There has been a spate of media articles about the proposed $200 million Southland monorail recently after its Riverstone Holdings director and Bob Robertson gave journalists a promotional tour and helicopter ride over the area.
The company is engaged in a heavy PR campaign by claiming public support for the proposal. Save Fiordland’s 20,000 strong petition against the proposal is a more reliable indicator of public views than market research where the polling questions omitted key information, such as that the monorail is proposed on conservation land in Snowdon Forest in the heart of the South West New Zealand World Heritage Area.
Spending $200 million on a monorail which would see more than 1700 old growth beech trees felled and a swathe bulldozed through forest that offers magnificent family tramping in the Kiwiburn valley would create a conservation nightmare. Major earthworks would be required on steep hill slopes risking and substantial bridges over often turbulent rivers such as the Upukerora. Submitters on the concession application described these impacts in some detail.
If Conservation Minister Nick Smith approves the monorail, he would be signalling that conservation land outside national parks is open for any kind of commercial business, regardless of its ecological impacts and financial risks. The monorail is as risky and damaging as its Routeburn tunnel twin so the Minister needs to make a similar decision.
Riverstone director Bob Robertson bailed on his Pegasus township development north of Christchurch now in receivership. The Department of Conservation needs to be very wary of the risks and environmental damage involved if the project is approved, logging done and earthworks started and then it is abandoned because of funding difficulties. A bond even a sizeable one could never compensate for the loss of intact forest.
With the Government having to virtually bribe buyers of Meridian shares with a pay later share option, will New Zealand investors stump up for such a risky and controversial project as the monorail? It’s likely that a large chunk of the $200 million capital needed will come from offshore. Our old growth beech forests and mohua/yellowhead habitat should not be sacrificed to provide a source of cheap land for New Zealand or overseas corporates.
Tourists can already travel across Lake Wakatipu to Mt Nicholas Station and down the existing Mavora Lakes Road to join the state highway to Te Anau and Milford without the monorail. It would cut a 41 km corner but the problem is, it cuts it at the expense of intact and centuries old beech forest.
I visited the Treetops Walkway at Lake Mahinapua south of Hokitika recently. Using steel towers and elevated catwalks high in the forest canopy it offers visitors a new experience – getting up close and personal with many small perching plants high on the rimu trees such as lichens, native flowering orchids.
The company’s Australian owners have spent more than $7.2 million on the project. The walkway itself with its big steel towers is on conservation land in the Lake Mahinapua scenic reserve with the associated café and shop on adjacent private land. In the 10 months since it opened the walkway has had more than 30,000 visitors, significantly fewer than anticipated. The scale of the spend here is much less than that required for the monorail and most of the canopy trees are still standing but it shows how developers can over-estimate their market.
Claims by the monorail promoters that they could attract 300,000 to a million visitors annually are dreaming. And they raise the bigger issue do we want that many tourists on whistle-stop visits where they get no chance to enjoy what makes New Zealand special?