D-G Direct: An update from Lou Sanson

Department of Conservation —  19/01/2016

By Lou Sanson, Director-General

I hope everyone has had a great Christmas break enjoying time with friends and family.

Lou Sanson's daughters Steph and Georgia.

Steph and Georgia Sanson, Christmas Eve, Otira Valley

We’ve had one of our busiest ever tourist seasons this year, with the likes of 1,000 vehicles a day at locations like Milford Sound. Throughout the season I’ve been impressed to see the standards of maintenance and the care our staff have taken to provide visitors with a high quality experience.

I travelled widely through Canterbury, West Coast, Otago and Southland during my holiday and talked to many visitors who gave great feedback on our tracks and campsites. One area that particularly impressed me was Otira Valley where our staff had gone to so much trouble to clear the track and allow all the Mt Cook lilies to grow through. Very impressive!

Talking to staff in our South Island visitor centres

I had the opportunity to talk to staff in some of our visitor centres while travelling the South Island.

At Haast, I met Michele Manera and Lynda Horne, who together have worked at the visitor centre for 17 years, with 120,000 visitors a year coming through the door – up to 500 a day in peak season.

In Dunedin I talked to Karen Connor and Mike Morrison who just moved our visitor centre in with the Dunedin i-Site. The new location opened in October and our sales have doubled while operating costs have lowered. We are expecting to increase our visitor numbers from 5,000 to 200,000 per year and Karen is now included on the Dunedin City Council’s roster for the site.

We have also just moved into the new visitor centre at Franz Josef which is a partnership between Ngai Tahu and the local i-Site. It will be opened shortly.

Operations Manager Wayne Costello outside our new Franz Josef Visitor Centre.

Operations Manager Wayne Costello outside our new Franz Josef Visitor Centre

Owaka is 150 years old

Just before Christmas I shared Christmas drinks with staff at our Owaka base in the Catlins, where the community has just celebrated the settlement’s 150th anniversary.

Owaka is at the core of our Battle for our Birds programme with 30,000 hectares of 1080 control put in place in the Catlins Coastal Rainforest Park over the last 15 years.

Owaka base staff Nick Kelly, Paul Bull, Chris Bennett, Ray Shanks and Cheryl Pullar.

Owaka staff Nick Kelly, Paul Bull, Chris Bennett, Ray Shanks and Cheryl Pullar

10,000 hectares of this is done with TBfree New Zealand and we can now celebrate the largest density of mohua in New Zealand with 3,000-4,000 birds in a project first started by Graeme Loh and Graeme Elliott.

They‘ve also had a large increase in visitors with 100,000 visiting Nugget Point and 70,000 at Purakaunui Falls.

A visit to Te Nohoaka o Tukiauau – Sinclair Wetlands

While in Dunedin I was hosted by Ngāi Tahu and Rosemary Clucas at Te Nohoaka Wetlands 50 kilometres south of the city.

 Te Nohoaka/Sinclair Wetlands.

Te Nohoaka/Sinclair Wetlands

Last year the DOC Community Fund supplemented the $1 million invested by Ngāi Tahu in the area, which is the largest privately owned wetland in the country.

They currently have 3,500 volunteer hours a year and planted 5,000 native plants last year.

With intensive predator control, they are getting fernbirds and bitterns back and the plan is for a complete restoration for Mahinga Kai, conservation, education and recreation.

Listening to the community on Stewart Island/Rakiura

Just before the break I met with members of the Stewart Island community to talk about their concerns around shark cage diving tourism.

Feelings are running high on both sides of the debate, but it was a constructive meeting where we were able to listen to the community’s concerns.

We’ll be setting up a working group with WorkSafe NZ, Maritime NZ and the Ministry for Primary Industries in February to work through some of the issues.

On Rakiura I also visited the Dancing Star Foundation’s private enclosure which is now for sale. The property backs on to Rakiura National Park and has had considerable work done with species transfer by DOC.

Allan Munn, DOC Operations Director (Southern South Island); Bridget Baynes, Rakiura/Stewart Island Operations Manager; John Twidle, Southland Conservation Board; Mark Murray, WorkSafe NZ Chief Inspector - Southern Region; and John Whitebead, Chair of Southland Conservation Board.

Visit to Rakiura/Stewart Island

New predators target southern New Zealand dotterel

On Rakiura, one of our biodiversity rangers, Kevin Carter, briefed me on the southern New Zealand dotterel programme. The population hit a low of 62 birds in 1992 and has been moved up slowly to 260 birds through cat control in one of most remote and exposed environments in New Zealand – the Tin Range mountain tops.

Sadly, by using new camera techology to monitor nests, we’ve become aware of new predation by black backed gulls, spur-winged plover and even whitetail deer eating dotterel eggs.

We have seen a three year decline to a population of 179 birds today. This bird could become as rare as kakapo if we do not solve the emerging predation issues here.

Tourism numbers increasing rapidly

Over my holiday, I walked the Routeburn and Caples tracks and talked to hut wardens about the increasing issues they are facing with illegal campers and huts at capacity on our Great Walks.

I was also able to drive through to Milford with operations manager Greg Lind and ranger Ken Bradley and see how they are managing our busiest ever season in Milford Sound. We expect 600,000 visitors there and 90% are international.

Greg Lind and Afrika McNall along Milford Road.

Greg Lind and Afrika McNall, who’s responsible for cleaning the 28 toilets provided for campers along Milford Road

Currently, peak days are 1,000 vehicles at Milford Sound and peaks of 140 vehicles with 500 people camping overnight at Milford road campsites like Cascade Creek.

We have put in 28 toilets and have already had 18,000 campers in the Eglinton. The biggest single cost to our Great Walks and Milford campsites operation is human waste. Ken estimates we will need to shift 40 tonnes of human waste at a cost of $100,000 by end of the season.

Last year the Milford campsites hosted 36,000 campers. We expect this year to go above that.

Keeping up with and ahead of the increasing use of conservation land for tourism will be a key focus this year.

Ron and Maureen Cooper with Ken Bradley in their third year as volunteer campsite hosts at Cascade Creek.

Ron and Maureen Cooper with Ken Bradley in their third year as volunteer campsite hosts at Cascade Creek

Bringing the highlands to Fiordland

Clive Rule is our longest serving hut warden, now completing his 24th year at Lake Mackenzie in northern Fiordland.

I overnighted with him as he was also handling nine illegal campers pitching tents behind the rocks right in front of his hut warden’s quarters.

Clive Rule at Lake Mackenzie Hut in Northern Fiordland.

Clive Rule at Lake Mackenzie Hut in Northern Fiordland

At the same time as looking after a hut that’s booked out till April, Clive is legendary for his hut talks and the Highland Games he organises at Lake Mackenzie.

TVNZ did a story about this year’s event, which is so popular people walk in from other tracks to experience it.

Watch the TVNZ story on the Lake Mackenzie Highland Games.

Former PM enjoys a Great Walk

I bumped into Helen Clark and one of our Queenstown rangers, Mark Mawhinney, on the Routeburn Track. Helen has agreed to be patron of the Routeburn Dart Wildlife Trust and was having a great time walking the track with Mark and some of the trustees.

Mark Mawhinney and Helen Clark on the Routeburn.

Mark Mawhinney and Helen Clark on the Routeburn

This project is focused on recovery of whio, mohua, kaka and rock wren. They now have 32,000 hectares of land under sustained predator control and a wonderful relationship with Air New Zealand as our key sponsor for Great Walks.

One response to D-G Direct: An update from Lou Sanson

    Sandra Goodwin 19/01/2016 at 11:38 am

    Excellent report Mr Sanson. Upon reflection on items in your report (especially dealing with human waste in popular areas) I seriously question this government’s policy of wanting more and even more tourists. There must be a manageable and ideal number and I suggest that number has long been surpassed. We will end up “killing off the goose that laid the golden egg”.