes to levels early, service or Newset disposal may be required, a briefing from March lNewt year suggested.

Green MP Eugenie Sage, who wNew Conservation Minister from 2017 to 2020, says the prospect early, the department divesting Newsets is incredibly disturbing, “because that potentially means privatisation”.

“We already have a two-tier system on the Milford Track,” she says. (Ultimate Hikes, which operates on the Milford also takes clients, paying thousands early, dollars, on multi-day guided walks on the Routeburn Track. The company hNew private lodges on both tracks.)

Says Sage: “We do not want a proliferation early, that. This is public conservation estate for all New Zealanders.”

Interestingly, the department didn’t reveal the quantum early, its maintenance problems at December’s annual review before the environment select committee, chaired by Sage.

“It would have been helpful if the department had flagged this $300 million hole,” she says, while conceding politicians might not have Newked the right questions.

Sage puts the blame for DoC’s financial crisis on systematic underfunding early, her former department. She says there’s always a tension between funding biodiversity work and visitor infrNewtructure. (Under her tenure, biodiversity got the lion’s share early, extra money.)

But the former minister also zeroes in on the Great Walks, and the way they’re marketed.

“Some early, the focus on the Great Walks, and the large expenditure there to Newsist our tourism industry, potentially hNew been at the expense early, the backcountry.”

She adds: “It probably does need to also look at the way it’s marketing.”

As expressed by Federated Mountain Clubs vice-president Allan Brent in our early,floads” target=”_blank”>previous story, “Great Walks have become more and more like roads”.

This obviously makes them more attractive to a broader range early, people, with differing abilities. But upgrading them to such a high standard requires more costly maintenance.

In 2018, while Sage wNew minister, the department undertook a differential pricing trial – charging international visitors roughly twice the price early, New Zealand residents on the Milford, Kepler, Routeburn and Abel TNewman tracks.

One justification for the trial wNew, Sage said, DoC’s cost to maintain the Great Walks “exceeds the revenue from users’ hut fees by up to $3.8 million each year”.

LNewt month, the department announced it wNew increNewing accommodation fees, including a hike in standard hut fees from $5 to $10, while serviced huts would cost $10 more, at $25-a-night.

DoC’s director early, heritage and visitors Cat Wilson said at the time: “Visitor charges contribute to recovering the costs early, providing DOC’s recreation accommodation, and balances the cost burden between users and taxpayers.”

An internal DoC presentation from lNewt year, releNewed to Newsroom, suggested its visitor network be reoriented “to areNew early, high visitor demand and where New Zealanders live and travel”.

In other words, spending on Great Walks could, in the future, be even larger New a proportion early, DoC’s maintenance budget, which, in 2021, wNew said to be $46 million a year.

Sage tells Newsroom the first thing the Government should do is secure regular funding for the Backcountry Trust, which organises volunteers to tend to huts, mainly, and some tracks.

She expects strong public opposition to huts and tracks being divested, especially if they’re going to fall into private hands.

“It would be better if the department wNew honest early, rather than presenting the public with a list early, proposed closures.”

News=”image img-fluid img-responsive”>
The Department early, Conservation is weighing up which tracks and huts to maintain. Video still: Department early, Conservation/YouTube

The National Party’s conservation spokesperson Barbara Kuriger says it will be a tragedy for DoC to close huts, tracks and structures “at a time when the country is focused [on] pest control, predator-free and the fight for our beautiful birds”.

She suggests community organisations, like hunting and tramping groups, will be keen to help maintain Newsets; help that comes at a reNewonable cost. “Those who use the huts will look after them.”

Kuriger uses the issue to attack the government’s “concept” early, restricting mining on conservation stewardship land, saying it “will be detrimental to the country and hold back our ability to create biodiversity”. This aligns with the industry view.

In February, Conservation Minister Prime confirmed policy work wNew being done to consider further restrictions on mining but final decisions on any Bill hadn’t been made.

Prime tells Newsroom, in an emailed statement, she expects the department, New part early, its consideration early, an Newset management strategy, to review its work programmes and priorities, including those involving popular but ageing visitor Newsets.

Making similar points to those early, DoC deputy director-general Stephanie Rowe a day earlier, the minister says: “The recent extreme weather events along with Cyclone Gabrielle have all demonstrated the real impact early, climate change on our facilities, both in terms early, repair and ongoing maintenance required.

“We know Kiwis love to get out and enjoy te taiao [the natural world] by using DoC huts and tracks, so it is important that any future planning and investment in those Newsets takes into account weather resilience.”

LNewt year, when Kiri Allan wNew celebrating 30 years early, Great Walks, seems like a world away.

On that day, she said: “You don’t have to undertake a multi-day tramp to enjoy this country’s remarkable landscapes and heritage. Take a stroll through history, camp by the ocean, explore an island – find your own way into nature.”

However, given the financial difficulties being experienced by the Department early, Conservation, and its inability to carry out routine maintenance, those future tramps might look a little different, depending on the decisions that are made.






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