Commercial businesses making a living off conservation land at the taxpayers' expense are coming under heat.
Since the beginning of the year, rangers from the Department of Conservation (DoC) have made multiple visits to tourist hot spots around Rotorua to check tour operators have a valid permit to operate.
Spot checks have been completed at Okere Falls, Wai-O-Tapu, Kakaramea/Rainbow Mountain and Tarawera Landing.
DoC supervisor Caraline Abbott said any commercial operation on public conservation land required a permit (concession). This included commercial guiding of tourists and grazing farm animals.
"Essentially, unauthorised commercial operators are making a living at the taxpayers' expense, they're gaining reward – usually financial - through the use of public amenities and not giving back to the upkeep of the area they've been using to conduct their business," Abbott said.
"Before authorisation is given to use public lands we assess their activity based on environmental impact and potential disruption to the public. Once a permit is issued there are usually ongoing fees which either go to tangata whenua or the government and can be used in the upkeep of the area."
Abbott said if cultural or environmental concerns became evident, operating conditions could be imposed on the permit holder to make sure any effects were mitigated.
"The amount of public land that is managed by DoC is immense and we can't have eyes everywhere but we've been actively monitoring operators in popular tourist areas.
"Overall the percentage of operators complying with the conditions of their concession has been pleasingly high. Unauthorised operators have been applying for the appropriate concession and one operator is facing legal action as a repeat offender."
Authorised DoC concessionaire David Walmsley from Totally Tarawera said the concession process provided safeguards to ensure all operators on DoC-managed land met certain criteria and there were good principles involved in looking after the land.
"Also, the fees go toward the upkeep and improvement of the areas we use to operate our business so that has got to be good.
"It's a positive promotion for us to show we have a DoC concession," Walmsley said.
A list of approved DoC operators and information on the concessions process can be found at www.DOC.govt.nz.
DoC encourages members of the public to report suspicious or illegal activity to the 24-hour hotline 0800 DOC HOT.