Mountain Biking Between Holdsworth Road and Atiwhakatu Hut

The Tararuas hit the news a few days ago, not for the most flattering reasons.

The Tararua, Rimutaka and Aorangi Huts Committee, which forms the representation of local tramping and recreation clubs in DOC’s consideration of local park management issues, has expressed concern that DOC issued a permit for a “one-off” mountain bike ride event between Holdsworth Road and Atiwhakatu Hut.

The event is the Huri Huri 2016 Wairarapa Bike Festival, with this particular ride to take place on Thursday 21st January. Here’s the promotional Youtube video (also embedded in that page), which I’ll presume they also had DOC’s permission to produce because it clearly shows mountain bikes being ridden in that region. The event is being billed as a “one off”, but it seems reasonable to expect that if DOC’s seen fit to permit the activity once, it could easily do so again whether for this festival or not.

The complaint of the Huts Committee isn’t without merit. Under normal circumstances, it’s illegal to enter a Conservation Park (Tararua Forest Park included) with a vehicle unless it’s in a place that’s been designated for that type of use. This rule is embodied in Regulation 19 of the State Forest Parks and Forest Recreation Regulations 1979 (which are deemed as valid for modern Conservation Parks under section 65(5) of the Conservation Act).

DOC can grant permission, of course, but it’s always meant to be adhering to the local management plans and strategies in place for the parks, which have been developed in accordance with consultation of park users and everyone who takes an interest.

The active Wellington Conservation Management strategy, which covers Tararua Forest Park, can be read here. The core argument of the Huts Committee is that to allow mountain bikes into this area is inconsistent with this strategy. DOC has allegedly made an arbitrary decision to let it happen, ignoring the official strategy document to which it’s legally meant to be adhering.

Part of the problem here seems to be that the active Wellington Conservation Management Strategy is very old. It was published in 1996, nearly 20 years ago. The strategy itself proclaims it as only being relevant from 1996 until 2005, but DOC never initiated the process to renew the strategy with a new round of consultation, and so it remains active.

DOC could probably be blamed for this situation, but in fairness it’s been traditionally under-resourced to do its job. Renewing management strategy documents, when it’s not illegal to continue using old strategies that already exist, may have been low on the list of priorities.

As recently as 10 years ago, I personally recall the Atiwhakatu Track as being radically different from what it is today. It was often in relative disrepair compared with now. I doubt it would have been suitable for riding mountain bikes. Since then, however, the area has changed markedly. Atiwhakatu Hut has been replaced with a building that’s much more homely and attractive for families. Similarly the valley walk into that hut has been made much more moderated.

I’m undecided if mountain biking is appropriate in the area and under what circumstances, but what’s clear to me is that the area there now is not in the same state as the one which existed when the current Management Strategy was developed and published.

Furthermore, demographics have changed. Mountain biking as a recreation is much more popular than it was 20 years ago. Even many trampers live parallel lives as mountain bikers, and it’s likely that some of the people interested in riding through parts of Tararua Forest Park would happily be tramping through other parts.

If the Wellington Conservation Management Strategy were consulted on today, I think it’s very likely that there would be a stronger representation of people wanting opportunities to take mountain bikes into certain parts of Tararua Forest Park. They might even have suggested that this track between Holdsworth Road and Atiwhakatu Hut makes a good candidate for allowing mountain biking.

Funnily enough, DOC finally is currently consulting on the Wellington Conservation Management Strategy. Stage One of the process requested feedback and ideas from members of the public earlier this year. The next step is for DOC to produce a draft strategy, upon which everyone can submit their feedback, and the final document gets produced from that. The draft document has not yet been published, unless I’m mistaken.

I’m guessing that when the draft document eventually is published, we’ll discover that it’s suggesting some level of Mountain Biking be considered appropriate in this region. Someone in DOC is probably (even if incorrectly) using this unreleased draft as their guideline on the premise that it’s more current and relevant than the 1996 strategy, even though it hasn’t been condoned by any final public consultation. Maybe someone in the office thought it could be a useful opportunity to test the waters and see how things go, prior to a final strategy being produced.

If you care about this sort of thing, pay close attention to how the mountain bike event goes when it takes place on 21 January. When DOC finally publishes the Draft Conservation Management Strategy, it’ll be a good opportunity to submit on the issue, whether in support or against.

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