The Southland District Council says the fate of the Hollyford track will be decided this month, following half a year of disuse and "extensive" damage.
Almost 3000 hikers have petitioned local government and NZTA to reopen the access roads after the Fiordland backcountry walk has been left without access for over seven months.
Road and air access to the Hollyford Track was cut off by flood damage in February this year.
The challenging walk from Gunns Camp to the coast is accessed via the Lower Hollyford Road which runs off State Highway 94 to Milford Sound. Both of these roads were cut off by storm damage earlier in the year but, as the Te Anau to Milford road was repaired, Hollyford has remained inaccessible to vehicles.
Jules Tapper, the petition's founder and former Lakes District Air Rescue Trust chairman, worries that hesitance to repair the access road might not only lead to a lost summer season for walkers but the abandonment of the trail.
Tapper operated an air link to the Hollyford airstrip at Gunns Camp for three decades, referring to the link as a "major lifeline" for the area.
"This is an important access road formed nearly 90 years ago," said Tapper, pointing to significant amount of infrastructure that was in jeopardy– in the form of huts, tracks, bridges and lodges serving the track.
"The old time road makers would turn in their grave if they heard the road may be abandoned."
There are six DoC huts on the trail with space for 98 walkers. Ngāi Tahu operates a three-day guided walk along the Hollyford track and has also invested significant amounts of money in the area currently cut off.
"We are 100 per cent committed to make the season go ahead," said Adam Dooney, Ngāi Tahu's Hollyford business manager. Operating from January to April, Dooney said they could rely on helicopter access for now, but "the repair of the road is of course crucial to the long term future of our business".
"Ngāi Tahu have invested millions of dollars into assets and conservation in the Hollyford area," he said, assets normally used "not only to our guests but to thousands of New Zealanders that visit the Hollyford Valley every year".
The company has already begun repairs on Pyke Lodge and Martins Bay Lodge, which were damaged in this year's floods.
"We are aware that there is a petition," Hartley Hare, strategic transport manager for Southland District Council, told the Herald, saying that access to Milford Sound via SH94 was prioritised over the Lower Hollyford Road.
During the initial flood damage in February a four-wheel drive access had been made as far as Gunns Camp in order to salvage items from the trail – however the road remains unstable and a gate was installed at the Lake Marian track carpark.
"At present only restriction to vehicular access is in place along the road," said Hare. The most determined walkers might be able to make the 17km access trail by foot, however the Department of Conservation still has six long term track closures along the route, some of which have been in place since the initial storm damage on February 4.
A spokesperson for the district council said that the "Milford Road Alliance team [Waka Kotahi and Downer] are currently gathering the costs of fully repairing the road which will be extensive given the nature of the storm damage from both heavy rains and river bed changes".
As a "special purpose road" repair costs are currently covered by a subsidy from Waka Kotahi. However this current arrangment is due to expire in 2024, after which Southland District ratepayers will be charged for just over half the costs, 51 per cent, in the event of future emergency roading repairs to the track.
The full cost of repairs will be announced at a meeting on September 24 when SDC, Waka Kotahi and other parties will be involved in "deciding the future of the road".
The Department of Conservation said that it was hard to predict the current demand for the Hollyford track. "Like many huts on the DoC network, they aren't on a booking system, instead operating under first come, first served basis."
However, nearby Milford Track - which is one of New Zealand's designated Great Walks - is "completely booked out for the coming season".
With international borders closed and Kiwis looking for adventures closer to home, there is a huge demand for back country walks.
However, it will have to wait until the end of this month to find out whether Kiwis will be back on the trail this summer, or if the road will remain in disrepair.