Without commercial activities, nobody would get the chance to enjoy our unique outdoor spaces says Al Morrison.

The Department of Conservation's decision this summer to allow a discreetly placed stall selling sandwiches and hiring out snorkels at Cathedral Cove on the Coromandel has attracted strong debate.

Our critics claim it is "opening the floodgates to hawkers on the beach" and setting the stage for "icecream stalls in paradise".

In fact, the stall is simply part of a long-standing and important relationship between conservation and commerce. It recognises that conservation and business can, and do, co-exist. Conservation is good for the economy and DoC is focused on activity that is good for both.

Cathedral Cove is an example of how we go about ensuring that business and conservation can support each other. The operator has a short-term permit to erect a small tent set back from the sand in a popular recreation reserve. He is offering sandwiches, cold drinks, sunblock and snorkelling gear (note: no icecreams) to some of the 120,000 people who visit the cove each year.

One of the conditions of the permit is that he cleans up the rubbish others leave on the beach each day. Feedback is being gathered from both locals and visitors, and the permit will be reviewed at the end of the summer.

The future of the permit will depend on that review, but far from "opening the floodgates", Cathedral Cove is simply the latest example of a long-established system for allowing appropriate commercial activity on public conservation land.

There are currently over four and a half thousand concessions involving such commercial activities across the country. These range from ski tours to stock grazing, from bungy jumping to beekeeping, from commercial filming to co-ordinating multi-sport events.

A large number involve the tourism and recreation industries, providing many of the outdoor activities and facilities that encourage both New Zealanders and overseas visitors to get out and enjoy the places that make this country so special.

Some are extremely well known - next month's Coast to Coast endurance race across the Southern Alps, the Ruapehu skifields in the middle of Tongariro National Park and whale watching off the Kaikoura Coast.

Other concessions involve small eco-tours in the Catlins, river rafting on the West Coast and kauri walks in Northland forests. The list is as varied as the industry is resourceful.

Far from putting the environment at risk, such commercial activity on public conservation land strengthens the protection of conservation values in practical ways. By enabling responsible local businesses to flourish we encourage more people to experience our unique public spaces. And that makes conservation more relevant and increases the value that people see in it.

Large or small, all concessions are carefully vetted through regular reviews and public consultation. The environmental impact is a primary concern. But the department also assesses how appropriate activities are, the safety standards involved, how it impacts on other users, and the local community's view.

Many ideas never see the light of day because they would clearly harm rather than enhance the places which New Zealanders value so highly. But, where appropriate, DoC aims to enable commercial operators to provide the services and facilities that will encourage maximum benefit from the public's conservation dollar.

Those benefits flow from three key areas.

By encouraging New Zealanders and visitors to get out and enjoy our special public spaces, DoC plays a crucial part in supporting our $20 billion tourism industry. Many profitable businesses contributing to economic growth for New Zealand rely on the conservation infrastructure DoC manages.

The $14 million raised last year through concession fees paid by commercial operators also plays a valuable role in making the taxpayers investment in conservation go that much further.

And perhaps most importantly, people truly value what they see and experience for themselves. If we want taxpayers to continue to invest in maintaining the special spaces we have, they need to be able to access and enjoy those places themselves.

This means enabling appropriate facilities to make those experiences as memorable and accessible as they can be. Conservation is not about shutting the gate and throwing away the key - it is about getting people, including business, engaged with the natural environment that is so critical to their prosperity.

Enabling people to enjoy a cool drink and a snorkelling trip at Cathedral Cove - at the same time as the beach gets cleaned - is just another small way of doing that.

* Al Morrison is Director-General of the Department of Conservation.