"It's nothing but a lock-out and a pseudo-consultation box-ticking farce ... "
Sir Bob Harvey, erstwhile Mayor of Waitakere, hasn't lost his ad man's knack for pushing buttons, this time over consultation on a visitor management plan for the Waitakere Ranges.
The ranges are Auckland's most visited recreation spot - for the dramatic natural landscapes and wild beaches and for walking tracks through native forest, a regional park within the wider Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area. But as the regional park management plan notes, visitor numbers have doubled in 10 years and will continue to soar with population growth and more intensive housing in the city on its doorstep. "Careful management ... of activity is required to ensure the pressure of use does not destroy the very qualities that people value."
Adding a visitor management plan to the layers of red tape which already control human behaviour in and around the ranges has long been a goal of locals and, with the area now under Auckland Council, the Waitakere local board is driving the process with guidance from the council parks department.
Harvey and his Karekare neighbour Jonathan Knox accuse the board of a pre-determined objective and claim the council's parks and recreation forum chairwoman, Sandra Coney, is pulling the strings. They say the consultation amounts to a hijacking of the Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area Act "to stunt innovation and opportunity".
"What we want to see is a more open and user friendly visitor management strategy, not chains and locks," Harvey says.
With her "Who me?" response, Coney channels Tony Soprano's mother. "I don't know where he's coming from. I don't buy that it's a lock-up."
She then suggests Harvey wants to attract well-heeled visitors to the Hillary Trail, the park-traversing track opened in 2010, so he can entertain guests at his Karekare bach "with a glass of wine and spin his yarns". Yep, you can take Waitakere into the Super City but you can't take the straight-shootin' out of westie politics.
It's no coincidence there's an election coming up and Coney, while standing down from the council, wants a place on the local board with environmentalist Christine Rose as her running mate. Coney has a holiday home at Piha and her prominent role in the long-running fight against the Piha Cafe was just one example of her protective (some say head-in-the-sand) stance towards "progress" in the area.
"I'm not aware that people are complaining about the place," she told the Weekend Herald. "It's not exactly sleepy hollow during summer. Overseas visitors adore Piha the way it is. Heaven forbid that it become like Matakana or Mt Maunganui."
Harvey, Knox and others want a greater range of activities in the ranges, including accommodation, eco-tourism, outdoor recreation, community markets and home businesses. They say argue the natural attributes could be cashed-in on in a managed way, boosting tourism and local jobs without destroying the goose.
Harvey points to the Auckland tourism and events agency Ateed, which pinpoints the untapped potential of rainforests and regional parks in its plan to double the value of tourism earnings by 2021.
Coney and local board chairwoman Denise Yates point out that many of the activities Harvey and Knox want to see are covered by rules beyond the remit of the visitor management plan - and there's nothing to stop them if they satisfy resource management, district plan and park management plan criteria. "It's one of the great myths that the heritage area guidelines and the regional park mean people can't work from home and make a living," Yates says. "There's a lot more flexibility than people think."
But she concedes the visitor management plan could influence other rulebooks, for instance by imposing conditions on resource consents.
Beneath the politics is the task of striking the right balance for an ecological and recreational treasure-trove on the edge of a major city. A background report notes that the popularity of hotspots such as Piha, the Cascades and Whatipu risks destroying the values of "wilderness" and "quiet and dark" which attract people in the first place. At summer peaks, traffic jams at Piha and Te Henga raise safety as well as amenity issues; alternatives floated include vehicle restrictions on the Piha hill and park and ride facilities at gateways like Glen Eden or Titirangi. Growing demand for events in popular areas is causing concern and complaints have prompted the local board to review protocols for filming in the area. Lobbying is also coming from mountain bikers for access to the 270km of tracks. Litter and vandalism are problems.
Coney says some hotspots are already suffering too much for their popularity, such as Kitekite Falls where the track and stream beds have been damaged. "People on the ground are much more worried about the health of the forest than [economic] activity.
"Feedback from meetings I've been to has been from local people who have these hordes descending on them. How do you manage this so it doesn't impact negatively on local people?"
Kauri dieback is a major threat and visitor compliance with measures to contain its spread is dismayingly low.
Both the park management plan and the heritage area legislation stress the ecological and wilderness values and recreational significance of the ranges. But the heritage area act also provides for the social and economic wellbeing of the 21,000 people who live on the fringes of the park. "It really doesn't have to be an either/or option," Knox says. "We can protect our environment and help people to thrive while welcoming visitors to this paradise."
Knox, chairman of the Karekare Residents and Ratepayers Association, is also seeking a local board seat. He was formerly involved with Tourism NZ's Qualmark programme and says it is possible to balance environmental protection with thriving tourism-related businesses. He sees opportunities to showcase local produce and gourmet cooking.
The pair's main target is the Hillary Trail, the 70km network of tracks conceived as a traditional tramping experience, ideally to encourage youngsters into the great outdoors. The four-day walk is challenging in places and still a work in progress. Harvey has always envisioned it as one of New Zealand's great walks, with comfortable accommodation along the way, drawing tourists as the Amalfi Coast walks do in Italy or the pilgrim walks in Spain. This need not interfere with the trail's use for traditional tramping, he says.
But the park management plan bans commercial concessions on the trail, preventing even guided walks. Accommodation ranges from basic huts to lodges which Harvey says are poorly promoted.
Their motives may be nakedly political but Harvey and Knox raise arguments of regional interest. Two-thirds of the Waitakeres' visitors live outside west Auckland - there's a worry that a local board's response to parochial concerns could limit enjoyment of the place as it is - let alone what it could become. Finding the right balance is no small task. Yates doesn't dispute that the board is pre-disposed towards reining-in activity but says the consultation is "to find out if the thoughts we have match those of the community."
The preliminary consultation has included meetings in Titirangi, Huia, Te Henga (Bethell's Beach) and Swanson and winds up next week with sessions in Oratia and Piha. There's also an online survey on the board's website asking people to identify their favourite places and what they want to see protected.
It seeks views on whether existing infrastructure fits in with the natural character or whether it could be improved. It outlines the board's preference that future "more extensive visitor attractions or accommodation" be located outside the "core" ranges, in Titirangi or the foothills villages. It asks whether entry points could be better marked to raise awareness of the heritage area.
Yates says the initial consultation will result in a discussion document to go out for further consultation. The board had hoped to release it before next month's election but the deadline won't be met.
• Read the Waitakere Ranges Visitor Management Plan on the Auckland Council website.