Looking to the future

2016 CEO Eric Pyle for web landscape

03/02/2017 1:03pm

There’s a growing hunger for new access to the outdoors, and trail developers are heeding the call. NZWAC chief executive Eric Pyle looks at how our existing tracks came about, and shares his thoughts on the Commission’s focus for the next five years.

A month ago, I was looking at an access issue on the eastern Ruahines. It was clear to me that at some stage in New Zealand’s development a government agency had secured access, and built tracks and facilities to enable the public to access that part of the Ruahines.

I reflected on my camping and tramping holidays as a child, and on camping with my own children. The access facilities created some 30-40 years ago are still there, and there has not been the same high level of activity developing access since – with the exception of cycle trails.

In discussions with university researchers and people who worked for the Forest Service and Lands and Survey, a picture emerges of substantial activity to create access in the 1950s and 1960s. That access was largely to and through national and forest parks. Some people spoke of the competition between government agencies to create access to the outdoors at that time, sparked by increasing public demand as a consequence of cars becoming more affordable.

In the 1970s, there was a stronger focus on walkways across private land. Ideas of a trail the length of New Zealand and linkages between forest land were proposed. During that era, New Zealand started to develop a network of walkways outside of what we now call conservation land.

Progress on access and walkway development slowed in the 1990s. By the late 2000s, when the Walking Access Commission was formed, there was a legacy of issues to be worked through and resolved. At the same time, the cycleway movement was getting underway.

So, we can imagine a flurry of access activity on public land in the 1950s and 1960s, work on walkways on private land in the 1970s, a slow-down in activity in the 1980s and 1990s, and a focus on addressing access issues in the early 2010s, coupled with a rapid growth of cycleways – another flurry of activity.

Where are we at now? There is strong public interest in developing trails. Throughout the length and breadth of the country, communities are active in trail development. Build good trails and they will be used, be they for cycling or walking.

Trails and access are seen as essential for New Zealand’s tourism industry. Trails are also important for urban communities – improving connections between communities and helping to improve the health of populations.

Where to next for the Commission, given this context? For the next five years the Commission proposes to focus on:

  • working with communities to the north and south of Auckland, where urban development is taking place, to help develop comprehensive trails and access plans as part of the urban design process;
  • connecting trail development initiatives in Taupo, Auckland, and Bay of Plenty, to develop a comprehensive trail network for the upper North Island;
  • ensuring access is considered in the purchase of land by overseas people;
  • developing a trails and access strategy for the southern South Island high country;
  • incorporating access into key national policy documents, such as the National Policy Statement on Freshwater, transport policy documents, and in national initiatives, such as the development of land information policy;
  • working with Maori on access;
  • ensuring access in New Zealand is accurately mapped and the public has good information on access; and
  • continuing to manage disputes and day-to-day access issues.

This work should help to support the growing tourism industry – creating opportunities and managing risks associated with increasing tourist numbers. The Commission aims to support local groups to develop trails for local communities, connect communities, and link initiatives in order to create a national network of trails. A local focus will create opportunities for New Zealanders to access the outdoors near where they live, improving their health and quality of life.

In the next few months the Commission will be seeking feedback on its strategy for the next five years. I welcome your input, including your feedback on the ideas I have set out in this column.

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