I realise there will be concerns about the Department of Conservation’s Wairarapa Conservancy deciding to remove cooking gas from several huts on the Wairarapa side of the Tararuas. DoC’s current Wairarapa Alerts page lists three of the affected huts as Mitre Flats, Totara Flats and Tutuwai. I’d guess Powell Hut and Jumbo Hut will also be targets, but can’t find this officially stated. The reasoning for the removal of cooking gas is that budgets are tight, and providing cooking gas for these serviced huts is quite an expensive operation.
Personally I’m not concerned about this move. To me it seems that cooking gas (if required to cook one’s chosen meals) is something that should really be carried by a party already, even if they expect to find cooking facilities at a hut, simply for self-sufficiency. If you happen to fall over or otherwise get stuck part way to an intended hut, and don’t have the necessary equipment to cook your meal, you could very well be going hungry and find yourself in danger.
The Dominion Post article quotes a manager of the Kuranui Outdoor Education Academy as saying that loss of cooking gas could be a safety issue because he might need hut gas to heat up a brew for students, and that carrying their own cooking equipment will make students’ loads heavier. If it’s an accurate quote, however, I have serious trouble accepting this reasoning. Children or not, if the party isn’t carrying self-sufficient cooking facilities on the way to a destination, it’s a safety issue already.
Furthermore, I certainly think there are occasions when provision of cooking gas at huts merely encourages free riders, especially in more accessible huts nearest to roads, where gas is most often flown in. I’ve often seen it used very gratuitously by hut patrons, as if it’s free. I’ve also arrived at huts to discover that previous visitors have left the gas taps open for who knows how long. Cooking gas in huts is a luxury, which is nice to have and can make some activities more convenient, but it remains a luxury.
Huts are usually luxuries, too. Personally I can (and do) use the same reasoning to argue that parties should always be carrying sufficient portable shelter, because there’s never a guarantee that you’ll reach an intended hut or be able to stay inside upon reaching it. So why not just remove huts? In my own opinion, at least, having a nice, dry place at the end of a walk through heavily-hydrated weather (as so often occurs in New Zealand) is of a much higher benefit than being able to choose to cook with a hut stove rather than a portable stove. Huts provide genuinely easier access to otherwise difficult-to-reach places, even when carrying portable shelter. With all the people who visit and leave an impression through the years, back-country huts also tend to quickly gather rich histories and become places of historic significance that link to the past for those who visit the area.
I can’t say I’ve ever really felt the same way about a gas cooker as I do about back-country huts. The kiwi back-country hut network is an awesome thing which would be irreplaceable if it were lost, but cooking gas is just an extra facility stapled to the side that could come and go with budgets and political persuasion. If it were free it’d be nice to have it all (within reason), but if something has to go, I’d much rather it were the provision of cooking gas than huts themselves. If you’re already doing everything needed for safety reasons, it’s just not that important in the scheme of things.
I surveyed around twitter for others’ reactions on this. One point was that part of what we’re seeing is DoC’s tendency to not consult very well on local matters. Current consultation techniques, according to DoC’s guidelines, tend to be built on a presumption that structured recreational clubs and groups represent the bulk of back-country users.
DoC consultations will often pass through the local Huts and Track Committees, which typically have representatives from local tramping and other recreational clubs as a way of gauging important matters for park users. There’s a presumption that significant information will filter through those committees to club members, that that any concerns will filter back upwards for submission. Consultation often goes no further, however, which means that people who have no affiliation with clubs will never hear of it. Furthermore, clubs themselves are sometimes not good at communicating such information to their members, either due to disorganisation or not meeting frequently enough, so club members will also not hear of it. The end result is that DoC’s consultation practices often reach very few people. A change such as this, which may be minor on a national scale, but significant on a local scale, can be sprung on many back-country users completely out of the blue, without having had any opportunity to provide feedback or suggest alternatives before the change occur. This results in surprise and frustration.
Another point raised has been that these huts are still to be priced as ‘serviced’ huts ($15 or 3 tickets per night), even though the only guaranteed difference between a $15 serviced hut and a $5 standard hut is hand washing facilities, fuel for heating (DoC will continue to provide firewood where appropriate), and the possible provision of cooking facilities and fuel. Out of these, the only significant difference is the fuel. One suggestion was that, thanks to the lack of enforcement of hut fee payment, some who visit these huts might reduce how much they pay, either to a single ticket or to $0, in particular if they decide to stay there without actually using the firewood for heating.
I sympathise that some users really appreciate the provision of gas for cooking in huts, and I realise it’ll be missed in various circles. In the scheme of things, though, I don’t think it’s such a great loss. In what is presently a dubious political environment for the conservation estate, where the Department of Conservation is being crunched to cut as much as possible, there are some far more serious and less reversible ways that money might be (and is) sucked from the system, whether it’s of DoC’s recreational role or its conservation role. Cooking gas in huts is not irreversible, and could quite easily return without serious effort in an easier environment, if enough people want it at the right time.