That Freedom Camping Thing (Part 2)

Following my post a few weeks ago regarding the Freedom Camping Bill (yuck! I hate that name!), I’ve finally gotten around to authoring my submission. Submissions are due on June 29th so if you have anything to say, you’ll need to be quick. You can submit directly online by following this link, and I think it’d be great if anyone with an interest did so. (I really don’t care if you agree with me or not, I just think it’s important that people’s views get considered.) You can view the Bill online at the New Zealand Legislation website.

I’ve included my submission in the rest of this post. It was something of a rush job in the end, and I re-wrote about two thirds of it this evening having given myself a few more days to think. I hope it came out okay. [Update 7.55pm, 28-6-2011: There were a few grammatical and cut/paste errors towards the end that really annoyed me, so I made some small changes and resubmitted. Hopefully they’ll take the revised one instead.]

Freedom Camping Bill Submission

A submission for the Local Government and Environment Committee to consider in relation to the Freedom Camping Bill.

This submission is based on the Freedom Camping Bill at its first reading.

Thanks for the opportunity to submit on the Freedom Camping Bill.  I think the intent of the Bill is a good one, in that it aims to give local authorities and DoC the practical ability to police their own bylaws. That said, I also think some parts of the Bill need careful reconsideration.

The concerns I raise relate to how current wording of the Bill might affect back-country tramping and (in particular) tramping clubs that presently spend some time camping on road-sides. This is despite the Bill’s introductory text which claims that it does not target back-country users. I also believe the wording includes some inconsistencies which should be clarified.

My perspective comes from several years of back-country tramping with a tramping club based in Wellington, although I’m not representing any particular club here. I’ve lived in Melbourne for employment reasons since the start of 2011, but still have a strong interest in happenings in New Zealand.

Burying waste on Conservation Land

The Freedom Camping Bill states that its intent is not to target back-country campers, but in Clause 5(1) the Bill also defines “Freedom Camping” as (among other things) being camping “within 1km of a formed road, [or] a vehicle accessible area” whilst on DoC land. The intent of this clause is presumably to cover areas on the fringes of roads where people might stop and camp, but as written it also appears to cover (for instance) some areas fairly deep into parts of the Tararua and Ruahine Ranges to name a couple of examples. These ranges include vehicle accessible areas in the form of 4 wheel drive tracks, often public roads. Some conservation areas can also feel relatively like back-country whilst still being close to a road. The walk to Rangiwahia Hut in the Ruahine Range, for instance, is signposted as 3 hours due to steep and awkward slopes, but the Hut itself is still less than 2km from a road.

Problem: Waste restrictions seem to contradict existing DoC rules

Camping within a significant proportion of Conservation Land that is traditionally treated as back-country by its users might, in fact, be defined by this Bill as “Freedom Camping” despite the policy statement which indicates it “does not target” back-country campers.

For the most part this definition probably doesn’t create practical problems, because most of the Bill’s changes would require for DoC to implement rules in those areas where Freedom Camping might occur. Presumably DoC is unlikely to do this unless it has good reason as defined under the Bill. In at least once case, however, the Bill seems to be inadvertently re-defining back-country policy in these areas with no action from DoC.

Specifically Clause 18(1)(h)(ii) does seem to create a new rule that applies on DoC land for these “Freedom Camping” zones, irrespective of what DoC says. The clause states that it’s an offence to deposit waste onto land unless it’s into a waste receptacle. This is consistent with the existing law for regular rubbish which trampers must carry out, but it’s not presently the case with human waste which the Freedom Camping Bill also targets with its clause. Even according to DoC’s own guidelines [1], toilet waste can be buried in a suitable place as long as there’s no toilet nearby and that doing so meets sensible guidelines, such as being away from waterways. The Freedom Camping Bill seems to change this, saying that it’s no longer okay, but (apparently) only if the perpetrator happens to be camping at the time.

The clause, therefore, seems to be changing New Zealand’s back-country management policy without clear consultation on the change.

Suggestions

Suggestion 1: Carefully consider the Bill in the context of how it might affect back-country management policy through a clause that really seems to be being targeting tourists who camp next to easily accessible roads.

Suggestion 2: Re-consider whether Clause 5(1) should include infrequently used 4 wheel drive tracks on equal terms to regular roads when it refers to “vehicle accessible areas”.

Suggestion 3: Presuming that DoC’s existing guidelines for burying toilet waste are still considered reasonable on conservation land, the Bill should make it clear that digging a hole counts as a suitable “receptacle” as referred to in Clause 18(1)(h)(ii) in such situations, as long as it’s a back-country area.

Bylaws around road-side camping

Many back-country users, particularly but not limited to tramping clubs, camp on the side of roads prior to entering back-country areas. A common scenario for a tramping club might be for a group to leave after work on a Friday night, arrive at a conservation area access point late at night, camp until the following morning, and then start tramping. Arriving at the start of a tramp on Friday night is often desirable so as to maximise weekend time for tramping. Furthermore, the nature of tramping clubs’ interest in visiting obscure places means that it’s often desirable to start and finish trips at uncommon locations which don’t necessarily have reasonable campsites either on or off DoC land.

The most obvious location for camping is sometimes on the side of the road, or (more frequently) at the end of a road that leads into an access point. These roads are nearly always rural, and tend to be well away from popular tourist zones. I can’t speak for those I’ve never met, but it’s my belief from those I have met that members of such clubs are responsible and aim to have minimal impact on any local authority land, just as standard practice on DoC-managed back-country areas is to leave no traces.

The Bill makes clear that when road-side camping is restricted or disallowed, it is Council Bylaws that do so rather than the Freedom Camping Bill itself. As the incoming framework for such bylaws, however, it’s important that the Freedom Camping Bill is consistent and clear about how bylaws should be designed and enforced.

Clause 11(2) of the Bill says that new bylaws must be justified to protect an area, to protect health and safety, or to protect access to an area, and that they must be the most appropriate way of addressing a problem. Furthermore, Clause 11(5) clarifies how local authorities must go through consultation processes when considering Freedom Camping bylaws. These are good rules, but they appear to be contradicted in certain ways by other parts of the Bill.

Problem: The Bill suggests “perceived problems” may be suitable to justify bylaws

Specifically, Clause 11(2)(b) uses the phrase “perceived problem”. Use of the phrase suggests that it may be acceptable to create a bylaw that restricts or prohibits Freedom Camping without having clear evidence that there actually is a problem.

Suggestion: The phrase “perceived problem” should be removed from Clause 11(2)(b), and replaced with text that’s consistent with being clear that problems being addressed must be backed by evidence that proves they exist. Otherwise it suggests, for instance, that bylaws could be justified by exaggerated media reports or anecdotal claims not backed by empirical evidence, and that would be unfair to responsible Freedom Campers who’d like to make use of the affected areas.

Problem: Risks of bylaws being created across-the-board

Schedule 3 and Schedule 4 contain lists of incoming and existing bylaws that will be administered under the Freedom Camping Bill. Many of these bylaws are described as disallowing “Camps other than in designated areas”. I’ve not had an opportunity to read the bylaws in detail, but I’m concerned that at least some councils seem to have decided to restrict or prevent Freedom Camping across the board (with the exception of those specific places they designate), without necessarily considering locations on specific a case-by-case basis.

This may be a practical thing to do when confronted with trying to define places where the problem types of Freedom Campers may choose to camp and cause problems, but such an across-the-board approach, both with the existing bylaws and future bylaws, could result in Freedom Camping being prevented or restricted unnecessarily. It may also contradict Clause 11’s requirements that justification of bylaws be established, particularly if some locations covered haven’t been shown as being likely to experience problems without the restrictions being in place.

Suggestion: Ideally the Freedom Camping Bill would ensure that by-laws could not be made in such ways that restrict or prohibit camping everywhere “except for designated places”. If practicality makes it necessary to allow local authorities to make across-the-board or otherwise wide-reaching bylaws, however, I would like the Select Committee to consider an addition to the Bill that would require councils to consider reasonable requests for exceptions or permits, and to do so in a predictably timely fashion.

Ideally there would be a clear procedure that provides for individuals and organisations to make such requests, and to generally expect a positive response as long as the specified location is one that doesn’t typically experience problems, such as the end of a rural road, and as long as the individual or organisation does not have an unacceptable track record of previously causing problems.

To be useful, such a system needs to guarantee responses from local authorities within reasonable time-frames, preferably within a week or less so as to allow for recreation clubs and others who wish to plan ahead to know when they can expect a response and finalise activities accordingly. Unfortunately it would still not provide for those who simply want to stop wherever they are on short notice, but it would mean that:

  • Those who depend on road-side camping at specific places could arrange for it in advance with a reasonable expectation of a considered response.
  • People likely to Freedom Camp anyway would have a clear method of asking local authorities for permission with a reasonable expectation of acceptance, rather than being encouraged to do it below board.
  • Local authorities (and DoC) would have a more complete idea of where to find people on a night-by-night basis, and if appropriate could check up on them as part of their regular patrols to ensure people are being responsible.
  • In cases of a discretion being discovered, such as rubbish being left behind, it would give local authorities (and DoC) starting points for locating those responsible.

This concludes my submission.  Thanks for your consideration.

References

[1] Minimising your impact: Keep streams and lakes clean. Department of Conservation Website Page, available 27th June 2011.  http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/plan-and-prepare/care-codes/nz-environmental-care-code/keep-streams-and-lakes-clean/

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