November 29, 2023

Another DoC track bites the dust

Another DoC track bites the dust

Conservation advocate Gerry McSweeney is lamenting DoC’s abandonment of yet another walking track on the West Coast

The Cockayne Nature Walk in Otira Valley in Arthur’s Pass National Park has been quietly “disappeared” despite its historical and environmental importance to the region.

“This was the finest short podocarp-hardwood rainforest walk in the park from Highway 73, and the only one west of the divide,” says Gerry McSweeney, a veteran conservationist and former Forest and Bird president.

The Cockayne Nature Walk was created and named for botanist Leonard Cockayne, the key figure in the 1929 creation of Arthur’s Pass National Park.

But McSweeney, whose family runs a tourist lodge at nearby Cora Lynn station, says DoC has quietly removed all signs and references to the great man and the popular loop walk itself.

“Through actions akin to the historical cleansing of a dictatorship, the Cockayne Nature Walk has been wiped from the face of the national park,” McSweeney fumes.

“The signage has gone, the panel explaining Cockayne’s love of the area and his remarkable conservation achievements is gone, even the wooden steps along the walk have been removed.”

The Conservation Department, asked by Newsroom for an explanation, confirmed the track is closed, but its ultimate fate is undecided.

According to DoC Hokitika acting operations manager Tony Thrupp, the closure is not permanent.

“But for safety reasons we don’t want to attract people to the walk, hence signs have been removed.”

The safety risks include deteriorating steps, Thrupp says.

“As yet we do not have a date for repairs and no decisions have been made, but future options could include community management or closure of the track.”

The interpretation panels could be moved to the nearby track to Carroll Hut, he says.

McSweeney says DoC’s reasoning is absurd.

“They may have made it more dangerous by removing the steps, and they don’t seem to understand the significance of a track their own brochure rates as a biodiversity gem.”

The short nature walk is an outstanding example of rare alluvial fuchsia and totara forest that elsewhere has mostly been cleared for farming, McSweeney says.

“It also traverses hill country rimu and miro forest and winds through kāmahi and southern rātā forest in outstanding condition after nearly 60 years of continuous aerial 1080 and ground-based possum control.”

That alone should make the track a showpiece for DoC and guarantee its future, McSweeney says.

“It’s home to an extraordinary diversity of native birds because pest numbers have been kept low and the forest is so healthy.

“Robin, tomtit, tūī, bellbird, kererū, weka and great spotted kiwi are all abundant here. And you can find other special birds such as the kārearea falcon, kākā and kākāriki.”

Credit where it’s due

DoC deserves praise for its years of pest control in the park, McSweeney says, but it also needs to retain places like the Cockayne Nature Walk to show the benefits of that work, and memorialise its place in national park history.

The cash-strapped department has in recent years prioritised work on tracks that yield a dollar return, he says.

But the modest amount needed to restore the Cockayne walk could surely have been squeezed out of the $1 billion DoC received during the Covid epidemic via the Jobs for Nature scheme.

For DoC’s engineering and track maintenance gangs it’s been a case of two steps forward and one step back this winter on the West Coast.

The popular Heaphy Track fully re-opened this month, connected again with two new bridges after three were wiped out by the storms of February 2022.

The new Pike29 Memorial Track for walkers and riders is set to open in February 2024, linking the Paparoa Great Walk to the Pike River Valley.

At Haast DoC found a way to re-open the Ship Creek Swamp Forest, but only by reducing the track standard.

Erosion has narrowed the path and it’s no longer wheelchair-accessible.

It’s planning to restore the Bain Bay walk at Lake Brunner in time for summer after a bridge was scoured out.

And near Reefton, repairs to the Kirwans track network that pulls thousands of mountain bikers to the area were tantalisingly close to complete this spring, two years after big storms that destroyed an entire section, when disaster struck.

DoC supervisor David Beck says track workers had all but finished the job eight weeks ago when a massive rockfall hit an old tunnel connected to a swing bridge at the Capleston end on the way up to Kirwans Hut.

“We were pretty gutted to be honest. It’s serious – that tunnel is now unsafe.

“It’s on the most popular part of the track and it’s now closed again.”

DoC will look at building an alternative way in, but it’ll have to wait until next year, Beck says.

But there is a Plan B for summer.

“You can’t do the full loop but you can go up the back half of it and the Murray Creek side is completely open down to the Waitahu swing bridge.”

Climate change looks set to strain DoC’s budget even further.

Most of the tracks involved are 100 years old, Beck says.

“They were built during the gold rushes and they’ve done bloody well to survive this long without major work.”

Time and rain and erosion are now taking their toll, bringing down huge slips, Beck says.

“I do believe the more extreme weather events we’re having will only make things harder for us.

“There are more and more massive rain events and cyclones and they smash the tracks – they really do.”

Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund

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