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Why it's time to kill the loopy road idea

Contact: Green Party

The resurrection of proposals to build roads through Fiordland and Kahurangi National Parks has turned these two tired and discredited ideas into big news in recent months.

This time it's a lobby group backed by big business people such as Pat Goodman and Peter Talley, and local body politicians, who have spent thousands of dollars distributing a tabloid newspaper throughout the South Island to promote both a Heaphy road and a road through the Hollyford Valley.

Given the preposterousness, not to mention the lack of economic viability, of both these projects, it would be easy to dismiss them. However, the Green Party has decided that it's better to be safe than sorry, and have launched a petition to end this debate once and for all.

Our message is that the conservation and tourism values of the Kahurangi and Fiordland National Parks are not only worth preserving but that sustainable economic development will suffer if the roads are built.

The roads will compromise the exceedingly high natural and recreational values present in Fiordland and Kahurangi National Parks. Fiordland is recognised by the United Nations as a World Heritage Area, while Kahurangi, the most ecologically and geologically diverse region in the country, is itself an outstanding candidate for world heritage status.

Building a road through Kahurangi will divide the park in two. The latest proposed route takes it deep into the habitat of threatened birds like the great spotted kiwi, western weka and rock wren, which survive here in good numbers precisely because there is little or no human impact. An unbroken sequence of ecosystems from alpine zones to the coast, now rare anywhere in the world, will be gone.

There are similar issues with the Haast-Milford road, which would inevitably disrupt presently undisturbed coastal habitat for tawaki (Fiordland crested penguin) and fur seals, which use the coast between the Cascade River and Martins Bay for shelter and breeding.

A greater impact for people will be the loss of over half the Hollyford Track, which like the Heaphy is one of the easier of our backcountry tracks. As well, the roads will destroy the integrity of the Tasman and the Red Hills Wilderness Areas, legally designated places of low or no human impact, which were fought for by citizens groups over many years. The scarcity of such areas make them increasingly attractive to tourists.

The proponents of what they call the South Island loop that would be created if these two roads are built place much store on the business arguments for the road. It seems to me they are sadly out of touch with the realities of modern tourism.

These days we want tourists to stop and spend money, not pass through in a hurry. A loop road around the South Island effectively establishes a race track which means places like Golden Bay become, in effect, mere pit stops for food and fuel.

If the proponents had bothered to heed what Golden Bay's tourist operators actually want they would find, if a recent straw poll of Golden Bay tourism operators is any indication, overwhelming opposition to the road. Tourism is the second largest industry in the area after dairying, and the local people are surely the people who would know how best to encourage tourists to their area.

The overall thrust of Golden Bay's tourism promotion has been on encouraging people to stay longer, spending on accommodation, meals, adventure experiences and local produce and craft. Destination tourism is more sustainable in the long term. More local people make more money that way.

So if it is a business argument that the proponents are pushing, one wonders whose businesses they represent because it's certainly not those enterprising locals who have invested time and energy into developing a sustainable tourism industry that depends on the preserving the natural environment.

Providing access to otherwise inaccessible areas is another argument that the proponents have used. But adding approximately 170 km to the road network will not significantly enhance the range of forest and mountain driving experiences in New Zealand, which together stretch thousands of kilometres.

Existing scenic roads include the route between Murupara and Lake Waikaremoana (the longest continuous forest drive in the country); the Northland Kauri Forests, the circuit of the Tongariro volcanoes; the Buller Gorge; the entire length of the West Coast between Karamea and Jackson Bay; the Haast, Arthur's and Lewis passes across the Southern Alps; the inland Kaikoura road to Hanmer Springs (now completely sealed); the drive between between Lake Tekapo and Lindis Pass; and the route to Milford Sound.

It's one of the features of modern tourism planning that many of these drives now sport easy short walks, including ones accessible to wheelchairs, that provide forest and mountain experiences of the type often restricted to hardy trampers.

Another aspect of this debate which should not be overlooked is that businesses and communities in Murchison, Reefton and Makarora, which have developed their own tourism momentum, will undoubtedly lose out if tourists are directed away from them by these roads.

The latest bizarre justification for bulldozing a highway through national parks is that you need road access to undertake predator control. There's more than enough evidence that roads through wilderness regions merely act as highways for possums and other pests and weeds, putting a further burden on stretched resources to combat them.

And it's the source of these stretched resources - the taxpayer - who is being asked to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for these roads. But taxpayers are not willing to pay for more high maintenance highways. Both of these roads cover difficult, high rainfall regions, subject to winter snow. The cost of their upkeep will be enormous.

Lastly, the proponents of the 'loopy' road seem to have forgotten that a loop road already exists and was the justification for completing the Haast Pass Highway. Tourism in New Zealand is booming. We don't need to destroy any more of our natural heritage to build on that.

Richard Davies, Green Party Co-Convenor

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