The Government has ordered a feasibility study into a new 'great walk' from the Pike River Mine site and over the Paparoa Range, with Environment Minister Nick Smith signalling today that the area may never be mined again.
Dr Smith was at the Atarau memorial to the Pike River victims to back the bid for a great walk, and to add the mine site and surrounding area to the Paparoa National Park. As such, it would automatically become schedule four land, which cannot be mined and guarantees public access.
The Pike River families agreed by consensus to the move, although others said it would split the families as some persisted with efforts to recover the 29 bodies.
Dr Smith said there would be further consultation with the families on the specific area to be included in the national park.
The move would "ensure the site where 29 miners lost their lives is properly respected and ensures families will always have access to their loved one's resting place".
He said the park extension would be discussed with the New Zealand Conservation Authority at its meeting on Tuesday, and the West Coast Conservation Board would also be consulted.
The minister said he wanted the status of the area clarified before current mine owner Solid Energy handed it over to the Department of Conservation about mid-year, to ensure that no other company could lodge an application to mine the area.
The walk itself would span 20km and two days, taking trampers into impressive limestone formations and out to the Pancake Rocks, at Punakaiki. It would rise from 200m above seal level to 1000m.
Construction would be a major undertaking as the terrain was rugged, and Dr Smith said he had asked DoC to undertake a feasibility study on the design challenges, tourism potential, cost and hut facilities.
Based on the Heaphy Track, a hut could cost $1 million. Families spokesman Bernie Monk, suggested that symbolically, it should have 29 bunks.
The current national park plan does not provide for a great walk or huts, and would need to be reviewed.
"I will be having further discussions with the Pike River families on the detail of the proposal when I have received further advice on its viability," Dr Smith said.
He said the great walk proposal came from the families' desire that something good come of the November 2010 tragedy.
"The concept of an expanded park, visitor centre and new track offers a positive way forward to memorialise the 29 men lost."
The Pike River families were surveyed, and voted 16.5 for the walk, but five were against and 1.5 had no opinion.
In a statement this afternoon, the families said they supported the establishment of the walk, connecting the mine site on the eastern side of the Paparoa to Punakaiki - where the Cave Creek disaster occurred almost 20 years ago - on the western side.
The families group said a "clear majority" supported working with the Government on ways to bring individuals allegedly responsible for the mine disaster to justice, and incorporating the mine site into the Paparoa National Park.
The existing mine buildings would be used for accommodation and a visitors centre, which would incorporate the history of the disaster, New Zealanders' response and a function and training facility.
"Family members view the latter proposals as a positive way of providing an enduring memorial to their men and an enduring economic benefit to the local West Coast communities which suffered significantly from the loss of the mine and the economic benefit it provided."
Most families had voted to retain the buildings on the mine site.
Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn today welcomed the idea of a great walk, linking the Grey Valley with the Coast Road.
However, he had "reservations" about the area earmarked for schedule four, meaning it could not be mined.
The Coast currently has only one great walk, the Heaphy Track, which runs from Karamea to Collingwood.