Legally winding through the Kaimanawa Range

Last weekend I was on a trip with the Wellington Tongue & Meats to Kaimanawa Forest Park. I was going to post my thoughts about the whole private land thing as part of the trip report. My thoughts ended up being quite long, however, so I thought I might post them separately. (The report regarding the trip which inspired this is also available.) This post is mostly a collection of background material that I’ve looked up to do with getting access to the area of the park that we visited near the Urchin road-end, which may be useful in some way to others planning something similar, and is completely open for discussion since I haven’t been looking at this for long.

A very brief background of this post is that the Kaimanawa Range itself has a big hole of private land cut out of the middle of it, much of which is mountanous and generally looks interesting. Public regions around the outside are administered by the New Zealand Department of Conservation. The majority of the land is Maori land (according to Map 6 of the maps included in the park management plan), and much of that land is leased to third parties. On our particular trip, parts of the private land located near where we wanted to go are leased by Air Charter Taupo, which exclusively flies hunters into the region for a price.

For tramping access, the company provides a system where individuals can purchase a one year entry permit for $30, after which there are strict restrictions on where that person can go within the block. The page on the company’s website which describes the restrictions states that only three routes are allowed at all, even for those with permits. The ironic statement that would probably twist a few traditional trampers’ guts is “red line access is not permitted”. Camping is also prohibited, which means it’s necessary to cross the land and be out the other side within a day.

To justify its policies, the company claims that it has already suffered considerable expense fighting against efforts from overseas investors to lock trampers (and everyone) out of the region completely. The price for access is to cover costs of leasing the land without imposing an unfair burden on its hunting customers, and the permit system is also described as a way of making sure that trampers don’t disturb hunters in the private areas of the park. It claims that the Department of Conservation was approached with a request to subsidise access for members of the public, but that the department was not interested.

The Kaimanawa Forest Park zone is still quite large, but it’s also around the edges with much of the mountain area being inaccessibly located in private zones. A traverse of the park without crossing private land would be nearly impossible, and one small section of the park, around Boyd Lodge, is cut off from the others completely.

Organising legal tramping in the area can be a messy experience, and this was the problem that Craig (our trip’s organiser) encountered when planning our route. The Department of Conservation website provides a list of six different contacts whose permission might need to be obtained in order to access eight separate regions of the range.

Furthermore, many of the property boundaries tend to be geometrically drawn straight lines, which take little if any notice of the geographical landscape, as might be more logical. This means that a lot of would-be good routes get randomly cut off by private property boundaries. In our planned trip, for example, there was one particular ridge that we really would have liked to walk along, but unfortunately the corner of a perfectly drawn two dimensional isosceles triangle happened to poke through about 3 kilometres in the middle. Even if we’d each paid $30 for an annual permit (despite the likeliness we’d only visit the area once or twice at most within a year), the 3 kilometres of ridgeline wasn’t on Air Charter Taupo’s list of 3 approved routes. In other words, there was no guarantee we’d be allowed to go there anyway.

It’s completely possible that Air Charter Taupo might say we could simply go ahead if we asked nicely and explained what we wanted to do, or they might have said we couldn’t cross it no matter how much we paid them. The classic problem, apart from the denial of access, is that there’s no clear way to know in advance. It was some effort in the first place to discover who was responsible for the land, and contacting to arrange specific access can also be a real hassle, especially if specific plans aren’t made until late in the process which is often the case with New Zealand back-country tramping. We didn’t bother, and we changed our plans, just as I’m sure many other people have done in the past.

A draft Kaimanawa Forest Park Management Plan was published by DOC at the end of 2005 which also, incidentally, has lots of interesting background information about the park. (Update 19-July-2008: The final plan is now available on DOC’s website.) So far I’ve only skimmed the parts that looked most interesting, but it seems the main objective of the report is Kaimanawa Forest Park rather than the Kaimanawa Range. The Forest Park, of course, only includes the parts of the range that DOC actually administers, and considerations of private land in the middle are limited to how it affects the disjointed areas of public land. Consequently, the plan tends to focus on issues specifically to do with things like working with the property owners to arrange specific access routes to public land where appropriate, rather than pro-actively arranging for access for the public to large amounts of the range, including those parts that are held privately.

With respect to the permit system put in place by Air Charter Taupo, the report agrees that the system has appeared to reduce the amount of interest in tramping in the area, but its suggestions of how to alleviate these issues are limited to ideas such as re-routing existing tracks so that they don’t cross private land as much. There’s no serious mention of ideas such as attempting to negotiate for the public to have access to large amounts of the private land under the same sorts of restrictions as would apply in public land.

One thing I found interesting (and I do only have a limited understanding of the context) was that the discussion document which requested public submissions for the management plan focused on steering suggestions towards improving and re-routing the track system, and avoided specifically inviting suggestions about negotiating more widespread access to the internal private land. This is understandable, I think, considering that DOC’s objectives are intertwined with a lot of legislation that’s very specific about what DOC is there to do. Administration of the public’s existing land is probably prioritised over acquisition of new land or negotiating for the public to access it, unless there’s clearly a good reason, or a directive from above.

We’re probably very spoiled in New Zealand compared with some other countries, in terms of having some vast areas of comparably unspoiled public land and reserves in which it’s both legal and fun to simply walk around and enjoy oneself. I really like it this way, and I do feel quite uncomfortable that it’s possible for big amounts of back-country land to simply be shut off by private owners. I do like being able to take for granted that if I see a mountain in the distance, I should be able to go for a walk around it, or over it, or wherever else, as long as I don’t spoil it for other people, and expect the same favours in return from others. I also dislike the idea of having the best or safest possible route plan being compromised by something as artificial as a property boundary in a back-country zone.

Obviously it’s a complex situation because of New Zealand’s history among many other reasons, and there are definitely a lot of issues that need to be resolved. They include commercial issues, Treaty of Waitangi issues, economic issues (including farming), people who have historical ties to land, and the odd private owner who wants a lifestyle block. (Personally I hate it when I climb up somewhere and all the spots with good views are subdivided and fenced off, although that’s probably a concession for built-up areas and may be another issue.) It’s also true that not every member of the public who accesses land — public or private — respects and looks after it in a way that’s expected of them. This undoubtedly also leads to some private owners restricting access across the board for their own protection.

In Air Charter Taupo’s case, for instance, they clearly have a business to run and part of the existing business model relies on being able to give a small number of people exclusive access to large areas of land in exchange for large amounts of money. For the actual owners of the land, it probably makes commercial sense under the current environment to lease it and make some money off it, if the alternative is to simply leave it alone.

Anyway, all of this aside, I really hope this gets sorted one day to improve the public access to some of these large and significant areas of back-country land. I’m fully aware that there are a lot of opinions out there about this kind of issue, and realistically I’m a bit of a late-comer.

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