It will be a sad day if New Zealand decides to charge for access to tracks in its national parks. Something of the country's character will be lost when people can no longer walk in these wonderful, remote places at will, knowing they are open and free.
But that day might not be far away, according to Department of Conservation director-general Lou Sanson. The tourism boom and the popularity of these excursions, particularly the Great Walks, have caused an "explosion" of numbers on the tracks, he says.
He does not quite advocate a charge but thinks it is a possibility to consider, both to reduce the numbers and to help pay for the removal of waste and cleaning camping areas.
According to the latest report, fully half of the international visitors to New Zealand come to enjoy our natural environment in some way.
A good many of them are doing walks such as the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. So many, says Sanson, that when he was there with the US ambassador in March, "every time we stopped we were surrounded by 40 people". That, he added, "is not my New Zealand". Perhaps the character of the country has already been lost in these places, and a charge for access would help restore it.
He suggests a differential charge, perhaps $100 for visitors from overseas and $40 for residents. He did not say how his department might collect it. DoC is well accustomed to charging for the use of its huts on the longer tracks, but how would it collect a fee for one-day walks such as the Tongariro crossing?
Would rangers be posted to collect cash, or check tickets that would have to be bought in advance? How would they be enforced?
There are other consequences to consider. A charge changes the way users regard it. The track and its surrounds would cease to be a privilege for which they are grateful, and become something they feel they have paid for.
They will have an idea of the value they expect and rights they believe due for their expense. They may be more likely to leave their rubbish in the park. The costs of removing litter and cleaning camping areas may quickly exceed the revenue collected.
And would a charge really reduce numbers on the tracks? Tourists are accustomed to paying at every turn, and most might buy a pass to the wilderness without question. New Zealanders would find it harder to accept in principle, but it they are keen enough to do the walk, a price would not put them off. The only difference it would make is to DoC's revenue, which may be the director general's main concern.
And it is a valid one. The department is asked to do a great deal on a limited budget.
In general it does a fine job looking after the national conservation estate and is doing its utmost to protect native forests, grasslands, wetlands, birds, animals and marine life. Its work is part of the reason we are enjoying a tourism boom, and DoC's funding should rise on the tax revenue that tourism is providing. Better that than turnstiles to the wilderness.