Just 100 people attended the first community meeting in Glenorchy to discuss the proposed Milford Dart Tunnel.
It represented a big turnout for a small town – and a unanimous ‘no’ vote created protest group Stop the Tunnel Glenorchy.
But with a $170m project gathering momentum after the Department of Conservation indicated it’d grant permission subject to public consultation, the band of locals faced an uphill task to stop the development in its tracks.
One month after the January meeting, the extended public consultation period closed with more than 1260 submissions – 859 opposing the plans, 400 in support and one neutral.
Seven months on, the issue has gained national and international attention.
Almost 25,000 people from around the world have signed a petition opposing the project, TV news programmes have run dozens of segments and international broadsheets, travel publications and magazines have devoted thousands of column inches to debating the pros and cons.
Even UK paper The Daily Mail, ran a 700-word news story about the 11.3km tunnel and new roads in one of the “most pristine areas of natural beauty on the planet” and a similar length article in the travel pull-out.
But just how did the small diverse group of protesters from an end-of-the-road town with a population of 465 mobilise such widespread dissent?
And is it creating discord or just tapping into expected outrage on an emotive topic – building a private bus tunnel through mountains in two United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) listed national parks in a country that advertises itself as 100 per cent Pure New Zealand?
Campaigner Patricia Ko says: “Glenorchy has the image that we are all rustic people waiting for the next horse and hay cart to come by.
“But we are professional people who have backgrounds in working with the media.
“Trish Fraser was enormously successful in the anti-smoking campaign, so she has a lot of contacts but also a lot of knowledge.
“My background is that I set up a UK charity, War Child, and we dealt a lot with media there. There are also people with marketing degrees, PhDs, doctors, all able to work from Glenorchy because of the internet. They have specific skills and quite a strong network.”
Ko set up the petition on social change website change.org and another group member created a website and Facebook page.
German and Dutch media were the first to pick up the story internationally, Ko says.
“A German reporter who lives in New Zealand contacted me and wrote a piece for a German news agency. Other journalists then picked it up. It is a little bit of a snowball system.
“The international media are interested because they don’t understand why New Zealand would do this. They know the landscape through The Lord of The Rings. They think we have a golden egg and why would we break it.”
Alongside the internet campaign can be found all the usual tools of community campaigning – you can buy bumper stickers and T-shirts, wave placards, hand out flyers and are encouraged to write to your MP.
Ko says: “Just the other day I was stopped in Queenstown because I have a Stop The Tunnel sticker on my car.
People want to talk about it.”
More than 150 people attended a meeting at Queenstown’s Memorial Hall last Sunday, and listened to a range of speakers – from tourism bosses to a Green Party candidate.
But the viral nature of a well-run internet campaign is making traditional methods of protest pale in comparison.
“The petition has been signed by people from Europe, a lot from Australia and the US, and also Asia,” Ko says.
“I wanted to set up something for people to quickly say ‘this is ridiculous, I’m against it’. It is such a good cause, that’s why it gets a big response.”
It has left Milford Dart Limited boss Tom Elworthy questioning whether the impact of the campaign is valid.
Elworthy says: “I suppose we’ve been a little bit surprised by the international response, but that’s the power of the internet.
“It’s considerably easier to get people to sign up for a petition against any sort of supposed environmental negative project. You can get people clicking little yes boxes all over the place on Facebook.
“But you have to question what is being presented to these people. They’re talking about destroying the pristine national park. A: it’s not pristine, and B: we’re not going to destroy it. It’s going to be just as pristine as it is now.”
DoC is preparing a report on the public hearings about the proposal and there is no timeframe for a decision – so it remains to be seen whether Stop the Tunnel will achieve its aims.