Police decry spate of vandalism, swastikas at West Coast huts

10:48 am on 22 February 2024
Swastika tagging on the Kirwans Hut roof which required several coats of paint to cover up.

Swastika tagging on the Kirwans Hut roof which required several coats of paint to cover up. Photo: LDR/Supplied

A spate of vandalism hitting West Coast Department of Conservation (DOC) huts is "absolutely mindless" say police.

Tracking down the culprits who daubed swastikas on Kirwans Hut last month has so far drawn a blank.

West Coast police response manager Brent Cook said several other incidents have since emerged at isolated DOC sites and the region's senior crime officer was continuing to investigate.

He said police have no clear leads yet on who targeted the Kirwans Hut, about two days walk into the Victoria Forest Park northeast of Reefton.

In January, vandals defaced the hut's coloursteel cladding with swastikas using white paint stored at the site

They also ripped off spouting, damaged a toilet, and generally made a mess.

In March 2023, the Back Country Hut Trust extensively renovated the hut including recladding it with coloursteel in a traditional red.

Ridding the swastikas required several layers of paint by DOC staff.

Cook said police were looking at other sites although a link between incidents was not yet clear.

It left a sour taste for the West Coast community - and unfairly penalised the users of what are public recreational assets.

"It just seems absolutely mindless … it's just so stupid."

The Kirwans Hut which was hit by swastika daubing vandals in January.

The Kirwans Hut which was hit by swastika daubing vandals in January. Photo: LDR/Supplied

In the meantime, police have taken "some items of interest" from Kirwans Hut but more would be known pending forensic tests.

"Our main line of inquiry is going to be those items," Cook said.

Concern was tangible at the West Coast Conservation Board meeting on 21 February.

A DOC operations report for the board noted a wider spate of vandalism having "plagued the area" besides Kirwans.

These included in the historic Waiuta area of the Victoria Forest Park at the historic Big River mine winding engine shed where 80 panes of glass were smashed. Several hours walk away at the historic Waiuta township DOC staff found blocked toilets and doors smashed.

Acting Greymouth/Mawhera operations manager Bryan Annandale said the impact of vandals has been widespread across the area and was "senseless".

"Since (Kirwans) was reported we have had a bunch of other things happen as well," he said.

Reefton-based board member John Taylor asked if security cameras had been investigated but Annandale said the expense to cover every site was large.

DOC regularly checked sites. "We do what we can".

Taylor said it was a worry with the restoration of the historic Jos Divis cottage at Waiuta nearing completion.

"I would hate to see it lost within six months."

The board's deputy chair Katie Milne said education could be timely given the conservation estate is a public good.

While some might just say "it's DOC huts" people needed reminding "this is your land," Milne said.

Board member Lisa Steenhauer noted Greymouth was also hit by vandals recently with road and location signs ripped down.

DOC Western South Island operations director Mark Davies said it went beyond being just a department problem.

"This is a serious affront on the reputation of West Coast communities and the reputation of the West Coast for visitors - this is bigger than just DOC assets."

He also warned DOC has limited resources to keep fixing and maintaining assets targeted by vandals.

"There will be a time when we just retreat."

Milne said succeeding with a couple of good prosecutions might help stem the problem.

Annandale said it seemed unlikely the same culprits were responsible for every act of vandalism given the geographical isolation of various sites.

Davies noted an earlier successful prosecution about a year ago of vandalism at Big River.

LDR is local body journalism co-funded by RNZ and NZ On Air.

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