Protecting the landscape in the Tararua District (maybe)

As has recently been pointed out by Robb, who spends a lot of time tramping in the Ruahines, several large energy companies have recently made submissions on the proposed Tararua District Plan. The companies concerned are Genesis Energy, TrustPower, Meridian Energy, and Mighty River Power. Each of the energy companies has made one of the most detailed submissions to the proposed plan. Some of their comments look interesting as far as the Ruahine and Tararua ranges are concerned.

The Tararua District Council has published the proposed plan on its website. In addition, comments received about the proposed plan are also available for download, either as a summary or as a complete scan of every submission.

The Tararua District is already known for the Tararua Wind Farm, which is operated by TrustPower and sits in the wind tunnel between the Tararua and Ruahine Ranges. This is probably why the energy companies have such a vested interest in the region. As Robb pointed out, however, the changes proposed by the energy companies might result in changes to the District Plan which make it much easier for very large wind turbines to be built, and which could potentially affect the skyline of the Tararua Range and the Ruahine Range, whatever that might entail.

As I write this I’m still trying to figure out exactly what’s been submitted and its significance. Section of the proposed district plan looks of particular interest because it deals with “protection of important natural features, landscape and habitats”. The section goes on to refer to several notable things which include both the Tararuas and the Ruahines. On this section, Meridian Energy has commented about the ambiguity of what makes a “significant landscape”.

Another possible concern is that TrustPower has sought deletion of certain clauses which refer to protecting the “Skyline of the Tararua Range” and the “Skyline of the Ruahine Range” and the “Skyline of the Puketoi Range”, arguing that “skyline” is an ambiguous term and not based on a valid assessment of the landscape. (According to the original draft plan if I understand it correctly, this clause was originally requested by the Department of Conservation.) TrustPower also wants to change some of the terminology from terms like “protection of” to alternative terms like “management of”.

As Robb also pointed out in his blog (see his comment), another important concern is just how much risk the mountain ranges could be in themselves from continued development by energy companies in the longer term future, particularly if there’s a change of government. Such a change any time in the next 10 or 20 years might result in a major change in policy towards large scale development either nearby or inside what is currently considered back-country territory. Irrespective of what the actual motives are or the likeliness of things happening today, these are the kinds of reasons why it’s critically important to monitor what actually gets written down in these sorts of guiding documents. It’s never absolutely clear what might change in the future to affect the motivations and intents of corporations (or leaders or influential individuals) — particularly when lots of money is involved — but at least having some kind of protection in writing makes it easier to keep things in perspective.

District plans by themselves don’t usually determine whether resource consent will be granted for any particular request, but wanting to do something that’s consistent with a district plan that’s already developed will typically make it much easier to get something rubber-stamped. This is likely to be why several energy companies, and also the government’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority, have requested that the plan explicitly recognises that renewable energy is an important thing that contributes to the Tararua District, as it will help renewable energy-related requests to be more streamlined and more likely to be granted through the resource consent process. At the same time, a district plan that makes a less explicit attempt to protect the landscape and skyline value of nearby mountain ranges would make it even easier for energy companies to gain consent for structures (such as massive 200 metre high wind turbines, for instance) which are visible from very far away. This might be a good thing depending on who you are. For instance, making it easier for companies to develop an industry in your region will also inject money into your local economy, although with appropriate guidance it might also be possible to have the same effect without having as many negative externalities. From a tramping and outdoors perspective, this could be harder to find a genuine outdoor experience in certain parts of the Tararua and Ruahine ranges, especially if there are always large human-built structures in the background.

Personally I’d be interested to know what the proposed District Plan means by “skyline”. This is also part of the issue raised by the mentioned energy companies, and the plan doesn’t seem very specific. Reading the draft, I’m confused if “skyline” refers to the silhouette of the mountains as seen from a distance, if it means the view of the horizon as seen from within the mountains, if it refers to the views from people within the Tararua district, or if it’s a combination of these. For myself I think all are important, but that’s just me — whether it’s something that’s out-weighed by the importance of wind generation of electricity in the Tararua District is something that I think needs to be clarified and decided.

Comments about the submissions are being accepted by the Tararua District Council until Friday 3rd of October 2008, so if you’re feeling concerned about this, you have until then to make your voice heard.

For myself, I’m thinking about submitting comments on the submissions to express my concern over protecting the landscape in some way for everyone who visits the area for tramping purposes, but I haven’t completely decided exactly what I’ll say at this point. As a regular visitor from Wellington, I think I might have to at least double, if not triple the amount of after-tramping ice-cream I buy to even come close to the kind of contribution that energy companies make towards the Tararua District’s economy. This is probably the context in which any submission I make will be treated, and from many perspectives that’s fair enough. Ultimately, it’s really also up to the people who live and spend a lot of time in the Tararua District to decide what they want. Personally I’m hoping they decide that the landscape is an important enough thing to make sure that it’s preserved for themselves and for everyone.

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