The decision to decline a proposal to build a tunnel through the Fiordland and Mt Aspiring National Parks is a victory for environmentalists, the Green Party says.
Conservation Minister Dr Nick Smith announced today that he has declined Milford Dart's proposal to build a 11.3-kilometre long one lane bus tunnel which would link Dart Valley with Hollyford Valley.
"I am declining this tunnel proposal because the environmental impacts are significant and beyond what is appropriate in two of New Zealand's most spectacular National Parks and a World Heritage Area," Dr Smith said.
The $180 million project would have halved the travel time for the 420,000 visitors per year who visit Milford Sound.
In response to the decision, Green Party conservation spokesperson Eugenie Sage said that the announcement is "wonderful" news.
"This decision is a tribute to the thousands of Kiwis and supporters overseas who stood up for our national parks. More than 1200 individuals and organisations made the effort to make submissions, and more than 25,000 people signed the Stop the Tunnel petition.
"It's wonderful that the Minister has listened. His decision also reflects what is required by the law," said Ms Sage.
"The National Parks Act, the General Policy for National Parks and national park management plans, developed with community input, have clear rules on what is appropriate in our national parks. A private road tunnel would have been at odds with these provisions."
Ms Sage also said that she hopes Dr Smith makes a similar decision on the proposed monorail on conservation land through Snowdon Forest in the World Heritage Area near Te Anau.
Similarly, Forest & Bird has applauded Dr Smith's decision, saying the tunnel would have proved to be a "disaster" for the surrounding environment.
"Fiordland is one of those very special places that attracts visitors from all over the world," said Forest & Bird's Kevin Hackwell.
"To cut through 11km of mountain under the Routeburn Track to fast-track a limited number of wealthy tourists to Milford Sound would have been a disaster for the surrounding environment and the local communities that depend on through traffic."
Dr Smith said that there were three major reasons why he declined the tunnel proposal.
He explained that he was concerned that depositing half a
million tonnes of tunnel in the region would cause permanent
damage, there would be significant impact caused by the
construction of new roads at each end and that the tunnel plans
would be "inconsistent" with the Fiordland and Mt Aspiring National
Park Management Plans.
He also said that he had concerns about the economic viability and safety of the proposal.
"These issues are interrelated in that making a long narrow tunnel safe requires huge investment in ventilation and emergency systems. I am not satisfied that the tunnel can be safely built for a price that makes it economically viable.
"The risk for the Government under these circumstances is that corners are cut or the project is left half-completed with a clean-up liability for the public," he said.
Also influencing his decision was that Milford Dart Ltd late last week outlined an alternative tunnel that would be approximately two kilometres longer and which would relocate the eastern portal about three kilometres south east.
"This is a significantly different proposal on which I have not received any technical advice, and of which neither the public nor the hearing commissioner has had the opportunity to consider. I have determined that I have insufficient information to make a decision on this alternative," he said.
Opponents have long been vocal about the potential damage to the environment the tunnel will cause.
The Stop the Tunnel group, set up specifically to oppose the plan, has also warned that the tunnel could affect the world heritage status of Fiordland and Mt Aspiring national parks.
Currently, to get from Queenstown to Milford it is a 286km drive through Mossburn and Te Anau.
"I appreciate my decision will be a disappointment to the applicants and their supporters," Dr Smith said.
"I do not in any way criticise them for their entrepreneurial
spirit or ambition to ease access for the hundreds of thousands of
people who visit Milford Sound. This is a conservative decision in
which I have decided that nature deserves the benefit of any
doubt," he added.