Speak Out  Our Wild Spaces Under Threat

Caver, photographer and passionate outdoorsman Neil Silverwood on the threat of development to our wild places.

The scene outside my car window is bleak. I’m in the Chongqing Province in China on a month-long caving trip at the end of a long stay in in the country. There is no sun in the smog-choked sky. Every river we cross is filled with sewage and rubbish floats on the surface; the silty brown waters appear lifeless. We continually pass new infrastructure being built at breakneck speed. New multi-lane trucking roads replace dirt roads, rivers are being dammed and at one point we pass a new laptop factory which, once up and running, will employ over one million people. In the month I spent touring around Chongqing and nearby provinces I never saw any fragment of the old growth forests that once lived here, I never saw naturally flowing rivers, and I never saw a blue sky. This is a country that has an economy growing at an unsustainable pace – where every natural resource is seen as a potential source of revenue – it’s a pillaging of nature in the extreme.

After living in Hong Kong for seven months I longed to be back in a clean country with clear rivers and untamed natural areas – a country that cares about its environment – so I returned home to New Zealand. Unfortunately, I have come to realise that something is afoot here at home, our attitudes and political policies are changing and it’s taking a toll on our environment.

The elected Government in New Zealand, entrusted with the job of balancing economic growth with the protection of our environment and ensuring that we live in balance with nature, have begun to lead the country down a dangerous path where the needs of economic growth are put before the needs of the environment. Kiwi’s often question the American Trump administration but how different is our Government? In late 2015, New Zealand signed the Paris Agreement and pledged to
decrease New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions. But just one and a half years later, behind closed doors, the Government is planning to open a massive area of public conservation land to a company with a vision to create the largest opencast coal mine in the country. Phoenix Coal is a joint venture between Bathurst Resources and Talley’s and is supported by a large New Zealand bank.

President Trump is walking away from the Paris Agreement and has openly signalled a return to fossil fuels, moving away from renewable energy. The Trump administration is at least honest in their intentions – I believe our government is not.

The coal mining venture proposed by Phoenix Coal would see a large area on the side of Mt Rochfort carved away cutting off access to this popular recreational spot. The plan is to expand on the current, relatively small operation and dig two extremely large, sprawling, opencast pits – it would become the second largest opencast mine in New Zealand and has potential to become the largest as the venture also involves the creation of a multi-lane haul road through the pristine upper Waimangaroa River.

The area in question is a unique sandstone plateau. This is one of the last unmodified areas on the Denniston Plateau.

In addition to destroying a large area of the plateau, the opencast mine will release large amounts of methane into the atmosphere (a greenhouse gas five times more powerful than CO 2 ). The fuel used to remove the thick overburden, extract the coal, and transport it to the east coast for shipping to Asian markets will be significant, not to mention the environmental and social consequences of burning the coal for electricity and steel production. If you consider the loss of a large swath of unique public conservation land, the total environmental cost is astronomical.

So, what about the Paris Agreement? Our Government’s current plan is simply to buy more carbon credits (about 1.4 billion per year and growing) to offset developments like this. The government is also considering creating special economic zones where environmental laws do not apply. The Denniston Plateau may be considered for one of these zones. If that happens, it would become a free-for- all of environmental degradation for private profit, at the expense of all New Zealanders.

The only measure of success our current Government uses is growth. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our burgeoning tourism industry. Tourism recently surpassed dairy farming as our largest export earner and it’s estimated it will continue to grow. Tourism is a good alternative to mining but is unchecked growth in the tourism industry sustainable? Many tourist sites and tramping tracks around the country are being overwhelmed and facilities are struggling to meet demand. The Government’s response is simply to develop more infrastructure and attractions rather than focus on promoting a more sustainable form of tourism.

The proposed Oparara Basin development is a great example of the risks of unsustainable tourism. In 2016 a design for a new tourist attraction was commissioned for the fragile basin. Their concept involved building an artificial Disneyesque creation which included artificial moa and Haast’s eagles, a lightshow displaying creepy crawlies in a cave which contains New Zealand’s largest, rarest, and only protected spider, and a platform running the entire length of the longest limestone arch in New Zealand. Every time you build an easier pathway or add something artificial to a natural setting you reduce the adventure in the activity and remove visitors from the original environment. In my mind, the proposed developments would spoil everything that is special about the area and take away from the
reason visitors go there – to experience the ‘untamed natural wilderness’ advertised by Tourism West Coast.

Do we really want – or need – a walkway through Oparara arch? photo: Neil Silverwood

In many ways, Tourism West Coast (in conjunction with Development West Coast and local councils) is onto a good thing with their ‘untamed natural wilderness’ slogan. We live in a sterilised world where we are increasingly tied to our computers and the concept of truly natural settings, and wilderness, is very marketable. However, these areas are becoming scarcer every year.

The only chance for the West Coast to survive in the long term is to preserve its natural environment. Not because of tourism, yes that is important too, but because our rivers and rough, bush-covered mountains are all we have.; they are the places where we hunt, kayak, tramp and adventure. We have clean rivers and clean air, we’ve got something worth preserving!

Perhaps I’m naive but I really believe that many people, myself included, need the wild –need places to go for adventure. Wilderness areas around the world are diminishing as human population grows.

We must make a stand. Our current Government has become so disconnected from nature that they can only see it in a monetary sense. We need to care about the environment. We need to push the government to stifle population growth that puts pressure on our already stretched natural resources.

We only have a small proportion of our original wildlands left. The rest has been set aside for our cities and food production. We can’t keep slicing off pieces of our conservation land or one day we’ll wake up and have nothing left. Our rivers, our caves, our mountains are under threat like never before.

If the outdoor community wants to continue to have recreation and natural places to play, we have to say a loud collective NO to those who wish to develop public conservation land.

Wilderlife