Monorail decisions first – then the detail

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Conservation Minister Nick Smith has plenty to chew over before green or red-lighting a monorail proposal shortening trips between Queenstown and Milford Sound.

But he’ll have to make a decision before the true impact is assessed.

Department of Conservation advice and a Hearing Commissioner’s report – in favour of conditionally granting consent – confirm the final route of a 43km monorail won’t be mapped unless concession is granted.

And only after the route is detailed will any environmental management plans be finalised.

The Commissioner’s report points to analysis by DoC concluding granting concession without final route detail – to be in an agreed 200-metre corridor – presents “particular challenges”.

Smith, who intends to make a decision before Christmas, made the reports public recently due to the level of interest. All up, public consultation between December 2011 and February 2012 drew 287 submissions against and 27 in favour of multi-millionaire property developer Bob Robertson’s Riverstone Holdings Ltd (RHL) and its push for the $200 million tourism project.

RHL’s Fiordland Link Experience proposal envisages a two-hour, 106km trip from Queenstown to Lake Te Anau with bus travel on to the Sound.

Passengers, paying $179, would take a catamaran on Lake Wakatipu to Mt Nicholas Station, then an all-terrain vehicle to a terminal of the super-silent monorail.

The monorail element has proved divisive as it’ll cut almost 30km through DoC-managed Snowdon Forest – beech forest in Te Waipounamu (South West New Zealand) World Heritage Area.

The monorail then continues 14km across private land to Te Anau Downs on State Highway 94 (to Milford Sound). A mountain bike track would run alongside the whole monorail, creating a six-metre wide avenue.

The DoC report to Smith reads: “Particular challenges in considering the application were posed by the ‘envelope approach’ proposed.”

Specifically that route location and design with a 200m corridor would be finalised “once a concession (subject to conditions) has been granted”.

This approach would, for example, allow the monorail in theory to avoid tree clusters in Snowdon Forest where a population of long-tailed bats dwell.

The commissioner says felling any of these clusters could have a “catastrophic” effect on the bats.

As the route is unknown, any assessment of where the clusters are will have to come as part of an “adaptive management approach” – and submissions from Royal Forest and Bird say there’s no mention of intensive radio-tracking studies required over one-to-two seasons to identify clusters.

The commissioner: “[DoC] would require certainty there’d not be adverse effects on the bat population and as a ‘bottom line’ would not permit any removal of trees which cumulatively would result in significant adverse effects on a local population scale.”

Advice to Smith says he must balance the ability of the monorail to open up the environments for users with the encroachment on a remote area, enjoyed by existing users such as hunters and walkers. 

DoC advice recommends the concession “could be granted on the basis of the information available at this point in time”.

“Because final design specifications and plans haven’t been developed, this grant is conditional on further audit and approval of final design specifications and plans to ensure the final design wouldn’t significantly exceed those described and assessed to date.”

It also explains this is a risk to RHL as the project could be canned at an advanced stage.

“There is a risk to RHL that significant adverse effects would become apparent only at final design stage, and if these are effects that could not be avoided, remedied or mitigated as described, the project could not proceed, or it’d be significantly delayed.

Dr Smith, who visited on October 30, says: “I want to emphasise while the Hearings Commissioner is pretty important and one of the considerations I have to take into account, I want to make plain that the decision is mine.” 

Roberston: “The monorail route has been developed in consultation with [DoC] over eight years … we agree with the commissioner it meets required legal tests and is able to be granted with conditions that carefully manage its impact.”