Police are investigating after receiving reports that eight more huts have been destroyed in Te Urewera.
The huts are reportedly in addition to the 29 that had been dismantled by Te Uru Tamatua, the operating arm of iwi Ngāi Tūhoe, as part of its replacement programme until it was forced to stop by the High Court on November 9.
Te Uru Taumatua has confirmed it is abiding by the court order and has no knowledge of the more recent activity.
A police spokeswoman said they had received a report that eight huts in Te Urewera had burned down.
“Police have begun making initial inquiries into the incident and the fires are believed to have occurred sometime between the 19 and 29 of November,” she said.
“The circumstances of the fires are yet to be determined and an investigation is ongoing.”
The reports come amid wider discontent with Te Uru Taumatua and its hut replacement plans.
Following the settlement of Tūhoe’s Treaty of Waitangi claims in 2013, Te Urewera was declared a legal entity and its governance and management vested in Te Urewera Board, made up of three Crown and six Tūhoe members.
Crown improvements within Te Urewera (including the huts), however, remain vested in the Crown, in accordance with management and operation plans set by the board and Te Uru Taumatua, the Tūhoe trust.
Te Uru Taumatua had planned to dismantle 48 huts in the area which it said were derelict and would be replaced. It said until then some temporary shelters would be put in place. The plan was also supported by the Department of Conservation.
A decision was made to destroy the huts, not believed to be “fit for purpose” and health and safety hazards, on May 17.
However, that plan has galvanised wider discontent among some hapū against Te Uru Taumatua, with some Tūhoe joining numerous protests in recent months, alongside a range of hunters and recreationists.
Wharenui Clyde Tuna, who is also Tūhoe, took the Te Uru Taumatua trustees to the High Court to stop the programme.
The court ultimately issued an “interim interim order” to cease all hut removals until an application for an interim order could be properly heard.
It is unclear who is behind the more recent destruction of huts.
A spokesman for Te Uru Taumatua (TUT) said they had been made aware of one hut that had been burned down this week, but none of the subsequent ones now being investigated by police.
“A trapper contracted by TUT as part of pest control in Waimana valley saw a hut was ‘burnt down’ and notified TUT staff Tuesday morning.
“A TUT kaimahi confirmed this and the Department of Conservation, as the owner, was informed. TUT has no firsthand knowledge of the subsequent reports.”
The hut decommissioning programme involved “methodical deconstruction” with burning as only one part of the process, he said.
“It was carried out subject to strict health and safety procedures by supervised teams in appropriate weather.
“Te Uru Taumatua is abiding by the current interim order of the High Court from November that no huts be removed from Te Urewera pending a substantive hearing on the matter.”
Act Party MP Nicole McKee, a keen hunter, said the Department of Conservation and police needed to take stronger action to protect the remaining huts and be more transparent.
McKee had been contacted by hunters about huts being destroyed and she said police had only made a public statement after being approached by media.
“It is abhorrent these are being burned down. Police need to be transparent and DoC, they need to tell the community what is going on.”
McKee said she also disagreed with Te Uru Taumatua’s hut decommissioning programme.
“They should build the new ones before getting rid of those that are there. It is a health and safety hazard for those that use Te Urewera.”
A court date to hear an application for an interim injunction order has not yet been set.