That Paparoa National Park Great Walk

In September I wrote about precedents around Great Walks seeming to become skewed. This morning I think that’s finally happened. Nick Smith has announced that a new Great Walk will be created in Paparoa National Park, to commemorate the 29 people killed in the Pike River Mine accident of 2010.

I do not for a moment wish to belittle the obvious tragedy for the people who died in the Pike River explosion, their families and their friends. But purely as justification for a Great Walk, I really don’t understand this at all. If there’s to be a new track, then why a Great Walk instead of a regular track?

In 1992, DOC itself justified the Great Walks concept as being “to manage impacts on New Zealand’s most highly used tracks” [FMC Bulletin 111, Oct ’92, page 18]. This was stated at a time when all of New Zealand’s current Great Walks were either in place, or planned. 23 years later, the newly-planned Paparoa Great Walk is not highly used. Therefore what has changed, why has it changed, and can we expect the same new principles to be applied for a new batch of Great Walks?

In recent years, Great Walks have become a major brand. Tourists seek out the Great Walks because they’re great walks. The only rationale I can detect in this is to latch on to that brand and attract tourists to a local area, and in fact Nick Smith’s raw press release stresses that “it will bring tourism and economic development to the West Coast”.

Smith’s press release also mentions a couple of other things (protecting the area, ensuring access to the resting place of 29 miners), but neither of those other two actually require a Great Walk. They could be achieved with a simple track combined with applying protection already available under existing law. Therefore those claims are really just government spin.

If generating local tourism and boosting a local economy is the real reason for creating a new Great Walk, we should be asking some serious questions around what impact it will have on future decisions, because this decision seems very politicised.

If the West Coast gets a Great Walk, funded by DOC’s national budget for attracting tourists, does Northland also get DOC money spent on the Great Walk it wants for boosting its own economy? Do Queenstown’s aggressive lobbyists get DOC to spend even more money so they can have a Great Walk that’s more conveniently located for Queenstown’s corporate juggernaut, possibly at the expense of other regions?

A risk is that DOC ends up competing against itself as local lobbyists argue for money to be spent in their regions for no real reason other than that they think it’ll boost their economies at the possible expense of surrounding regions. A new surge of Great Walks could also have other down-sides. Typically camping is restricted with Great Walks, huts end up on booking systems instead of first-come first-serve, and combined this compromises flexibility for visiting an area on one’s own terms.

I reckon DOC should stick to its original justification from 1993.

Great Walks should only go to places where there’s already so much popularity that extra management is needed to protect the surrounding environment. To do so is also more consistent with the Conservation Act and National Parks Act, which require DOC to foster receation but only to allow for tourism, and even moreso to protect the environment as a priority over recreation.

Unfortunately, as this decision already seems to have been made, it might be too late.

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