Thank you for inviting me to talk to you this evening. I learned only recently that the Tararua tramping club was the first of its kind in New Zealand when it was formed in 1919, so I regard it as a privilege to be here tonight. I am advised that there is nothing quite like a gathering of Tararua trampers. My department tells me that talk usually turns to tales of epic adventures, and these invariably involve gale winds and driving rain, deceptive spurs posing as leading ridges, mists swirling, and still more gale winds and driving rain.
I can sympathise a little because we in the Alliance have had to plough through some rather heavy weather ourselves in recent days. It seems that drama and adversity are as much a part of the political landscape as they are a part of our natural environment. We all breathe more easily when the sky begins to clear after a storm. I haven’t come here tonight to talk about what's been happening with the Alliance except to say this:
There is much that still needs to be done to bed in place the gains that only a Labour-Alliance coalition could secure, such as the setting up of a Peoples' Bank, or extensive and much needed reform of local government, or record funding for the Biodiversity Strategy.
I have to say that I find it difficult to believe that I have been Minister of Conservation now for only two years. It seems longer because I have been working with my conservation staff in the Beehive, and with DOC staff, at an accelerated pace since I took up my post.
The $187 million package of new funding allocated last year to implement the Biodiversity Strategy was the most substantial commitment ever made by a New Zealand government for the conservation of our natural species and their ecosystems. The infusion of funding has given DOC new energy, and the department has kept me travelling up and down the country opening refurbished visitor centres, enhanced tracks and new parks.
I want to take the opportunity tonight to give you a brief outline of the direction the government is taking with the management of huts and recreation facilities, and what this may mean for you and your neck of the woods. First, let me acknowledge and thank you for your club’s longstanding commitment to the visitor facilities in the Tararuas. I know that the Department of Conservation is also grateful for your ongoing interest and help with Tararua huts and tracks.
I have already stated my disappointment that a lack of funding for maintenance work over the past 10 years meant that some remote huts and shelters ran down to the point where DOC believed it had no choice but to remove them. So I'm pleased that we provided significant extra money in this year’s Budget allocation to help address the issue of deferred maintenance. Over the next three years, we have earmarked an extra $16 million to help manage and upgrade visitor facilities. That means, for the 2001/2002 financial year, total funding for visitor management on conservation land is $38.5 million.
I am advised that in the Wellington Conservancy, the new funding provides an extra $93,000 each year for three years, to help maintain existing huts. On top of this, my department tells me that three new local huts will be funded from a separate national pool. These are Waiopehu Hut (which will also receive some funding from clubs), Totara Flats Hut (which needs to be moved from its current unsafe site), and Elder Bivvy.
The key elements in the Government’s approach in managing visitor facilities on conservation land include :
- The need to understand people’s expectations;
- Setting priorities in order to meet those expectations as much as is possible;
- Maintaining standards of service and safety that provide what people need as well as meeting legal obligations; and
- Doing all of this with a finite funding pool
I am advised that some members of this club believe that DOC emphasises the maintenance of front country facilities at the expense of those in the backcountry. DOC assures me that's not the case.
The department faces a balancing act in setting priorities that satisfy different and sometimes conflicting expectations to meet acceptable standards and stay within budget. I am confident that DOC is doing the best it can.
Of course, no group has exclusive ownership of the recreation opportunities available in New Zealand.
Tourism is a significant industry here.
We can’t ignore the needs of tourists so we need to find the best way to manage those needs without compromising the environment. There is no easy answer on how to accommodate visitors who seek the same experiences but have different expectations and values.
DOC recognises that priorities are needed to help develop a strategy for the sustainable management of visitor opportunities - one that delivers a core network of facilities that meets people’s needs within the available budget.
To help decide what should be in this core network, the department is gathering information to help it to set priorities.
We know that some locations, like Abel Tasman National Park and the glaciers at Franz and Fox, are extremely popular destinations for overseas visitors. The department is committed to managing the huge demands for tourism services in these easily accessed locations.
But, and this is an important “but’, not at the expense of the recreational needs of New Zealanders.
We know that visitors who prefer higher levels of facilities make up the majority of visitors to parks - people who visit road ends and do not travel far during their day visit. This is as true for New Zealanders as for international tourists.
A variety of surveys have been carried out in the past to try to understand what visitors require. And meetings are being held with interest groups to share management ideas and seek feedback from the public.
The level and standard of the recreation facilities the department provides is in part driven by these demands.
The department is required to strike a balance in providing:
- A higher standard of facilities for day visitors to easily accessed road end sites, and
- A lower standard of facilities for people in search of a remote backcountry adventure.
At present the department is concentrating on bringing its existing network of facilities in line with the agreed service standards.
The aim is a full suite of visitor experiences that does not change significantly over time. This means allocating resources to maintain legal and service standards in as many locations with as wide a mix of facilities as possible. And this includes the backcountry.
An undisputed part of the challenge is that front country facilities are typically more expensive.
The department’s annual business planning which divvies up annual funding is based on the strategic direction provided by
- its Statement of Intent,
- the Conservation Management Strategies in each conservancy, and
- its national Visitor Strategy.
Conservation Management Strategies and the Visitor Strategy both involve a great deal of consultation and DOC believes its recreation spending is both sensible and justifiable.
Whatever the challenges posed by managing expectations, setting priorities and working to budget, the department can never lose sight of the fact that it manages huts and tracks on behalf of the public of New Zealand. Which is why it works with the community and interested groups of users whenever the future of huts is questioned, or significant changes are proposed.
Wellington Conservancy has the benefit of the joint Tararua Aorangi Huts Committee, which is responsible for many of the huts in the Tararua and Aorangi Ranges. As part of this, a strategy has been agreed for a core network of charged huts. Any outside this core will be retained until the end of their useful lives, and will not be replaced.
Without a doubt the ongoing support from local clubs makes the overall workload easier to manage, and the department applauds all useful effort, while recognising it is up to each club to decide how it chooses to expend its energy and funds.
I should note that you may not yet be aware that 2002 is the International Year of the Mountain. The lead agency in New Zealand for the year is the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. But the Department of Conservation will be providing enthusiastic support, with my blessing and that of the Prime Minister who, as you know, is a former Minister of Conservation and a keen tramper and mountaineer. You can also expect that next year's Conservation Week theme will focus on some aspect of the International Year of the Mountain, probably involving young people.
Finally, I want to address the other topic you set for me: our joint proposal with Australia for a South Pacific whale sanctuary. Many of you will be aware that whale numbers in our region have declined catastrophically over the past two centuries - in some cases almost to extinction. New Zealand and Australia agreed in 1998 to work together to establish a South Pacific whale sanctuary through auspices of the International Whaling Commission, the IWC. Although the IWC voted in 1994 to establish a Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, this only protects whales on their feeding grounds. The main purpose of the South Pacific sanctuary would be to protect their tropical breeding grounds.
The idea of any new sanctuaries for whales, however, is anathema to Japan and Norway, and they have bitterly opposed our proposal at the last two annual meetings of the IWC, and will do so again next year. I’m sure most of you are aware of the stories about “vote-buying” that circulated around the time of the last IWC meeting in July. It is no secret that there is a bloc of developing countries, many of whom have recently joined the IWC, who vote down the line with the whalers. Despite that, we have secured over 60% support for the South Pacific whale sanctuary proposal at the last two IWC meetings. However, IWC rules require that the establishment of sanctuaries needs a three-quarters majority vote.
Next May, the Commission will be holding its Annual Meeting in Shimonoseki - home base for Japan’s whaling fleet. We should not be too optimistic about achieving a three-quarters majority vote there, but I am advised that most Japanese do not support a return to commercial whaling. To achieve better protection for whales in the South Pacific, we need to develop an alternative strategy.
Over the last two years, we have been consulting closely with our Pacific Island neighbours. Last April, I led the New Zealand delegation to a Regional Forum organised by the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme, to progress the South Pacific whale sanctuary proposal. Thirteen Pacific Island countries attended, as well as New Zealand and Australia, plus Japan who came along as an observer. At the conclusion of three days of discussions, we agreed on the Apia Statement, which reiterated the region’s commitment to a whale sanctuary. Of course, the resources to develop research programmes and management strategies for whales are more readily available in New Zealand than in the Pacific. That is why the Apia Statement contains a specific commitment by New Zealand to provide technical assistance to any Pacific Island country that wishes to develop legislation to protect whales within its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone.
And I am pleased to tell you that I have been greatly encouraged by the support given by Pacific Island states in recent months. Just over two months ago, the Cook Islands declared its Exclusive Economic Zone to be a whale sanctuary. The Cooks’ Exclusive Economic Zone covers some 2 million sq km - an area the size of Western Europe. French Polynesia, which covers over twice that area, is preparing detailed legislation and will shortly be following suit. Whales are already fully protected in Tonga, New Zealand and Australia, and we are continuing to encourage our Pacific Island neighbours, such as New Caledonia and Niue, to consider similar moves.
By working together, the small Pacific Island nations can achieve our shared goal of a whale sanctuary, despite the opposition of the whalers. Our relationship as Pacific peoples with whales predates the catastrophe that whaling has wrought on their numbers. We are by virtue of our traditional relationship the kaitiaki, or guardians, of the South Pacific and of all the creatures that inhabit this ocean. Most especially, we all should see ourselves in this new millennium as the guardians of the whales. We have an opportunity to leave a precious gift to our mokopuna, for future generations, just as our ancestors left us many gifts of nature, culture and tradition that we still depend on.
Thank you for coming and thank you for listening to me here this evening.