Monday, October 14, 2013

The journey or the destination?

Published in the Sept. 2013 issue of New Zealand Wilderness magazine

Taking a drink in the Alisa Mountains, along the Routeburn track, one of the areas that would have been affected by the proposed Milford-Dart tunnel

The Journey or the Destination
Tunnel rejected, but other Fiordland projects still on the table

by Krista Langlois

Warrick Mitchell is driving 100 kilometers per hour down the Milford Road, past jagged cliffs, hanging glaciers and pristine alpine valleys – scenery that's causing his two passengers to audibly gasp as they crane their necks to take it all in. Arguably the most spectacular road in New Zealand, the 120-km long Milford Road (or SH94) is the only way to reach Fiordland National Park by land. The park's 3 million acres of soaring mountains and lush rainforest draw outdoor enthusiasts from around the world, but there's still only one way in: the twisting, turning Milford Road.

“I'll never forget the first time I made this drive,” Mitchell says, steering around a tight bend. "I love it. I love the spirit of this place."

Clattering behind his SUV is an aluminum fishing boat, which Mitchell, 35, will use to take his friends to the remote homestead off the coast where he grew up. For three days, they'll dive, fish and surf, alone in New Zealand's last great wilderness.

Although Mitchell's family homestead, like most of Fiordland, remains accessible only by boat, Milford Sound at the northern end of the park is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination. More than 500,000 visitors a year travel the Milford Road to get there, and entrepreneurs, investors and builders see the undeveloped coast as a gold mine. Warrick Mitchell, however, just sees it as home.

On July 17, after years of heated controversy, Conservation Minister Nick Smith rejected a $170 million proposal to build an 11-kilometer tunnel through the Alisa mountains to Milford Sound. The tunnel and accompanying road would have whisked hundreds of thousands of new tourists to Fiordland by allowing them to bypass the lengthy drive from Queenstown to Te Anau to Milford, but it would have also cut through the heart of two national parks and a World Heritage site. Community leaders and conservationists waged war against the tunnel, creating petitions, signs and stickers to try to convince the government – and the public – that the plan was ill-conceived.

Though they succeeded, the fight is hardly over, says Daphne Taylor of the non-profit group Save Fiordland. "We feel now that we have the really difficult battle ahead of us."

Two more proposals seek to improve transportation in Fiordland: a toll road down the rugged coastline from Haast to Milford, and a project called Fiordland Link that would connect Queenstown to the start of the Milford Road near Te Anau.

One way or another, it seems, private companies are intent on improving access and bringing more tourist dollars to the region.

Whether they'll be allowed to move forward with their plans will be up to Smith, who is expected to hand down more decisions in the coming months. Because Smith's choice to reject the tunnel was based on protecting the ecologic integrity of Fiordland National Park, Mt. Aspiring National Park and the Te Wähipounamu World Heritage Site, environmentalists hope that other transportation projects will be rejected for similar reasons. But Fiordland Link backer Bob Robertson says that his project avoids the national parks, has less environmental impact and will bring 440 much-needed jobs to the area. If it's approved, the Fiordland Link experience will take visitors to Milford by boat, train, ATV and bus.

"It's a world-class backcountry tourist experience," Robertson wrote in an e-mail. "It is an experience in its own right and is not just another transport option to Milford Sound. Nor has it been designed just to shorten the travel time to Milford Sound."

While he expects a degree of opposition to the monorail, Robertson said it will ultimately enable more people to see New Zealand's natural beauty, instead of "keep[ing] the environment the preserve of a select few who have the time and the fitness to put a pack on their back."

Additionally, Robertson said, the electronic monorail will be largely powered by wind farms, enabling another half a million people to travel to Milford without increasing carbon emissions. The plan includes a 20km catamaran trip on Lake Wakatipu, 43km monorail, 45km ATV track and, finally, a bus ride along the Milford Road.

Though it intentionally skirts the national parks, the proposed Fiordland Link route nonetheless cuts through 29 km of ecologically unique tussock grasslands and beech forest of Te Wähipounamu. Opponents like Save Fiordland claim that the project would compromise the region's natural and cultural beauty, creating a "Disney-esque" attraction that could threaten its World Heritage status.

“If the proposal goes ahead our World Heritage status will be seriously jeopardized,” Daphne Taylor said. “One of the reasons people come to New Zealand is because of our World Heritage sites. The government is … making noise about economic development, [but] to lose that status would not be in our economic benefit – and doesn't make sense on any level.”

That, said tunnel spokesman Tom Elworthy, is “complete nonsense."

"There's been a power station, road widening, and business development in Milford,” he added. The proposed transportation projects are minor in comparison.

There are also fears that transportation projects ushering tourists straight to Milford could impact local businesses in Te Anau and other small Southland towns. Robertson has promised that Fiordland Link would promote Te Anau attractions, but that doesn't appease Glenorchy resident Thor Davis. “The people who live [in these parts] like being in a place where we've still got everything under our control. We're not on the way to somewhere else. When you start doing busloads of people ... they won't understand anything about our town. We'll just be another place on the side of the road.”

Back on the Milford Road, as the mountain pass gives way to virgin beech forest dripping with moss and ferns, Warrick Mitchell reminisces about growing up in one of New Zealand's most remote families, in the midst of the country's greatest wilderness. By the time he was a teenager, he was more comfortable in the backcountry than most adults.

Now a private yacht captain who has sailed the world, Mitchell still comes home to enjoy one of the most unspoiled places on earth. Perhaps more than anyone else, he understands what's at stake in the fight to develop Fiordland.

“It's a really stunning area, an untouched part of the world," he said. "And I think it should be left that way.”

Krista Langlois has worked as a journalist, teacher and wilderness guide. She currently lives in Colorado, U.S.A.

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