How will DoC deal with the environmental pressures of runaway tourism?

by Jonathan Underhill / 15 August, 2017
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Tourists take in the view at Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. Photo/Mary Hobbs

The environmental pressures of runaway tourism and commercial land use aren’t fazing the country’s conservation chief. 

Few people are in the hot seat like Lou Sanson. The Department of Conservation (DoC) director-general is responsible for a third of New Zealand’s land mass and riding an unprecedented tourist boom that has turned his park rangers into car-park attendants.

The same has happened in Wyoming in the US, where Yellowstone National Park has become jammed with tourists in cars, buses and mobile homes. Squash up, everybody, so you can all see Old Faithful.

International tourist arrivals worldwide rose 3.9% to 1.2 billion last year, the seventh straight year of growth, according to the World Tourism Organisation’s “barometer”. This means an additional 46 million people travelled internationally, and growth is expected to continue at an annual 3-4% for the next 30 years.

In New Zealand, it means an endless column of walkers on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The Great Walks now get booked out. DoC had to call in the police at Franz Josef Glacier to help with conflicts over parking.

Some 3.6 million short-term visitors came here in the year to March 31, a record even though it amounted to just 0.3% of total global tourists. Most came on holiday or to visit family and friends. About 40% came from Australia and 11% from China.

“We’re competing internationally for nature tourism, so we want to have visitors to New Zealand saying it was a phenomenal experience – not that it was crowded, it was uncontrolled, there were no toilets – because that’s our value edge,” says Sanson. Worldwide, “people are becoming urbanised, and when they’ve got leisure time, nature is the most prized commodity”.

That means they want to see the natural world as it is preserved in New Zealand. The country is a lost-world theme park with biodiversity that rivals the Galápagos Islands and includes the world’s largest rail (takahe), only alpine parrot (kea) and only flightless parrot (kakapo). Twenty-five per cent of all the bird species in New Zealand are endemic.

Lou Sanson.

It’s also a tragedy unfolding. Critics say DoC doesn’t have the political support and level of funding needed to safeguard New Zealand’s 4000 endangered species or preserve the biodiversity tourists are coming to see. It’s a huge task not only because endangered species live on fragments of private land, in some cases a single site, but also because the DoC estate and other natural areas are under attack from feral introduced creatures, including millions of cats, possums, mustelids such as weasels, ferrets and stoats, and rats.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright, who retires this year and declined to comment on the performance of DoC, said in her May report “Taonga of an Island Nation: Saving New Zealand’s Birds” that the country’s endemic birds “are in a desperate situation”.

Guy Salmon, who co-founded the Native Forests Action Council in 1975 and now works as an environmental policy consultant, says he is optimistic DoC will rise to the challenge of managing tourism, especially given that tourism was the big winner in DoC’s Budget 2017 allocation, but he’s “not so optimistic about the other side of the equation – preventing the decline of biodiversity and wild places”.

“It turns out it’s a more expensive task than we thought, and if we’re going to arrest the decline of species, we’re going to have to spend more than we are,” he says.

Conservation Minister Maggie Barry is ranked 16th in the Cabinet, whereas Tourism Minister Paula Bennett is No 2. But Salmon says it isn’t just about having a minister who is down the pecking order.

“If you’re going through a period of fiscal restraint, it’s hard for the Conservation Minister to get a bid accepted. It’s not top of mind for ministers,” he says. “There’s no doubt the constraint [Sanson] faces is at the Cabinet level.” But if the Government remains a “cheapskate”, then tourists “will realise it’s all a bit of a fraud and they’re actually coming to look at species before they go extinct”.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Photo/Getty Images

The madding crowd

Salmon ran up against the crowds on the wildly successful Tongariro Alpine Crossing. “I was pretty horrified. It was like queuing at the supermarket checkout. I was walking along in a continuous stream of people. The only way to counter that is to limit numbers – book a year ahead – or use a price differential fee for foreign tourists.”

Chris Roberts, Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief, notes that having Deputy Prime Minister Bennett as Tourism Minister is actually a demotion for an industry once championed by John Key when prime minister.

“DoC sits in control of New Zealand’s No 1 tourism attraction,” Roberts says. “It’s clearly difficult for DoC staff, who are essentially multitasking. They may have pest-control, species-preservation and tourism-control responsibilities all within the same area. It’s possible we need a more radical review of the way we manage the half-dozen tourist hotspots.”

Preserving biodiversity comes out of the $177 million, or 47%, of DoC’s current-year departmental budget that is allocated to natural heritage (in comparison, $147 million, or 39% of the $376 million total, goes to recreation, which includes tourism). The department projects a 3.2% increase in funding by 2021.

Tourism got the lion’s share of new DoC spending in Budget 2017: $76 million, mostly to build new toilets and car parks and to bolster programmes at crowded visitor hotspots. It was part of a package that includes the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s (Mbie) Tourism Infrastructure Fund, which provides $25 million a year over four years to help local authorities update their facilities.

“We were a little disappointed the only increase was for [toilets and car parks],” Roberts says. “We think there’s a case for DoC’s baseline funding to be increased.”

Kea. Photo/Getty Images

The other new DoC money was a one-off $21.3 million for Battle of the Birds, the department’s national predator-control programme under which 1080 is dropped over large areas of rugged terrain to kill rats, stoats and possums.

The tourism industry has the right kind of vested interest. Its target of lifting visitor-generated dollars to $41 billion by 2025 is as lofty as the Government‘s target of lifting exports to 40% of GDP by that date. Many of its members operate in or on the fringe of the conservation estate, paying about $15 million a year in concession fees.

Sanson says he’s a realist and a pragmatist. DoC had asked for “slightly” more than it got in Budget 2017, but in the four years he has been chief, “we’ve got virtually everything we have asked for”. Tourists generate income that helps fund biodiversity. Philanthropists and commercial partnerships contribute $100 million, although that doesn’t all go to DoC.

Being pragmatic, he was happy with the land-swap deal under which his minister revoked the conservation status of 22ha of Ruahine Forest Park, freeing it up to be flooded as part of the Ruataniwha dam commercial irrigation scheme in exchange for 170ha of private land that could be joined to the park. The Supreme Court put the kibosh on the deal in a judgment that raises questions about a practice that has been going on for 25 years and prompted the Government to say it would change the law.

Unlike his minister, Sanson personally checked out the 170ha on offer. “I’m a forester. I know quite a bit about botany, and the black beech forest is a very rare part of the Hawke’s Bay.” He’s also an old hand, a Forest Service worker before it was bundled up with the Department of Lands and Survey and the Wildlife Service to create DoC in 1988.

“Because I was around in 1987, I knew the game. Forestry Corp grabbed the pen and put some lines on maps and DoC grabbed its pen and then we gazetted it into Ruahine Forest Park,” he says.

A chopper over Franz Josef Glacier. Photo/Getty Images

Pragmatism doesn’t rule

The land swap isn’t the only recent example of the courts pushing back against Sanson’s pragmatism. In June, the High Court ruled that DoC didn’t have the power under the Wildlife Act to authorise commercial shark-cage diving, in a case of the primary sector versus tourism.

DoC permits issued to diving ventures were challenged by PauaMAC 5, the manager of paua quota in the far south, which says its Stewart Island fishers were at risk of shark attacks because the two tourism operators put “attractants” in the water to lure the predators, which then associated humans with food. Stewart Islanders oppose the shark diving and Sanson devised the permits as a way of imposing rules on the operators, such as limiting the attractants to berley and banning raw tuna heads.

The conflict hints at issues that are politically difficult to tackle in what will be the much larger challenge of managing New Zealand’s fresh-water resources.

“Trade-offs? I face them every day. That’s my job,” Sanson says. Chinese tourists want helicopter snow landings because it is hard to get up in a helicopter in China. But constant helicopters overhead have been driving the Federated Mountain Clubs nuts. “You’ve always got two sides and you’ve got to bring them together.”

At the same time, he has been lobbying the Beehive for change – well before the Ruataniwha judgment. “A lot of our legislation was devised in the 1960s, and we do have to look at a refresh of the National Parks Act, the Wildlife Act – the Conservation Act is 30 years old,” he says. “We are talking to the minister about that.”

Forest & Bird, which took Sanson’s Ruahine land-swap plan to court, has been celebrating its win but views talk of changing the law with concern. “There’s a push to change the Conservation Act to allow more development, and the Government views DoC land as a resource to exploit for economic use – tourism, mining, energy and resources,” says Jen Miller, a spokesperson for the conservation group.

There’s “a significant degree of agency capture” in DoC, which has Mbie “breathing down its neck”, she says. “They are all so politically attuned that it impacts on their ability to do the mahi [job].”

Makaroro River, which would have been dammed for the Ruataniwha scheme. Photo/Tim Whittaker

Leaving things in better nick

Sanson says he is most proud of Predator Free 2050, a target he helped curate and a goal that physicist Paul Callaghan (who died in 2012 and for whom Callaghan Innovation is named) had described as having the potential to be New Zealand’s moonshot. Former PM Key championed the concept.

Salmon warns that the lofty goal will require investment in new technologies, but much can be done to preserve biodiversity before that, such as fencing off sites where rare plants are growing.

Last year, the Anthropocene Working Group, an international body of geologists, declared that the Holocene Epoch had ended. They proposed that we were now in the Anthropocene Epoch, an era when the impact of humans can be measured in the geological record through a marked rise in CO2 levels, mass extinctions, deforestation, plastics, soot and radioactive materials. That classification hasn’t yet been accepted by the International Geological Congress.

Sanson says he’s an optimist. “I believe in the power of people to solve problems. I believe in the power of artificial intelligence. I don’t aim to solve the world’s problems, but I aim to leave what I look after in better nick than when I started.”

This article was first published in the July 22, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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