With the nation's almost total focus on Covid-19, a significant anniversary slipped by last month largely unacknowledged. This was April 28, the day that marked 25 years since the Cave Creek tragedy.
On that day in 1995, 13 students from Tai Poutini Polytechnic and one Conservation Department staff member died when a platform they were standing on collapsed into a chasm at Cave Creek in Paparoa National Park. Four students who were on the viewing platform survived the 30m fall.
The event rocked the nation. The Cave Creek Commission of Inquiry found that although many individual mistakes contributed to the accident, a root cause was that DOC had been under-funded and under-resourced for the role it was expected to achieve. It found that from the time of its creation in 1987 it had remained disorganised internally with few consistently used project and safety management systems or formally qualified staff for much of the required work.
It was a defining moment for DOC but also led to major improvements in health and safety requirements for government agencies throughout New Zealand.
In the aftermath, DOC hired engineers to check the viability of every structure on the vast conservation estate —about 30 per cent of New Zealand's land area or about 8 million hectares — a hugely expensive project that took months. But there was a determination never to forget the lessons of Cave Creek.
As well, there was a massive overhaul in how DOC manages its visitor assets. A number of leadership systems, processes and health and safety protocols to ensure the safety of visitors, staff, contractors and volunteers were implemented. Director general Lou Sanson acknowledges a failure of DOC systems and processes led to the platform collapse, but 25 years later, the safety of visitors, staff, contractors and volunteers is a key priority.
Sanson's personal priority is that DOC continues to build and strengthen a culture that puts health, safety and wellbeing first. If that has transformed a shambolic department into a disciplined one with a highly developed - some say over the top - risk-averse outlook, he makes no apology for that.
Things have certainly changed. The viewing platform that collapsed at Cave Creek was built by DOC staff but today such construction projects are contracted out and the systems put in place ensure all facilities managed by the department are built well and receive an appropriate level of engineering, compliance and maintenance. Visitors can walk onto park structures and cross bridges confident that they are safe.
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As the pandemic has changed our world, Cave Creek changed DOC's world. But 25 years later the trust, respect and confidence of most New Zealanders has been restored, though there will always be differing points of view on and critics of its policies and actions, for example, use of 1080 for pest control.
An event to commemorate the anniversary for the families and DOC has been postponed because of Covid-19 restrictions. When rescheduled, a new interpretation panel will be unveiled at the entrance to the Cave Creek walk, telling the story of the tragedy and the lessons learned.
•Dave Scoullar is a tramper, conservationist and member of the Te Araroa Whanganui Trust