Tourism operators and Far North residents have been told by the Government that they have "nothing to worry about" after local iwi expressed a wish to restrict vehicle access to Ninety Mile Beach.
Parliament has begun debating legislation which would complete a long-awaited Treaty settlement for a group of four iwi - Te Rarawa, Te Aupouri, Ngati Kuri and Ngai Takoto.
Once passed, the Te Hiku Claims Settlement Bill would hand over control of several tracts of land including the famous white-sand beach that stretches to the tip of the North Island.
Te Rarawa chief Treaty negotiator Haami Piripi said his iwi wanted to restrict the number of vehicles, in particular heavy buses, on the beach.
"I am sure we will be looking to reduce it because at the moment it's just free willy," Mr Piripi said. "People can just ride anywhere on the beach they like."
During peak season, 25 busloads of tourists drove on the sands each day and there was an anecdotal belief it was having an impact on toheroa and tuatua beds and sand movements. Studies had shown toheroa stocks were in decline.
Mr Piripi said iwi would be consulting residents and businesses closely and would be careful not to undermine tourism, which he described as the Far North's "growth industry".
"But there definitely will be changes around vehicular access," he added.
Kaitaia businessman Garth Petricevich, who runs the companies Sand Safari and Dune Rider, said he would support small changes such as a weight restriction on vehicles. But he said bus operators did the least harm to the environment because they knew the land and avoided sensitive areas.
Other operators agreed, saying members of the public and "hooligans" in 4WDs did the most damage to Ninety Mile Beach. Bus tour operators already paid a fee to the Department of Conservation for accessing parts of Cape Reinga and surrounding areas.
Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson reassured local operators that they were unlikely to be "overly affected" by the co-governance arrangement between iwi and local authorities. "Once the arrangements are in place I am sure that people will be able to work very constructively to make sure that the beach is available for public access." He added: "There is nothing to be worried about. This is a natural development and it's a good development."
The minister suggested vehicles could be prevented from driving on specific sites such as on shellfish beds during spawning season.
Mr Piripi said there had been little resistance so far to proposals to restrict vehicle access.
What it means:
Who does the Te Hiku Claims Settlement Bill affect?
Four Far North iwi - Te Rarawa, Te Aupouri, Ngati Kuri and Ngai Takoto.
What does the bill do?
It provides commercial and cultural redress for wrongs committed by the Crown against the iwi in the 19th and 20th centuries. These provisions include co-governance of Te Oneroa a Tohe (Ninety Mile Beach) and guardianship of 75ha of land at Cape Reinga, including the culturally significant spot known as the "leaping point for spirits". A cash settlement of around $120 million has already been paid to iwi.
Could it affect public access?
The Government says all existing public access rights will be preserved, though the iwi has expressed interest in limiting heavy vehicles on Ninety Mile Beach. The iwi can choose whether it restricts public access to the Aupouri Forest.