Narrow bridges

How Te Urewera’s huts and bridges fell into disrepair

The Te Urewera board has reopened parts of the former national park, including Lake Waikaremoana and its grand promenade, after several months of closure. But official documents reveal how badly the facilities had deteriorated and Tūhoe’s reluctance to engage with the Department of Conservation for repairs and maintenance. National correspondent Tony Wall investigates.

For much of the past year, the Department of Conservation (DOC) has told Tūhoe how the huts, bridges and other structures of Te Urewera – the former national park co-governed by the iwi – had deteriorated.

At a workshop in Taneatua in April, participants saw photographs of huts, boardwalks and swing bridges throughout the park that were in dire need of repair, to the point that some posed a safety risk.

The maps showed that 23 huts were in poor condition requiring “serious work”, while 32 were deteriorating and requiring “substantial work”. Only two were in “reasonable” condition.

A broken boardwalk above a creek at Lake Waikaremoana.

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A broken boardwalk above a creek at Lake Waikaremoana.

Of the Te Urewera swing bridges, 17 were in poor condition and 23 were deteriorating.

A DOC report in June spoke of a proposed list of repair projects “motivated by serious safety concerns,” including seven swing bridges with known deficiencies identified after a near-fatal accident on the South Island in 2020, and 16 huts with “potentially serious problems” with LPG installations or stove construction.

The estimated cost of repairs was $321,000.

But Tūhoe didn’t seem to consider the matter with the same sense of urgency.

READ MORE:
* Lake Waikaremoana and its grand promenade have been closed for months as Tūhoe says the relationship with the Crown has failed
* Council ‘intends’ to open Te Urewera next month, after lingering frustrations
* Ongoing closure of Te Urewera due to Covid-19 risk frustrates Wairoa Mayor

“My team does not agree or align with all DOC standards,” Kirsti Luke, chief executive of Te Uru Taumatua (TUT), Tuhoe’s iwi authority, wrote in August.

His email, addressed to DOC governance chief Mervyn English, was obtained, along with dozens of other documents, under the Official Information Act.

Luke continued: “We seem aligned on the nature of the hazard, but we apply different standards on the likelihood of the harm occurring and therefore the judgment of what is high or low risk.

“As a result, our teams are unable to continue processing responses to listed structures, being at an approach impasse.”

A bridge near Ruatahuna needed to be rebuilt.

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A bridge near Ruatahuna needed to be rebuilt.

If DOC felt “uncomfortable” with TUT’s judgment, Luke wrote, it should remove the structure altogether.

“It seems to us the only real way to remove this pressure. I understand that this is not a preferred view of the DOC, and therefore another dead end.

The documents provide insight into the complex and sometimes difficult relationship between Tūhoe and DOC, who have had to work together on the operational management of Te Urewera since governance of the place was handed over to the Te Urewera Board (TUB) after the settlement of the Treaty of Tūhoe in 2014. .

Thing revealed in November that the council had kept Lake Waikaremoana and the Great Walk closed since the August Covid outbreak due to concerns about the state of infrastructure and visitor safety – Chairman Tamati Kruger said Tūhoe was “embarrassed” by the state of the structures.

The iwi also said the park was closed to keep people safe during Covid.

The council announced last month that it would reopen Lake Waikaremoana from Waitangi Day and all trails, huts and campsites, including the Great Walk, from February 14.

According to the DOC, “almost all” of the safety work identified last year is now complete, although work is continuing on a major landslide near the Panekire hut on the Great Walk and the installation of some handrails is incomplete.

The Waipotiki Hut in Ruatoki needed a new roof and holes in the siding repaired.

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The Waipotiki Hut in Ruatoki needed a new roof and holes in the siding repaired.

A water taxi operated by TUT ferries people past the slipway – the full track is due to open on February 21.

When asked if repairs to other structures in Te Urewera were complete, a spokesperson said the focus had been on the ‘high volume’ Great Walk and other walks around Lake Waikaremoana .

“Backcountry cabins do not operate to the same standards and are covered by an ongoing… inspection and maintenance schedule.”

Kruger said Thing in November that the relationship with the Crown after the settlement had failed and that Tūhoe wanted a reset, dealing directly with Minister for Crown-Maori Relations Kelvin Davis instead of the DOC.

He stated that opening Te Urewera to the public was “low on the priority list” for Tūhoe, as it brought no benefit to the iwi.

A bridge in Te Urewera, near Ruatahuna, needs repairs

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A bridge in Te Urewera, near Ruatahuna, needs repairs

“DOC wants to devote its efforts and a significant portion of its contribution to resources … to structures,” Kruger said at the time.

“Tūhoe, on the other hand, wants to put his effort and his contribution…to the first objective of the legislation, which is the reconnection of Tūhoe with Te Urewera. So you can see our problem.

He also claimed there had been a decade of underinvestment by the DOC before the settlement — “we didn’t really inherit assets, we inherited liabilities” — and the $2 million DOC provided annually for the upkeep of Te Urewera was “too miserly”.

But the documents show that money was not the barrier to repairing the dilapidated structures – DOC offered to pay for everything.

Rather, the problem was getting Tūhoe to approve a maintenance plan.

CHRISTEL YARDLEY/STUFF

Lake Waikaremoana, along with its Great Walk, was closed for several months in 2021. (Video first posted November 2021)

English wrote in a report that the DOC provided iwi with a “very comprehensive asset report to improve transparency”, but maintenance was suspended at Tūhoe’s request, pending policy development. “global and forward-looking”.

“However, the DOC has expressed some concerns that the DOC is not carrying out maintenance work and that Tūhoe is blamed for poor conditions in huts etc,” English wrote. “It’s a very uncomfortable situation for DOC.

“DOC is, in fact, enthusiastic about working collaboratively on assets, including funding maintenance and rebuilding of appropriate equipment.”

A summary of legal advice provided to the DOC said the responsibility for health and safety rests with both the department and the TUT and that they both have a duty to “consult, cooperate and coordinate to minimize the overall risks “.

The ministry ended up making an interim payment of $1.5 million late last year so work could begin.

In another report, English explained that the DOC had provided a maintenance funding agreement to TUT’s General Manager (Luke), “in the hope that she would review it, and then we would proceed with the signing. there was no response.

The Hapenui Hut in Ruatoki needed several repairs.

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The Hapenui Hut in Ruatoki needed several repairs.

“The DOC subsequently sent a reminder on the progress of the agreement, but did not hear back.

“Our understanding is that TUB thinks the discussion on annual funding is the one that should take place with the Minister [of Conservation]. There is no legislative authority for such decision-making by [the Minister].”

In September, documents show that then-Director General of Conservation Lou Sanson wrote to Kruger and Luke saying he could not sign an annual plan for Te Urewera provided by TUT because it did not specify not funding maintenance works and capital expenditure projects as required by the Te Urewera law.

“I am very mindful of the risk assessment that was done and provided to you,” Sanson wrote.

“Within DOC, this assessment was reviewed…and approved. I believe it is essential that this work continue as soon as possible.

DOC said Thing the plan remains unsigned and “we will instead focus on getting a proper 2022/23 plan signed before the next financial year”.

Late last year, the DOC finally carried out inspections on the Te Urewera facilities.

The documents show that the DOC has been concerned for several years about what it calls “critical security work” at Te Urewera.

In 2019, English emailed Kruger and Luke about a comment by Tūhoe on “alternatives to DOC standards” and “being careful not to just import DOC standards” for Te Urewera management .

English cautioned: “We must also be very aware that certain items, such as cable tie maintenance, which may appear to be DOC standards, are in fact just proper practices which should be applied regardless. being in Mexico, Russia, etc.”

Despite the tensions, DOC seems to have tried to better understand Tūhoe and his connection to Te Urewera, the documents suggest.

Fifty staff members from across the country participated in a workshop explaining the Tūhoe Treaty settlement and the difficulties of implementing the law. The workshop focused on “revival of the Tūhoe people, not conservation”, wrote English, and “learnings for DOC”.

“It was well received, with no suggestion of antagonism towards Tūhoe over the loss of a park, but rather a desire, almost a thirst, for constructive approaches.”

Another workshop questioned “what can be considered the narrow conservation objective of the DOC”.

English said in an email to Kruger and Luke that he had “tremendous respect” for the work they were doing to reconnect Tūhoe with Te Urewera.

“I would rather persist with any challenge of [Treaty] settlement implementation, however difficult it is to tolerate the terrible mediocrity of the pre-settlement status quo,” he wrote.

Henry Weston, the DOC’s chief conservation adviser, says the department is confident the Great Walk’s assets will meet a ‘satisfactory’ standard of safety on opening day.

He says there are “ups and downs and challenges to overcome” in the relationship with Tūhoe.

“Technically, DOC could undertake work without permission from TUT, but the preference will always be to treat the other partner with the respect that is essential to a lasting relationship.”

Kruger said in a statement that prior to the start of visitor infrastructure maintenance work at Te Urewera, there had been discussions about a “range of priorities”.

“Te Urewera Board and Tūhoe are now happy to welcome manuhiri back [visitors] at Te Urewera following the success of the maintenance programme.