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DoC announces its camping restrictions

As was noted in this thread in the NZ Tramper forums [1] (thanks madpom), the Department of Conservation has published its list of places where it prohibits “Freedom Camping” [2]. Note that this list only relates to DoC land, and doesn’t include any local authority land on which freedom camping might also be prohibited under the Act.

This list follows from the enactment of the Freedom Camping Bill, now known as the Freedom Camping Act [3], and which I’ve posted about previously [1] [4] [2] [5]. Among other things, the Act provides for DoC and for Local Authorities to issue instant fines for people found camping in places where camping has been prohibited or restricted, under the Act, by either DoC or the relevant Local Authority depending on who manages the land.

As might have been expected, the DoC list is mostly composed of carparks, picnic areas and occasional lookout points, where DoC has supposedly encountered or has good reason to expect problems. This is consistent with the marketed intent of the Bill to give power for authorities to restrict tourist-style camping in problem spots. An odd exception to this list seems to be the inclusion of “Aoraki Mount Cook National Park (except at approved camping sites)”.

Yes, DoC has actually stated that Freedom Camping is prohibited in The Entire National Park. [Update, 7th October 2011: Some helpful people at DoC have clarified a few things which I’ve noted in this comment [6].]

There’s a need for some legal translation here, because with intent or without, DoC has been unclear and misleading about its legal jurisdiction by including the entire Aoraki Mount Cook National Park in its list, as if camping is simply not allowed unless it occurs at approved campsites. If a blanket ban through the entire park is what DoC is trying to do, it’s unprecedented and disturbing because it inhibits the recreational value and freedom of visitors to experience the park on their own terms, which is one of the great things about our conservation estate. I’ve sent an email to DoC asking for this to be clarified.

As written, I don’t believe the Freedom Camping Act [3] legally provides for DoC to impose a blanket camping ban on an entire national park, or anything similar. So far this also seems to be the consensus in the NZ Tramper thread linked from the start of this post.

According to the Act, Section 17 [7] describes how DoC is allowed to define places where “Freedom Camping” is restricted or prohibited. Use of the term “Freedom Camping” is very significant, because Section 5 [8] of the Act has previously defined it as “to camp (other than at a camping ground) within 200 m of a motor vehicle accessible area or the mean low-water springs line of any sea or harbour, or on or within 200 m of a formed road or a Great Walks Track”. Technically, “freedom camping” can be banned in the entire park, but the camping is not “freedom camping” unless it’s within 200 metres of the edge or meets one of a few other criteria.

What’s more likely is that DoC wants to prevent anyone from camping on the fringes and entry points of the National Park, and maybe it’s just been stated very lazily in its list of prohibited areas. Assuming there’s no intent to restrict camping throughout the entire park, I still find it concerning that a restriction can be stated in such a misleading, blanket non-specific way, and especially by DoC which is a large enough organisation to be expected to have the skills and experience to understand the law and be clear about this kind of thing. For one thing, it might suggest to visitors that there’s little reason to take a tent or alternative portable shelter which could lead to higher risks. Most importantly though, a blanket ban—even if not enforceable—contradicts the way in which the Freedom Camping Bill was sold as something that would allow specific problems to be addressed where they occur and only with clearly justifiable reasons.

Being allowed to camp in wild places on public land is part of a New Zealand experience, and wherever that right is removed there should be a clear and justifiable reason. Hopefully this is only a small slip-up that will soon be corrected. but ideally DoC will remove the item entirely and reduce the ban to the very specific and clearly specified parts of Aoraki Mount Cook National Park which it believes will be subject to Freedom Camping problems. Prohibiting camping within 200 metres of all roads, simply because that’s everything the law allows DoC to prohibit, doesn’t cut it for me. It’s very hard to justify and sets a bad precedent.

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "DoC announces its camping restrictions"

#1 Comment By Mike McGavin On 7 October, 2011 @ 9:58 pm

To follow from this post, I heard back from the friendly DoC lawyers, who confirmed that it’s only “Freedom Camping” when it’s within 200 metres of a formed road, or of a motor-vehicle accessible area, or the shoreline etc, and there’s definitely no intent to put in place blanket bans on camping. So saying “not in Aoraki Mt Cook National Park” doesn’t mean you can’t camp there, only that you can’t “Freedom Camp” there. It was also pointed out to me that this ruling is really only a re-stating of a rule that’s already been in place since 1982, because the National Parks Act lets a Minister set bylaws for national parks along these lines, and there’s been one in place for Aoraki Mt Cook National Park to prevent camping within 200 metres of a formed road since that time.

Therefore it hasn’t changed things as much as I thought it might have, which is a relief, although I’m still irked that DoC can so easily say “no freedom camping in this giant blob of land” without having to directly justify each point of land where the ruling covers. To me, it sets a precedent of being disturbingly non-specific. I can appreciate why it’s sometimes problematic to have people stopping on the side of the road and camping, but when 200 metres from the road might just as easily be a tough push through thick scrub and up a bluff, it’s hard to see why it could be so much of an issue. Under the same legislation, any local authority that restricts or prohibits freedom camping is required to justify it, but DoC isn’t being held to the same standard.

#2 Comment By Amelia On 8 October, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

Interesting that there are NO freedom camping restrictions currently in place for the Tararuas or Ruahines. I guess thats a relief to our club specifically given how many trips we send to those areas.

Thanks for the link, I hadnt been aware of the list being published!

#3 Comment By Amelia On 8 October, 2011 @ 12:55 pm

I’ve found several carparks in the Ruapehu area that arent listed either, and some of those dont have toilets… guess they have started with areas that they have issues with it happening???

#4 Comment By Mike McGavin On 10 October, 2011 @ 11:25 am

Hi Amelia. Thanks for the feedback.

I’m guessing about the lack of restrictions in the lower North Island, but it might be because many of the entrances to the Tararuas and Ruahines already have DoC campgrounds, and maybe don’t need the same kinds of restrictions. DoC’s probably most interested on restricting camping in places where people like to camp, but where the facilities aren’t appropriate (such as scenic lookouts). The non-campground entrances, which are just road-ends, will often be under control of local authorities, rather than DoC. Freedom Camping might be prohibited on these, but it wouldn’t be DoC doing so.

One of the concerns that I and others submitted about was that some councils already have in place what appear to be blanket bans on Freedom Camping anywhere in their districts, except for campsites they’ve designated, despite the rules for local authorities (which don’t apply to DoC) that say each restriction has to be justified. In response it looks like the government inserted [15] into the Freedom Camping Act which says:

“12. Bylaws must not absolutely prohibit freedom camping. (1) A local authority may not make bylaws under section 11 that have the effect of prohibiting freedom camping in all the local authority areas in its district. (2) This section is for the avoidance of doubt.”

Despite the new section, it doesn’t reassure me with confidence that some local authorities still won’t try to lazily apply bylaws that would need to be challenged through courts. [16], Kapiti District Council already has an “acceptable” bylaw described as making an offence of “camps other than in designated place”. I haven’t actually seen the text of this bylaw, so might be on a misleading tangent. Chances are no responsible tramper will ever be affected for sleeping on a road-end unless a local gets annoyed and calls out an enforcement officer to either move them on or issue a fine, but I still think it’s bad and lazy law-making to make technical offenders out of people who don’t necessarily justify being offenders.

That’s my uneducated take on it, at least.

#5 Comment By Mike McGavin On 10 October, 2011 @ 12:27 pm

I should have said in the above comment that there certainly are some (tramping) people out there, including in clubs, who think it is worth considering what sort of impact might be left when camping at a road-end. Arguably it’s impossible to do so without leaving a trace depending on how the impact’s measured, and the more important question is probably how much of a trace is reasonable in the surrounding context. I think my concern isn’t so much with this question (as important as it is) as that I think the Freedom Camping Bill was rushed through unnecessarily under urgency and with a bad and lazy process that could have an unnecessary impact on recreationalists.

#6 Comment By Andrew Crawford On 31 January, 2012 @ 6:44 pm

So this means that camping (in a tent) within 200m of the shore (of the sea) is OK on DoC land (unless banned as per Mount Cook National Park) ?
I’m think of places such as Stewart Island.
Of course rules before the freedom camping Act mean you can’t camp within 500m of a Great Walk – although an interesting point there is what “side tracks” constitute being part of a Great Walk.

#7 Comment By Mike McGavin On 6 February, 2012 @ 11:51 am

Hi Andrew. I believe it means that camping anywhere on DoC conservation land is okay, unless it’s explicitly restricted using one of the approved methods. DoC can use the Freedom Camping legislation to restrict it if the land is within 200m of the coast, or one of the other sorts of markers. For camping to be banned, I believe there has to be a sign within 200 metres of the area according to the rules in S16, or it has to be published in a public notice according to the rules in S17 and S18. (I’m not a lawyer though, I’ve only tried to read the law as well as I can.)

But yeah, this doesn’t mean that DoC will restrict camping in those places. I don’t remember the details of the previous Great Walk rule, but if it was only 50 metres then it might still be the case unless DoC’s issued a notice. Note also that various other legislation means DoC can restrict camping and even complete access in other situations, which makes lots of sense in the case of things like wildlife reserves. For the most part it’s not meant to restrict access unless there are good reasons, though.