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Unofficial Tracks in Egmont National Park

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Track Closed signs in Egmont National Park.
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I hope that some of the quotes in Wednesday’s article via the Taranaki Daily News [3] have been printed incorrectly or out of context.

In it, a senior DOC ranger, referring to Egmont National Park, comments about people unofficially marking and maintaining old tracks, which DOC no longer officially maintains. Sometimes people even mark new tracks of their own making!

The problem? Other people might follow them. They might get lost or distracted from DOC’s official tracks. The unofficial routes might not have been routed or maintained to the same safety standards as DOC would have ensured. It might be harder to find people if they get lost, because they’ll be away from the main tracks.

I have mixed thoughts about this, but mostly dismay with DOC’s apparent stance. There may be issues where people are causing significant damage to the surrounding environment by marking and maintaining their tracks. If people are placing giant markers that are damaging or out of character, or are themselves creating a hazard in ways which rival what the nearby outdoor creates all by itself, then fair enough to raise those specific instances. But beyond this I’m struggling to see an issue with people using and marking alternative routes.

It’s also frustrating to see a senior DOC official speaking about its own animal control paths being “not open to the public”, as if it’s only legal for visitors to go where DOC says they can go. Even if DOC might prefer that people stayed away from its traps and stoat tunnels, to say this is not just misleading, it’s outright wrong.

Access rights on public land

A couple of years back, I wrote a short rant about public access rights in New Zealand. It continues to stand that Section 4 of the National Parks Act [4] guarantees free access to National Parks for all members of the public. DOC is a caretaker of the land, not the owner. Rights are defined by the law that’s authorised by Parliament on behalf of the public. DOC can only influence these rights where it’s delegated to do so under the same law, and within the bounds and reasons which the law allows.

The dictating attitude which is exhibited through this latest media interaction, intentionally or not, is consistent with other directives splattered around Egmont National Park, and some others. The park is littered with signs stating that various tracks are “closed”, creating ambiguity for many visitors as to whether they’re even allowed to proceed beyond the sign.

The photos at the top of this post show two signs which currently mark two ends of an old high level track in Egmont National Park, between Holly Hut and Kahui Hut. They declare that the track is “closed”. It makes perfect sense for a regular visitor not to follow it, because the main route has been wiped out by erosion, roughly in the middle of what was previously a track of about 7 kilometers. Where the law is concerned it’s still completely legal to venture past these signs and view the natural damage, or attempt to get around it at one’s own risk if that’s how you roll, or go elsewhere entirely. But the signs still imply that venturing beyond them is illegal, misleadingly using a term which is defined under New Zealand’s Conservation Act as referring to areas of land which can’t legally be entered.

This isn’t to say that it’s not necessarily good advice to avoid going to certain places, and good advice about an area should be welcomed by anyone who visits it. But making people believe something’s illegal, when the real situation is that they should simply be strongly advised against going there, is something I’m personally uncomfortable with seeing.

Field Hut, Tararua Ranges [5]

In contrast to Egmont National Park’s “track closed” signs, consider signs referring to the old Penn Creek track (Tararuas), as seen in front of Field Hut in this photo. The wording doesn’t use the word ‘closed’, it just advises you’re probably silly to go there unless you really do know what you’re doing.

For as much as I enjoy Egmont National Park when I visit, and appreciate those people (both paid and unpaid) who work hard to look after it, my impression is also that it’s a park that’s certainly on the more highly managed end of DOC-administered parks in New Zealand.

Above the bush-line in Egmont National Park, manufactured boardwalks and steps are frequent. Below the bush-line, a montage of bridges and ladders are all over, keeping official tracks very well defined. Fixed metal ladders and constructed steps are frequent in places where many other parks would simply require a visitor to climb up a slightly steep face of rock, tree roots and dirt in the footprints of others who’ve gone before. Is this the type of low standard which supposedly makes these unofficial tracks dangerous, according to quotes in the above-linked article? I’m not sure, as I’m apparently not meant to go there and find out. It’s too dangerous, or something.

Much of this engineering is to protect the local eco-system from the park’s own popularity. They woudn’t go together well if hundreds or thousands of people regularly trampled through without a well defined route. But this attendance to regular visitors, who typically want to follow regular tracks, doesn’t make off-track interest from other people any less legal.

Rights and obligations

When you enter a National Park, it’s generally legal to visit anywhere without needing to stick to DOC’s officially sanctioned and advertised places. For individuals and groups who are appropriately skilled, there’s much that can be learned and experienced by leaving the main manufactured tracks which DOC has constructed. Sometimes there’s simply a more efficient or interesting way to get to where you might want to be.

At the same time, there’s a legal obligation to avoid causing damage. How much damage is okay? Protection of parks in their natural state is the value which the National Parks Act holds most highly, according to its principles [6]. After this, the NPA also rates the right of public entry so that we can all enjoy the inspiration, enjoyment and recreation that comes from National Parks. Safety of the public is barely even mentioned in the National Parks Act, drawing from an historic precedent that taking personal responsibility for one’s own safety is expected.

Weighing these principles will often be a blurry line, but what’s acceptable tends to balance practicality against protection for the environment. Leaving footprints by walking through parks seems to be okay. Leaving behind rubbish is (now) frowned upon. Chopping down trees is normally frowned upon. Nailing markers into trees is probably becoming less acceptable in modern times, but leaving tape markers tied to trees is generally overlooked, although it might depend on how it’s done.

Marking of tracks also affects some wilderness values, which is a separate debate from safety issues. Some people like to have a place without markers so they can practice navigation, or just experience and challenge themselves in a place with less human influence. Others might wish to have a useful marked route so they don’t have to bother with such intensive navigation and bush-bashing every time they want to efficiently go somewhere useful. Frequently, useful routes tend to form into ground trails anyway, whether due to people or animals, because they’re so often paths of least resistance between interesting and useful things. It seems a big stretch of precedent to challenge a higher frequency of unofficial markings as a safety issue, though, to the extent of telling people not to do it for that reason.

In conclusion

I appreciate that the chances may be heightened that a person could accidentally follow an unofficially marked route if they’re distracted, and maybe even not notice if they’re in over their head and return to where they came from. Even if it seems silly, people do these things on occasion. It’s human nature.

There’s plenty of value, however, in our existing culture of being able to explore our own back-yard on our own terms, without needing direct authorisation and fostering from a government department. For me it’s a step too far to be suppressing this simply to make DOC’s management of other people easier. Instead, we could be working to help those others to be safe on their own terms by being aware of the possible hazards and distractions of the environment they’re entering.

I hope this has just been a misunderstanding, but if not then instead of having a DOC official tell people not to make their own routes through the park, even threatening to prosecute those who maintain old and alternative routes, it’d be nice if there could instead be an effort to accommodate it. If there’s a genuine safety issue with the way in which alternative routes are being marked in highly popular places, then maybe help to educate people to mark routes with minimal impact and confusion for other visitors. Is this easier said than done?