Oparara’s unique environment
(From “Oparara Development – Kahurangi National Park”, NZSS report, 20 Jan 2017)
The Oparara Basin is a large area of approximately 50 square km in the south-west corner of Kahurangi National Park. The landscape is cloaked in dense, largely unmodified podocarp forest. There is a narrow band of limestone running through the basin which has been etched out by rain, the Oparara River, and its tributaries. Central to this limestone landscape is the Honeycomb System, a Specially Protected Area; other renowned caves (accessible to the public) are the Crazy Paving Cave and the Box Canyon Cave.
The Honeycomb System comprises a series of solutional caves in the area. These caves contain significant subfossil remains, which has allowed scientists to better understand the flora and fauna of New Zealand’s past. The Honeycomb System is at the end of its geological lifespan. Much of it is formed along the contact between the limestone (overlying) and granite (underlying) layers. Through a chemical process, water has dissolved the limestone over millions of years forming the caves and karst features. The granite layer, however, cannot be carved by this process and the limestone remaining is gradually crumbling as it dissolves away. The surface has broken through in numerous places throughout the Honeycomb System and the resulting shafts have become natural pitfall traps for flightless birds.
Nearby a range of tracks go to popular tourist attractions such as Mirror Tarn, the Arches and small caves outside the protected area. These sites have been developed as a tourist destination and already attract thousands of tourists each year.
The Oparara Basin is home to a rich and unique wildlife, which includes Powelliphanta snails and a number of rare endemic birds such as blue duck (whio), New Zealand falcon, and kākā.
There are two special wild caves tourists can visit without a guide – Crazy Paving Cave and Box Canyon Cave. Both are home to the Nelson cave spider (Spelungula cavernicola) which is New Zealand’s largest spider and the only spider protected under the Wildlife Act. The spider’s current conservation status is “At Risk – range restricted” (DOC Spiders conservation assessment lists, 2009). The Nelson cave spider is known only from a small number of caves in the Oparara Basin, the Heaphy River valley and Golden Bay. It is likely vulnerable to predation from rats and easily disturbed by human activity and light. Crazy Paving Cave is a hotspot for Spelungula and is one of only a handful of places known to have a moderately dense population. The Nelson cave spider has likely benefited from the extensive predator trapping programme in the Oparara.
Proposed development of the Oparara Basin
In 2016 Development West Coast (DWC) created a new branding, Untamed Natural Wilderness. The brand is designed to attract more tourists to visit the West Coast. Untamed Natural Wilderness describes a landscape that has had little, if any, human development.
The Oparara Basin is unquestionably an important tourist destination within this brand and features on the official West Coast tourism website.
Indeed, the push to elevate Karamea’s and the Oparara Basin’s profiles and tourism potential goes back at least to the “Oparara Valley Project Strategic Marketing Plan 2005-2008”, published in 2004.
On 22 February 2017 Lincoln University’s Design Lab released the Oparara Planning Exercise, a “research report” (a poor euphemism for “development proposal”) prepared for the Department of Conservation. The most controversial aspect of this development proposal was a theme area called “Moa Town”, which included a suspended walkway through the Oparara Arch, a light show, and life-size moa sculptures. The plan was abandoned as a result of public outcry.
Unfortunately, the concept of developing Oparara persisted, with DOC moving into the background. Development West Coast (DWC) and Tourism West Coast (TWC) commissioned branding and design consultants BrandAid with a Feasibility Study and Business Case for the Oparara Valley. A draft report was released to “key stakeholders” (including FMC) for feedback in July 2018. In August, David Williams wrote a great article on the proposed development in Newsroom; it was also published on Stuff.
FMC remains extremely concerned about the scope of the proposed development, and the legality of the process followed by public agencies in the push for this development.
Our main concerns about the proposed development are:
- economic interests being put ahead of the conservation of Oparara, which is in a national park and should thus be managed by DOC in accordance with the National Parks Act.
- that agencies other than DOC – with mandates not connected with conservation – have driven and continue to drive the concept.
- the push to bring large numbers of visitors to an extremely fragile environment, which would almost certainly not cope.
- the plan to install a suspended walkway through the Oparara Arch, and a staircase down into the Moria Gate Arch. This plan appears especially short-sighted, given that it would irremediably ruin two outstanding natural features that are meant to be the main drawcards of the area.
Is the TWC-DOC process legal?
Oparara is part of Kahurangi National Park. As such, it belongs to the New Zealand public, and is managed by the Department of Conservation on our behalf.
The process followed thus far is confusing, lacks transparency, and has us concerned because of the following reasons:
- Oparara belongs to the New Zealand public. As such, we would expect the development proposal to follow a transparent public process, where all New Zealanders have an opportunity to submit and have their say. Since DOC is essentially the developer, albeit at a distance, it has no legal obligation to publicly notify the development.
- The feasibility study commissioned to TWC was passed to “key stakeholders” only, under conditions of confidentiality. Why do they not want the general public to see this? Are they afraid of the public reaction? Are they trying to sneak this development through under the radar?
- Both BrandAid and DOC have evaded answering our questions as to whether the proposed development would be publicly notified, giving all New Zealanders an opportunity to submit.
- DOC manages Oparara, and DOC is really the developer on this occasion – and yet, DOC gets to submit on the development. Are you confused? So are we. Click here to read DOC’s submission.
- Money from the Provincial Growth Fund could be made available for the implementation of this development, particularly the road upgrade. This means that the development could be approved and started very quickly.
What action are we taking?
In cooperation with Forest & Bird and with the New Zealand Speleological Society (NZSS), FMC is setting up a meeting with DOC, DWC, TWC and the Minister for the Environment to discuss some of the more sensitive issues about the protection of Oparara.
We are also proposing consideration of alternatives that might have less environmental impact, such as a short walk to Scott Beach (Karamea), a Charleston to Westport Cycleway, the Hole in the Wall Arch near Charleston, the creation of a loop track to Buckland Peaks Hut, an upgraded Wangapeka – Heaphy Track loop and the re-opening of the track to the Fox River Cave in Paparoa National Park.
How can you help?
Write to the minister of conservation, Eugenie Sage, firstname.lastname@example.org, and ask her to put a halt to any development of Oparara.