Conservation Minister Dr Nick Smith today inspected the site of the proposed Fiordland monorail, met with the applicants, and released official advice recommending he approve the project subject to extensive conditions.
“This ambitious $200 million project involves the building of the world’s longest monorail to enhance the experience of the hundreds of thousands of visitors travelling between Queenstown and Milford Sound,” Dr Smith says.
“I wanted to see for myself the areas affected by the construction of the two terminals and the 29.5-kilometre long, six-metre wide corridor that would be cleared to make way for the monorail through public conservation land. I also wanted to thoroughly scrutinise the impacts on the Snowdon Forest and its wildlife, as well as understanding the effects on the existing recreational users of the area.
“This monorail decision will be no easier than that of the Milford Tunnel. I am very protective of National Parks like Fiordland and this project has the advantage of being largely outside it. However, the monorail still requires clearance of a large area of forest on public conservation land. The submissions process also shows there are strongly held views both in support and in opposition to this project.
“I am releasing the official reports from DOC and the Hearing Commissioner because of the level of public interest in this proposal. I want to be open about the advice I have received and the issues I must consider.
“Today I have inspected the site and met with the Hearing Commissioner and the applicants, Riverstone Holdings Limited. I also want to discuss the proposal with the New Zealand Conservation Authority and consider further advice from DOC on the World Heritage status of the area.
“Over the next few days I will be joining the 125th anniversary walk of the Milford Track and on Saturday opening the new track to the Sutherland Falls.
“I am looking forward to having some time to reflect on my site visit and the hundreds of pages of submissions and advice I have read over the past week. I hope to be in a position to make a decision before year’s end, subject to being satisfied that I have all necessary information needed to make a good decision.”
The Minister turned down a competing proposal for the Milford Dart tunnel.
“I am declining this tunnel proposal because the environmental impacts are significant and beyond what is appropriate in two of New Zealand’s most spectacular National Parks and a World Heritage Area,” Dr Smith says. . . .
The Monorail proposal is not nearly so clear cut.
It goes through conservation land but it doesn’t go through a National Park. The Hearings Commissioner and the Department of Conservation have recommended it goes ahead.
Those recommendations have not been made lightly and are subject to significant conditions, but will give RHL some hope.
Opposition has been vocal and widespread. However, a poll showed public support for the proposal:
A public opinion poll has this month confirmed more than twice as many New Zealanders support the development of tourism infrastructure like the Fiordland monorail than are opposed.
“The Fiordland Link Experience is designed to be a world-class tourism experience. It’s really encouraging that the public recognises the significant benefits it will bring to New Zealand despite some misinformation spread by a small group of vocal opponents,” says Bob Robertson, Director of Riverstone Holdings Ltd.
The Curia Market Research survey found that 58% of New Zealanders supported the development of the monorail outside of National Park land. Only 27% opposed it. When broken down, the results showed there was more support than opposition regardless of gender, age or political leanings. . .
Robertson has a reputation for carefully and attractively developed urban subdivisions.
Housing developments in town can’t be compared to this proposal for a new tourist route to Milford Sound through mostly undeveloped countryside. But the attention to detail and focus on aesthetics which help the subdivisions fit in with the landscape will be applied to the Monorail project.
Opponents have used the argument the development would threaten Fiordland’s World Heritage status. Robertson describes that as scaremongering:
. . . These same opponents have lobbied UNESCO and continue to tell anyone who will listen that the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage status of the region will be stripped if the project is approved. The World Heritage area covers 2.6m hectares and includes roads, towns and quarries.
This scaremongering would be laughable if it wasn’t so destructive.
We only need to look across the Tasman to see how a tourism development can be successfully achieved in a World Heritage area.
When the Cairns Skyrail was being proposed for the Barron Gorge National Park in the 1990s there were marches in the street and protesters attempted to block construction.
The same arguments we are seeing now in Fiordland are the carbon copy of those used in Cairns.
Fortunately, the Australian government understood the project and it was approved.
It went on to win multiple tourism awards as best major attraction and for environmental sustainability, including the international Wet Tropics Management Authority Cassowary Award in 1999 for “demonstrating best practice in ecotourism during construction and ongoing operation”.
In New Zealand, there is an elitist sentiment among some that we should lock up our conservation estate for the few who are capable of physically reaching it. They believe business has no place in nature.
In reality, 44 per cent of the South Island is in the conservation estate and hosts about 2800 commercial concessions, including roughly 500 that are tourism or recreation-related.
It isn’t a question of either business or conservation. They can and do co- exist.
We would not be committed to the Fiordland Link Experience if we did not believe the construction and operation could be achieved with only minimal impact on the environment and recreational users.
The reasoning is simple – we want to celebrate our nature and show it off. It is in our interests to protect nature, because that’s the experience we’re selling.
As a hunter and fisher who has spent thousands of hours in the surrounding area, I know there is room for a world- class tourism experience.
It will reinvigorate the tourism market in Fiordland, stimulate the economy, bring jobs and enable us to market the entire region, including Te Anau, to the world. All without a cent of taxpayer money. . . .
This is a big project, a bold project but it has been carefully thought through and planned to tread as lightly as possible in a sensitive area.
It will impact on the environment, as any development does, but I think that can be minimised and mitigated.
It will open a small part of the conservation estate to more tourists without in any way detracting from the wilderness experience for those who enjoy it in the neighbouring National Park.
Bob Robertson has a dream, the Minister has the unenviable task of deciding whether or not it will become a reality.
Apropos of dreams, Gravedodger has one too over at No Minister which is worth a read.
P.S. The decision to make New Zealand’s Sharpest town, the Southern Hemisphere’s first #gigatown is far easier – #gigatownoamaru is the logical choice.