Justifying Great Walks

News emerged yesterday that a new Great Walk is being considered through Mount Creighton Station, near Queenstown, once tenure review has been sorted. Most references point at this Otago Daily Times’ article, but the original rendition seems to have been produced by the same author on behalf of Mountain Scene, and specifically links the claim back to a document from the Overseas Investment Office that was obtained under the Official Information Act. Wilderness Magazine has also chimed in, and produced a clearer map of the likely route.

I’m not sure what to think except to have some looming concern that the Great Walk concept may have become very skewed in the last few years. Great Walks have a wow factor where tourism is concerned. They tend to attract tourists, who hunt them out, but the presence of a Great Walk can also have a negative effect on an area, certainly for its atmosphere and the freedom and flexibility with which one might visit it.

In addition to cutting a walking super-highway through what might once have been a more remote environment, Great Walks come with baggage. Bylaws frequently restrict camping. Back-country huts tend to shift from the flexible back-country ticket system onto a rigid booking system. Accommodation as a whole is sometimes only available in highly structured sequences, making it difficult to plan a trip which does anything other than follow a tourist conveyor belt. Tracks are hardened and widened, to make them more durable.

The presence of Great Walks, and their rigid structure, is in conflict with the traditional legally enshrined values of our National Parks and Conservation Areas. These values prioritise freedom of entry and exploration for as long as it’s not unreasonably destructive to the rest of the park. Great Walks are, therefore, a compromise which should only be used where needed.

When the concept of Great Walks was first implemented in 1992, Nigel Parrott from the Department of Conservation justified it as follows:

The Department of Conservation Great Walks track system has been introduced to manage impacts on New Zealand’s most highly used tracks. With a projected large increase in visitor numbers to New Zealand’s parks and tracks it was important that such a system was put in place.
— Federated Mountain Clubs Bulletin 111 (October 1992), page 18.

In other words, tracks which were already popular were being given Great Walk status so they could be managed more appropriately to minimise the resulting impact on the surrounding environment. All nine current Great Walks had been planned at this time, and all were in place by the end of 1993. No new Great Walks have been added for the stated reason, or any other reason, since.

This justification is consistent with the list of DOC’s legally mandated functions in section 6 of the Conservation Act, which states that the Department should “allow” the use of the conservation estate for tourism. ie. DOC will do what’s needed to manage things to allow tourists to visit where they choose to visit, with minimal impact to surrounds, but it has a much more limited mandate around actually promoting tourism.

For me, it follows that any future Great Walks should be justified by a track already being popular, or at the very least by being a way to concentrate visits into a highly managed area so as to reduce pressure on other nearby areas.

This doesn’t seem to be how things have been argued lately, though. In recent years, the marketed image of Great Walks and their popularity has become a magnet for tourists. The potential band-wagon of a highly recognised “brand” has caught the attention of local communities and businesses.

In January, suggestions were made that a new Great Walk could be built through Paparoa National Park, both as a memorial to the Pike River tragedy and for economic benefit to the region.

Also recently, the Coromandel great walks project aims to build a new walkway linking the east and west coast of the Coromandel, then obtain Great Walk status for it, ultimately to drive economic development in the region.

A year ago, a plan was presented in Northland to lobby for a Great Walk for the purpose of putting Northland on the map, and also to bring tourism and industry to the far north.

I don’t mind walkways being built when there’s good reason to build them, and I don’t mind building tracks and facilities with the hope of attracting tourism or other economic benefit, which has been done for decades anyway. These all look as if they could be worthwhile and valuable projects, and the people behind them deserve credit for all the time and effort which goes into something like this. I just don’t think they should be made into Great Walks. Doing so brings overheads and restrictions to the conservation estate which contradict other values. It’s a special step which should only be used with caution and necessity, rather than to promote a place by latching onto the brand.

On the other hand if a local tourism drive happens to make the place so popular that the number of visitors negatively impacts on surrounds, then perhaps there’s reason to start considering if a Great Walk status, with its more strict management, is justified. Great Walks, I believe, are an extra special step which should only ever be used with caution.

Furthermore, if DOC starts responding to local demands for increasing local tourism, instead of sticking to its mandate of allowing for tourism which already exists, there’s an increased risk of DOC competing with itself at a national level. This in turn risks wasting resources which could be more usefully spent elsewhere, not to mention potentially damaging environments unnecessarily by building, managing and maintaining Great Walk highways which are not in demand.

In the Northland article linked four paragraphs above, and as recently as October 2014, a Department of Conservation representative said:

There are no plans to add to the number of Great Walks. The success of the Great Walks brand relies on there being a small number of places managed to a higher standard. A place does not need to be a Great Walk to be valued and well used.
— Helen Ough Dealy speaking as DOC Community Relations Ranger.

This brings us back to the Moonlight Trail situation at Queenstown. If the claim of the Overseas Investment Office is indeed correct, and this new track “is expected to rank ‘in the Great Walks category'”, then it suggests that things may be already underway. If that’s the case then what has changed, if anything, in our criteria for Great Walks? Is a Great Walk status necessary for reasons that can’t be mitigated by simply building a track with traditional facilities?

Maybe it’ll be worth it to have a new Great Walk, and maybe it makes sense in some regard. But if it’s allowed then I strongly hope that there’s an very clearly stated conservation-based justification for a new Great Walk in the area. Without this, it risks opening flood gates for everyone to start demanding that the Department of Conservation create a new Great Walk in their local area.

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