That Freedom Camping Thing

“Freedom Camping” is a term that’s been around for about as long as New Zealand’s been a popular international backpacking tourist destination. Along with its sibling term “Freedom Tramping”, the two typically refer to camping or tramping without the structure of a camp-ground or a guided walking company.

I really hate both terms. The “freedom” prefix implies that camping and tramping aren’t already free and independent things to do. Camping and tramping were free and independent long before tour operators and journalists decided to explicitly label them as such, as if independence was a more novel thing than paying thousands of dollars to have a multi-day guided tour in an area that’s completely free to enter courtesy of New Zealand citizens. I’d much prefer that camping was camping and tramping was tramping, and that the operators and journalists could have adopted a novel term for what they do rather than what everyone else does. “Premium-priced guided walking” would have worked. Whatever.

Sadly one of my two pet hate terms is about to be formalised into New Zealand Law, thanks to the incoming Freedom Camping Bill 2011, which was introduced to parliament a couple of weeks ago. Without this Bill being passed it’s only been possible for local authorities and for the Department of Conservation to pursue the annoying breed of Freedom Campers through courts, which is often far less practical than simply handing out fines (like parking tickets), and so its progression is much to the joy of a lot of local body authorities who should soon be able to police their areas more effectively. DoC and Internal Affairs published a joint Regulatory Impact Statement with reference to the Bill, which can be read here.

It’s likely that the Bill will be pushed through fairly quickly because the government is keen to get it in before hoards of freedom-seeking transients arrive from overseas for November’s Rugby World Cup. Scanning through the text of the Bill, it seems unlikely that this law change will strongly affect back-country tramping experiences, but there’s some crossover potential and a few things to be aware of, perhaps even concerned about, which I’ve listed below.

In essence, the Bill aims to address reported problems whereby increasing numbers of people, allegedly foreign tourists, have been touring around New Zealand and “freedom camping” irresponsibly on roadsides, scenic lookout points, and various other places like public carparks. The consequence, which has become a main driver for this law change, is when these people dump rubbish and (in particular) human excretement along roadsides and scenic viewing points. Probably at least some of these problems have always existed and have been caused by irresponsible New Zealanders, but at the very least there’s anecdotal evidence that backpackers from overseas have made it considerably worse in the last few years. This is the main publicised reason for the law change, anyway. There may also be some concealed interests in forcing tourists to pay money to accommodation businesses rather than getting the camping and accommodation for free down the road.

Local authorities can already make by-laws to control camping in the areas they control, but until now these bylaws have often been fragmented, inconsistent and hard to police. This is especially the case since many people who “freedom camp” are transient, and the requirement to pursue them through courts is difficult, time consuming and expensive. The Freedom Camping Bill doesn’t make it specifically illegal to camp in any part of the country, but instead aims to unify the process by which local authorities make bylaws, issue infringements and issue fines to offenders without needing to take people to court every time. Supposedly this should make it clearer and easier to deal with the supposed problems nationally. The Bill retrospectively recognises a lengthy list of existing bylaws as continuing to be valid, to allow for a smoother transition.

Rather than occuring in the back-country, the most publicised problems occur on land controlled by local authorites and on the fringes of the conservation estate, such as near DoC-controlled camp-sites. Two particular reasons I think this Bill might be relevant for back-country tramping, however, are:

  • As well as giving certain powers to local authorities over land they administer, the Bill gives similar powers to DoC over land it administers. For the latter, these powers are mostly intended to be administered only in places that don’t form the main part of the back-country, and section 14(4) specifically says that restrictions can’t be put in place unless it’s consistent with the purpose of the land and any management plans in place. On the other hand, it’s still changing some things around the conservation estate…
  • On occasion, people who go tramping will camp on public road-sides before or after entering the back-country, especially in tramping clubs. As a tramping club member, I’ve often camped on public road-sides, typically after arriving at the end of a road late on a Friday night with the intent of getting away early the following morning. Encouragement for local bodies to create unnecessary bylaws might make such camping illegal when it presently isn’t, even though it’s nothing to do with the stereotype “freedom camper” for which the legislation is supposedly being introduced.

Here’s a list of points, and possibly concerns, that stood out to me when reading the Bill.

Burying waste: Section (18)(1)(h) states that waste, including human waste, must be placed into a suitable receptacle when “freedom camping” on conservation land. “Freedom camping” for conservation land is defined as camping within 1km of a vehicle accessible area, or within 1 km of the coast. In other words, this Bill will now make it illegal to bury toilet waste within 1 km of a road-end. In some places this isn’t far to travel, but in others—particularly those with lots of steep climbing—it can take a long time to get a short distance. Rangiwahia Hut in the Ruahines, for instance, is only 2 km from the road but is signposted as a 3 hour walk, and often is. Parts of the Tararuas, to name another example, have 4 public wheel drive vehicle tracks injected quite a long way in, even though it’s close to a back-country experience. If interpreted to the letter, this would be a significant change in back-country management policy, because that 1 kilometer from roads in which any camping is defined as “freedom camping”, and the coast for that matter, juts a significant distance into some parks. It also contradicts DoC’s current advice about burying toilet waste.

“Freedom Camping” allowed by default: Section 10 specifically states that “Freedom Camping” is allowed in any area unless it’s explicitly restricted or prohibited. On DoC land, for instance, it’s necessary to explicitly define a section of land where camping’s not allowed, and only a restricted part of conservation land (around the coast, near roads and near Great Walks) is even eligible for this.

New bylaws must be justified: Section 11(2) states that a local authority may only make a bylaw to block “Freedom Camping” if it’s satisfied that it’s necessary to do so “to protect the area”, “to protect the health and safety of people who may visit the area”, or “to protect access to the area”, and if the bylaw is the most appropriate way of addressing the “perceived problem”, and the bylaw is consistent with the Bill of Rights. Hopefully this will be interpreted to mean that every individual part of the land being restricted has to be clearly reasoned, but I have a feeling it might be interpreted to allow councils to continue creating broad and lazy restrictions on all of their land with only loose reasoning, similar to the long list of existing and upcoming bylaws titled things like “Camps other than in designated area” in Schedule 3 and Schedule 4.

“Perceived” problems: Section 11(2) uses the phrase “perceived problem” which, to me, suggests that we’re on track for encouraging restrictive bylaws for things when there’s really no real proven problem at all. This is especially interesting because when describing how the Bill applies to DoC, there’s no such mention of the word “perceived”. It seems inconsistent to me, and designed to let councils off the hook for badly researched and badly justified bylaws.

The specific offences: Section 18 is worth reading, because it describes the specific offences, which in summary are:

  • (a) Camping in a local authority area where it’s been restricted or prohibited.
  • (b,d) While Freedom Camping, damaging an area or dumping waste (except into a suitable waste receptacle) in any local authority area.
  • (f,g) Camping on DoC land where it’s been restricted or prohibited.
  • (h) While Freedom Camping, damaging an area or dumping waste (except into a suitable waste receptacle) in any DoC land.

Defining areas: A point of concern I’m wondering about is the way in which the Bill describes how both DoC and local authorities can create restrictions for camping on their respective lands. When doing so they can provide either a map or a description or both. Sections 11(4) and 15(4), however (being sections that respectively pertain to local authorities and to DoC), state that if there’s any contradiction between the two, the description is authoritative, and there’s no clarity around how specific the description needs to be. In other words, official maps that describe where you can and can’t camp wouldn’t necessarily count for anything. Personally I’d prefer that if either were more authoritative than the other, it was the map. Generally speaking, maps are far more clear and objective.

Consultation required: This was probably happening anyway in many cases, but the Bill confirms in Section 11(5) that local authorities have to go through a special consultation process when considering changes to “Freedom Camping” bylaws.

Other details: The latter parts of the Bill refer to details around penalties and defences. For instance, if your car breaks down and you have to spend the night on the side of the road, it’ll be considered a reasonable excuse and you’d likely be let off. Other notes are that a fine can be up to $10,000, and a further $5,000 if one tries to interfere with the law enforcement process, such as by giving false details. Section (32) states that an enforcement officer must produce his or her warrant of authority whenever reasonably required to do so by any person. So if they try to kick you out, you can ask to see their authority. As far as I can tell, the Bill doesn’t allow for regular police to come along and evict people. Enforcement officers have to be appointed by local authorities or by DoC (as relevant).

Generally it seems good with the intent, but I guess it’s a mixed bag. Some of the concerns I’ve noted may be nothing to worry about, but I’ll need to dwell on them for a while. Thoughts from others are welcome as always.

As a parting thought after reading all this, I’m thinking that if DoC is to be able to issue instant fines to people caught “freedom camping” irresponsibly, why not give DoC some more clout to issue instant fines to people staying in huts without paying hut fees? There would be a bucket-load of instant fine income from warden-avoiding tourists around Tongariro!

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