John Roughan
John Roughan is a Weekend Herald columnist

John Roughan: Coromandel can bear more mining


John Roughan writes that the Coromandel peninsula's beauty is not exceptional and doesn't warrant particular protection.

The Coromandel has an enchanting reputation in the rest of New Zealand. Growing up in the south, I imagined a rugged mountainous region of rainforest and stunning scenery, populated by hardy characters who once dug for gold and now shoot deer or mould clay. A little West Coast.

When I came north it was a while before I went there. But often I drove through the Karangahake Gorge and relished the treat I imagined was in store. If a small canyon at the edge of the region could be so picture-perfect, a movie-set gold river, how magnificent might the peninsula be?

What a disappointment. The Coromandel turned out to be just hills, not particularly high or rugged. Rainforest was rare. The countryside was poor farmland for the most part. The coast was pretty in places but not spectacularly prettier than just about all of the east coast of the north.

The same needs to be said of Great Barrier Island. It has a remote island's rough charm but there is no reason to see it more than once. The landscape and sea views are just as splendid on the mainland.

This needs to be said, I think, for the sake of the discussion the Government has invited this week about its proposal to investigate the possible wealth beneath the Barrier's central plateau and a few spots on the Coromandel, as well as some places without blanket protection under Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act.

A map on the Ministry of Economic Development's website identifies nine Coromandel prospects.The largest adjoins Thames to its northeast, two seem to be in the hills behind Waiomu and Tapu, three are near Coromandel town, another is up the river from Pauanui and two lie well to the southwest of Whangamata.

Organisations such as Forest & Bird call these places "prime conservation land" but they'd say that of any part of the vast tracts of New Zealand in the conservation estate.

The great green paradox of the Coromandel is that the place celebrates its mining heyday at every turn. Thames strives to retain the character of a gold town. Trek on the peninsula and the track will probably lead to an old mine or mill or kauri dam. Nature is more appealing with a human destination.

When the Department of Conservation assessed the alternative values of Great Barrier's central plateau for the Government's discussion paper it found "walking trails that follow old mining roads to the summit and across the plateau ... are used by islanders for running events, recreation and access to hunting areas". Old mine shafts and a stamper battery at the plateau base are now ranked as historic sites.

Tourists are constantly stopping at the restored shafts and stamper batteries in Thames. I briefly joined them on Wednesday. Deep in the tunnels a spotlight showed a quartz reef still visible.

Our guide explained the value of gold and silver extracted from 1867 to 1933 and the wealth still reckoned to be there. But he wanted it left there, he said, "because I live here".

If that was clearly the majority view, Coromandel's MP Sandra Goudie would not be backing her Government's investigation. The Barrier's National MP, Nikki Kaye, was able to break ranks but she probably reflected the sentiment of her mainland electorate. The Herald found islanders more equivocal this week.

Mining must be quieter and less obtrusive these days if Waihi is an indication. Martha Hill is now a massive hole in the ground but you wouldn't know unless you flew over it.

Pictures can easily exaggerate visual devastation. The framing of a photo can create a moonscape of earthworks that the nearest residents would never see unless they made an effort to see it, which they probably would. Industry adds interest to remote places.

Obviously many parts of this country are more valuable in their natural condition no matter what minerals lie there. About 13 per cent of the country has been put in this category by the Crown Minerals Act. Beneath that land lies 40 per cent of our potential mineral wealth.

The Government's paper says valuable minerals are concentrated in quite small pockets within the conservation estate.

Buried in the Coromandel is an estimated $54 billion of mostly gold, silver and peat. About one third of that is concentrated in just 4 per cent of the peninsula.

There are also large concentrations on DoC land in the South Island's Paparoa, Kahurangi and Mt Aspiring National Parks, and Rakiura National Park on Stewart Island. The Government has ruled out further investigation of Kahurangi and Mt Aspiring.

But Coromandel and the Barrier could bear more mining. Their character and beauty is common in this part of the country. We do not lack natural assets above ground and need not forgo possible riches below.

- NZ Herald

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