Recap on the recent Milford Track accident – DOC’s Review

Kathryn Ryan interviewed Allan Munn this morning on Nine to Noon (Radio NZ National). Allan Munn is the Department of Conservation’s Southern Region Services Director. The interview regards changes being made following the death, in May 2014, of a person who was swept away from the Milford Track.

This morning’s 20 minute interview can be listened to here. It’s also been reported on in The Press, and by Wilderness Magazine.

The incident which sparked this review occurred when the group were on the Milford Track out of the main tourist season, after many of the standard “Great Walk” style facilities are removed. It’s not uncommon for people to visit outside the booking season, whether to avoid higher hut fees or after having been too late to book at an earlier time. It remains public land with open access, and can be relatively safe with good preparation and advice, and an ability to assess conditions. The group didn’t seem to have been be prepared for the reduced facilities, nor properly aware of it. This combined with other factors probably led to bad decisions and eventually resulted in the accident.

I wrote down some of my own thoughts about this a few months ago.

DOC has now completed an internal review. It’s decided that safety processes are fundamentally sound, but certain things could still be improved upon. During the interview Mr Munn noted that DOC had “a range of contacts with that party” prior to the event. The party members either didn’t hear the available advice, or chose to ignore it and take their chances. In the face of this, there’s probably little that could have reasonably and immediately been done in that specific case.

More generally, though, DOC’s review has acknowledged that there are problems with getting key messages across to the masses in the face of modern forms of media, much of which is out of DOC’s control. It’s also noting higher numbers of visitors of limited skills and experience aiming to walk the Milford Track during the buffer zone between the end of the tourist season and when the most dangerous winter conditions set in.

I’ve requested a copy of the review, and am hoping it can be handed out. It sounds like an interesting read. Based on Mr Munn’s comments this morning, at least some of the changes DOC is implementing sound like things that (metaphorically) attempt to further tape over gaps which people can fall through after not necessarily having acted with their own best interests in mind. I’m undecided about how useful this is, but it’d be good to see the actual detail.

Compensating for inadequate preparation

I’m not a great fan of compensating for people’s inadequate preparation. I don’t think it addresses a more fundamental issue of people not taking responsibility for their own safety. There’s a risk that compensating for that can has an opposite effect of encouraging visitors to be even less responsible with planning and preparation, simply placing more problems and responsibility on the state. The Milford Track might need to be so heavily “managed” as it is during the booking season to compensate for its excessive popularity, but the management probably also encourages a lack of self responsibility for many visitors, both in and out of booking season.

I’m in two minds, because I can’t think of what else can be done. The fundamental problem is very hard to address. Some people will always ignore or fail to appreciate good advice, intentionally, accidentally, or otherwise, and especially when there’s a combination of youth and reduced skill and experience. When this happens en-mass in a way that can be predicted, I’m doubtful about the ethics of casually letting people suffer tragic consequences, purely for the sake of taking some kind of moral high ground.

An alternative to compensating for a lack of responsibility and skills is one of extreme control: lock up the Conservation Estate and tell people that they’re not allowed to visit and explore it on their own terms. This occurs in some countries, and it’s something I definitely don’t wish to see in New Zealand. Freedom to explore on one’s own terms is one of the key things which makes it so great around here. As soon as we start compromising that, or trying to distinguish between people who are capable and people who aren’t, it’ll become a barrier for any random person to get involved or try something new, and learn about the country we live in.

In the past I’ve expressed concern about the gradual and systematic seepage of new bylaws into our National Parks which enable DOC officials to close access to parks (or parts of them), not for environmental protection, but for “public safety reasons”. That said, I also appreciate the obvious effort which the current administration of DOC is going to to avoid actually doing that.

Specific recommended measures

Of specific interest to the recent accident, the review has suggested leaving the avalanche-prone bridges in place for longer. From now on they won’t be removed until 5 weeks after the end of the tourist season. The review has also resulted in a decision to keep wardens on the Milford Track beyond the end of the official tourist booking season, possibly including a “roving warden” type of system. This is acknowledged by Mr Munn as a judgement call which balances lessened risk for some tourists against increased risk for some DOC staff, who will be working on the track in potentially more risky times, and will later be removing the bridges during more risky times. The risk can be managed, of course, it it’s always there. It may result in loss of bridges to avalanches.

DOC’s also going to try and work on standardising its information provision, making the distinction between summer and winter season more clear, and attempting to work with other publishers and hopefully some of the newer-media information providers, to give a more realistic view of what to expect in New Zealand. Another measure is to review the signs on the tracks and elsewhere, in a similar way to sign changes approaching the Cascade Saddle.

There’s also a consultation aspect to the review, which might lead to something beneficial. Mr Munn also noted that although DOC already consults with groups like the NZ Deerstalker’s Association and Federated Mountain Clubs and the Mountain Safety Council,it’s interested in formalising the way in which interacts with those groups about what’s happening and the decisions it makes.

Signage and skills

I think it’ll be interesting to see the justification of proposed changes to signs, and how it works out. I guess it’s part of a wider range of adjustments and maybe that’s the point and there could be actual objective research showing that it genuinely works. My gut feeling, however, is to be sceptical of the likely effectiveness of warning signage. Especially if its main objective is to tells people, at the point when they’ve finally arrived at the start of their journey (or are well into it) after much anticipation and excitement, that they should seriously consider turning around.

Mr Munn also commented on the decreasing amount of skill and experience of many visitors, including New Zealanders. Without disputing it I’m interested to know more about the background of this assertion, and what it actually means. I haven’t been around for long enough to appreciate changes over decades, but I’ve gathered that people have always been out there doing things with questionable competence. eg. Does this comment refer to some measure of average skill in the back-country is reducing, resulting from more visitors overall, many of whom might be less skilled than a static portion of visitors who’ve remained the same? Is low skill much more concentrated in certain places and not changing in others? Have there been genuinely fewer incidents in the past than in the present, or just fewer reports and SAR responses in the past (maybe due to less effective communication) to what might have been comparable incidents? And so on.

Anyway, these are just my own random thoughts for now, which often amount to non-committal brainstorming. Please go ahead and listen to the interview, and as always it’s interesting to hear of thoughts and comments if people have them.

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