Some of those opposed to a proposal to build a zipline at Okere Falls have shared their environmental, cultural and social concerns at a public hearing..

The hearing was held in Rotorua yesterday and gave submitters the chance to relay their concerns about the venture to a panel of Department of Conservation representatives before the applicant, Sam Sutton, presented his views.

The panel will review the information supplied at the hearing. However, whether the venture, described as a sustainable eco-culture tour, goes ahead will ultimately lie with the office of the Conservation Minister.

Sutton, who owns Rotorua Rafting, applied under the name Okere Adventures to establish a three-hour ziplining tour in the canopy of the Okere Falls Scenic Reserve.

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Done in partnership with Māori landowners from Ngāti Hinerangi-Ngāti Hinekiri, Sutton's vision is to reduce his stakes in the venture over time until it is entirely iwi-owned.

Okere Incorporated chairman Piki Thomas, left, and Sam Sutton, at Okere Falls for zipline venture. Photo / Stephen Parker
Okere Incorporated chairman Piki Thomas, left, and Sam Sutton, at Okere Falls for zipline venture. Photo / Stephen Parker

The application was originally for six ziplines that would be reached from 12 platforms, however, the ziplines have since been reduced by two and the course revised following feedback in the submission process.

Tours of up to 10 people would run from 8am to 5pm, weather permitting, seven days a week.

The idea of doing night tours was also scrapped to allow river users key times before and after work to experience the isolation and "wilderness" feeling the gorge offered.

The guided tours would progress through the forest at ground and canopy levels and follow a walking trail and the zipline.

Sutton has maintained throughout the consultation and submission process that the primary focus for the venture was sustainable tourism and enhancing the scenic reserve, supported by his plans to include pest control and revegetation as part of the venture.

Of the 45 written submissions received, 25 were opposed, 19 were for and one was neutral.

Today, seven submitters, from recreational and commercial river users and engineers to iwi and conservation organisations, were heard.

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Their main concerns centred on visual and aural impacts on other users as well as fears the environmental and biodiversity impacts had been downplayed.

Sam Sutton hopes to set up a new zipline tourism venture in Okere Falls. Photo / Stephen Parker
Sam Sutton hopes to set up a new zipline tourism venture in Okere Falls. Photo / Stephen Parker

Forest & Bird was particularly concerned about the impact on long-tailed bats, which had recently been rediscovered in other parts of Rotorua.

Rebecca Stirnemann, submitting on behalf of the organisation, said while no survey had been done in the Okere Falls Scenic Reserve, she would be "very surprised if there weren't bats in the area".

She said clearance of vegetation to make way for the venture could disrupt any potential habitat of the endangered creature.

Roland Kingi, on behalf of members within Ngāti Pikiao, raised concerns about some within the iwi being left out of the consultation process.

He said the cultural impact assessment was not conducted by the appropriate person and believed more work needed to be done with iwi before the venture could be approved.

In particular, Kingi mentioned there were parts of the river that contained undocumented burial sites that were tapu and for this reason, "it would be like building a zipline on Mount Ngongotahā and flying it over Kauae Cemetery".

Jennifer Ross from the Kaimai Canoe Club raised concerns about aural and visual disruptions creating safety hazards for recreational users on the river.

She said it was already difficult to hear people on the river and didn't know if the ziplines would drown out the whistles they used to communicate with each other.

Sutton thanked everyone for the submissions and said it highlighted the love and passion people had about the area.

He said the submissions had also given him a chance to reassess his initial proposal and make amendments to lessen the impact on all users.

His hope for the venture was for it to reconnect mana whenua with its awa and the people that use it by showcasing Mātauranga Māori to the world.

In support of Sutton, Ranginui Thomas, of Ngāti Pikiao, said kaumātua were on board with the venture and the desire to have Ngāti Pikiao people employed there was huge.

He said iwi were sceptical at first but that changed largely because Sutton was "genuine and upfront, thorough in his research and transparent about the desired outcome".

A timeframe for when a decision will be made is yet to be determined.