It helps to be an early bird if you fancy a tourist trip to the scenic wonders of Milford Sound. Buses often line Queenstown’s main streets long before dawn, and passengers need to have finished their bacon and eggs by 7.00am, when the buses leave town. They won’t be back for 12 hours.
Those who don’t fancy nine hours of travelling can halve their journey time by departing from Te Anau, but somehow Te Anau is still unable to rival the tourism hub of Queenstown and its dominance of the Milford Sound market. The alternatives have long been debated: a Hollyford-to-Haast road (surveyed since the late 1800s); a road up the Greenstone Valley; light rail systems; even a gondola, which would take a battering from the nor’westers across the Main Divide. All have barely got past the starting line.
Now there are two more proposals on the table. One – FiordlandLink Experience – involves a boat trip across Lake Wakatipu, then all-terrain vehicles and a sleek monorail skirting conservation areas to Te Anau Downs on the Milford Road. The company behind the monorail, Riverstone Holdings, says it will offer an “alternative visitor experience”. The second proposal is for a privately owned and operated $170-million “Milford Dart Passage” – an 11.3km tunnel, 5m in diameter, from the Routeburn Rd end under the Southern Alps to the Hollyford Valley, within several kilometres of Milford Rd.
Both proposals (in the form of concession applications) have been approved in principle by the Department of Conservation, subject to a public submission process. But it is the Milford Dart Passage that is raising more ire among locals, and has prompted a flood of submissions from every corner of Otago and Southland. The passage would be the longest road tunnel in New Zealand and would more than halve the travel time to Milford. It would be one way at each end of the day, for regulated bus or coach traffic only.
Milford Dart managing director Tom Elworthy says it simply makes good business sense. A faster trip would allow visitor arrivals to be spread through the day, make more efficient use of capital (getting more trips out of buses and boats) and boost tourist numbers, providing more revenue all round. Another Milford Dart director, Michael Sleigh, notes the Government wants to double tourism revenue. “Bike trails are not going to deliver that,” he says. “When the Milford Rd was sealed in the 1990s, numbers to Milford doubled. Imagine what a round trip via a tunnel would do for New Zealand’s premier tourism destination.”
But what has upset many people is that the proposed tunnel would traverse two national parks, which form part of Te Wahipounamu, the South West New Zealand World Heritage Area. This means a small army of lawyers will be lining up to test the elasticity of language embedded in the National Parks Act, Conservation Act and both National Park management plans.
The western portal is also a stone’s throw from the entrance to the Routeburn Track – a biodiversity hot spot visited by more than 30,000 people a year. And it would bypass Te Anau, otherwise known as the gateway to Fiordland. The buses would instead rumble through the sleepy hollow of Glenorchy. Residents there are unimpressed with the idea of 60 buses a day thundering along their main street, where kids can be seen dragging scooters through the gutters and horses are not uncommon.
Amanda Hasselmann looks directly at the start of the Routeburn Valley from her Temple Peak high country station near Glenorchy. She’s been around long enough to know that consensus is rare in this part of the world. Family feuds go back generations. But on the night last January when over 100 Glenorchy residents came together in the local hall, there was unanimous opposition to the tunnel.
“It would destroy the whole concept of the landscape as we know it,” she begins. “We’re an end-of-the-road destination; if we want to go to Milford we walk over the Harris Saddle. It’s away from us, and we don’t really want to be connected with it. What price tourism? It’s half-beggared as it is. Milford is about mass tourism. Do we want to bring that everywhere?”
In her hometown Te Anau, Southland District Mayor Frana Cardno – an ebullient, passionate woman who is widely liked – tries, in vain, to keep her tone measured. “I hate tunnels. I hate monorails. I get really wound up about it.” The next words on her lips are: “World Heritage status – that’s a privilege not to be taken lightly.” She cites the case of Dresden’s Elbe Valley, an area favoured by Unesco as a World Heritage Site, which had this title removed when it pursued the building of a four-lane bridge across the valley, with a subsequent 10% drop in tourism.
But Milford operators have already experienced a 10% drop in numbers since they peaked in 2007. “Numbers have dropped everywhere,” Cardno responds. “We’ve had a recession, earthquakes and a high New Zealand dollar. Will a tunnel boost tourism to Milford? Prove it to me. We may gain a tunnel, but we’d be losing our heritage values. And for what? To make tourists go faster?”
Another director on the Milford Dart board is Sir Tipene O’Regan. He stresses his respect for Cardno but quietly suggests “her vision is limited”.
“I’ve long argued the absurdity of spending over 11 hours in a day to go to Milford from Queenstown. Queenstown is the inescapable hub, and we condemn Te Anau to being no more than a tea-and-toilet stop rather than a destination in its own right. We have this mad underutilisation of Milford, alive and breathing for only a few hours. A triangular route, via the tunnel, could have the capacity to turn Te Anau and Glenorchy into a mini-hub for other activities.
“And if we don’t do it?” he continues, “we’ll simply have stagnation on all fronts. Why is it that the majority of the New Zealand population find reasons for not doing things? I’m absolutely certain if you wanted to build the Homer Tunnel today there’d be an uproar.” The 1.3km Homer Tunnel, on the road between Te Anau and Milford, does have its problems, however. Safety is one – there was a bus fire in 2002. Cost is another. It is estimated that widening the tunnel, or constructing a second parallel one, could cost $100-160 million.
Amanda Hasselman notes the Milford Dart passage would be 10 times as long as the Homer Tunnel. “What happens if they run out of money? Who’s going to foot the bill to either finish the project or clean it up?” She cites Queenstown’s failed or stalled Five Mile retail and Kawarau Falls hotel projects as blots on the landscape that few are willing or able to rescue. According to Sleigh, a bond or some sort of security would be negotiated and lodged to cover that eventuality.
But Hasselmann also notes: “What price a river?” The Hollyford River watershed begins at over 2000m in the Darran Mountains above Milford Sound. Vehicles change gears and necks swivel as visitors make their way up to the western portal of the Homer Tunnel. Every gobsmacking cascade of water finds its way into the Hollyford. At the bottom of that valley is the turn-off – both road and river. Seal turns to gravel, and suddenly there is little or no traffic. Day walkers traverse the swing bridges above rapids. Fly fishers brave the sandflies. At the road end, the Hollyford Track follows the river to the Tasman Sea.
Glenorchy, Te Anau and Hollyford – as far as residents are concerned, the river is the third corner of the triangle in terms of the tunnel’s potential impact. On the banks of the Hollyford is Gunns Camp, which has a permanent human population of fewer than five. It comprises a rough collection of huts dating back to the 1930s, most with coal ranges; a museum with the remnants of the Hollyford Valley’s early pioneering days; and a shop selling books, canned food and tangiwai greenstone. Families have come here for generations to a small corner of “old New Zealand”. On a fine day, when the hot sun sends even the sandflies for cover, you can sit on the banks of the Hollyford, watching trout nose into the current. At night, locals say, you can still hear the call of the kiwi.
It’s near here (at the Hollyford airstrip down the road) that the construction base for the Milford Dart Tunnel would be located: a concrete-batching plant; an aggregate-screening and crushing plant (working 24/7 over the forecast construction period of two years, but with a concession period of up to 15 years); water treatment facilities, including settling ponds and a treatment plant; accommodation; offices; workshops; and fuel storage.
The expected 268,000sq m of tunnel spoil would be disposed of onto the airstrip, raising it seven to eight metres. Ron Peacock, the Te Anau-based chairman of the Gunns Camp Board of Trustees, laughs out loud. “First decent flood and half that tunnel spoil will be washed down the Hollyford. And what the hell’s in it?”
Nobody will know the definitive answer to that question until the tunnel boring machine cranks up. Milford Dart has said it will test as it tunnels, providing settling ponds and a treatment plant for water exiting the tunnel at the Hollyford end. The water – or leachate – may contain traces of oil (from the boring machine or substrate), but also any number of water-soluble chemicals or minerals from the rock itself. Settling ponds will be a couple of metres at most above the mean river level. And as the annual rainfall is nearly 7m, often including a deluge of over 30cm a day, many have queried how realistic it is to test or treat water and rock.
Michael Skerrett, chairman of Kaitiaki Roopu, the guardians (alongside DoC) of the area, warns against the mixing of different rivers’ “mauri” or special nature. He cites the recent example of Thames gold mine tailings, which are high in arsenic. “There is good scientific reasoning,” he says. “The rocks deep in that mountain, laid down millions of years ago, could contain any number of minerals toxic to the well-being of the Hollyford River.”
Ironically the actual tunnelling seems to be the least contestable issue. “No new roads will be made over or through a National Park” are words set down in the General Policy for National Parks, and reiterated in both the Fiordland (Hollyford end) and Mt Aspiring (Routeburn end) National Park management plans. It refers to new roads, but also to the widening, re-routing and sealing of existing roads. Both park plans have been reviewed and rewritten in the past few years, involving a lot of public consultation. Everyone was aware of the tunnel proposal. But neither plan made provision for the roading that would be required.
Sleigh expresses frustration at the plan-review process, believing that strong submissions made by Milford Dart were largely ignored. “Here we had New Zealand’s largest tourism infrastructure project in 25 years and we barely got a mention in the reviewed document. I’m amazed that it was not put on the table for open discussion.”
The management plans regulate far more than simply roading. Most tunnel objectors are incredulous that DoC has approved Milford Dart’s concession application even in principle, when there seem to be glaring inconsistencies with both parks’ management plans on a range of environmental and social grounds, particularly during the construction phase.
The list includes the potential for endangering already threatened populations of mohua (or yellowhead), pekapeka (long-tailed native bat), native falcon, kaka and blue duck; noise from the aggregate-crushing plant; the threat of leachates washing into the Hollyford River; and the impact on visitors walking the Routeburn and Hollyford tracks. For nearly every point raised in the concession application, DoC has deemed any adverse effects “minor and temporary, and subject to mitigation” and therefore acceptable.
Kevin Jennings, executive manager of Film Otago Southland, questions whether this concession will establish a new benchmark for what is considered “temporary and minor”. He compares the activities of the commercial film industry – which often seeks DoC concessions in the area – with that proposed by Milford Dart.
“The Lord of the Rings simply couldn’t be shot as it was back in 2000 because of restrictive new management plans. Today if an offshore producer sees an area they like for filming and it’s in the wrong zone, we just have to tell them, ‘Don’t even go there, don’t waste your time’, because of the stringent DoC assessment of the effects.” When Peter Jackson was making The Lovely Bones, for instance, DoC turned down an application for 30 people to be taken into Lake Erskine in Fiordland for a day’s filming on the basis that it exceeded seven people.
“A few helicopter skids on alpine grasses pale into insignificance alongside the ‘minor and temporary’ nature of an aggregate-crushing machine and 265,000 cubic metres of spoil,” Jenning says, adding that if the Milford Dart Tunnel is approved it will open a Pandora’s box. “We have an excellent relationship with frontline DoC staff. But I feel for them. If this one goes through then it’s going to be a whole new ball game. There’s going to be incredible pressure to maintain consistency. It’ll be the turning point for the conservation estate as we know it.”
Abby Smith is chairwoman of the Otago Conservation Board, a statutory, independent advisory body that oversees both the strategies and the management plans for conservation land. The nub of it, according to Smith, is that DoC could and should have said no from the outset. She believes there should be a review of the management plan, particularly in terms of new roading, before protracted negotiations and consultations over a concession. She also believes it flies in the face of the integrity of the management plan, the credibility of conservation boards and the democratic process.
“What we can do is make it as crystal-clear as can be. This is stomping on the Mt Aspiring National Park Management Plan. Hundreds of people worked really hard on that plan. It’s not our plan; it’s for every New Zealander.”
But for one thing. It comes in the form of a clause referring to the granting of the concession on the basis of improved access to the national park. The Southland and Otago Conservation Boards, the New Zealand Conservation Authority and several hundred private submissions have all given DoC the same strong message: that existing facilities, such as the Te Anau-Milford Rd and air access, are sufficient. The minister – on the basis of the words “should”, “shall”, “may” or “will not” within the various tracts of legislation – has the discretion to consider otherwise.