29 May 2014

Government rejects Fiordland monorail

10:28 pm on 29 May 2014

Conservation Minister Nick Smith has turned down the controversial $240 million Fiordland monorail proposal.

Fiordland Link Experience proposed a new link between Queenstown and Milford Sound comprising a 20km boat trip across Lake Wakatipu to Mt Nicholas Station, a 45km all-terrain vehicle ride to Kiwi Burn, a 43.8km monorail ride to Te Anau Downs and a 90km coach journey to Milford Sound.

An artist's impression of the proposed monorail.

An artist's impression of the proposed monorail. Photo: Fiordland Link Experience

Dr Nick Smith.

Dr Nick Smith. Photo: RNZ

The application included a lease, licence and concession for the monorail and related infrastructure through the South West New Zealand World Heritage Area, including the Snowdon Forest and Fiordland National Park.

However, Dr Smith said on Thursday the proposal did not stand up economically or environmentally.

Some 18,000 people signed a petition against the monorail. Dr Smith said it was probably the second most significant application DoC has dealt with after the failed Milford Dart tunnel proposal in 2013. This involved digging an 11km tunnel under parts of the Mount Aspiring and Fiordland national parks to cut four hours off the return trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound.

Dr Smith said an independent tourism and financial analysis concluded that the monorail was not viable and there would be a significant impact on the area's flora, fauna and natural heritage.

"If this monorail is built (and) it fails, I'm advised it would take some hundreds of millions of dollars to be able to remove it. Furthermore, if you have a financial operation on public land that is not able to operate successfully, you run a whole lot of risks around whether it's going to be able to meet proper environmental standards."

Dr Smith said he had carefully considered the proposal and visited the site twice. He acknowledged that developer Bob Robertson from Riverstone Holdings would be disappointed.

"I do not want this decision interpreted as the Government and the Department of Conservation being opposed to any proposal for alternative access options in Fiordland," Dr Smith said.

"The strategic issue of facilitating better transport options between Queenstown and Milford remains. The door is still open but proposals will need to be both environmentally sustainable and economically viable."

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei praised the minister's decision, but said it was still political.

"I think it's very difficult for them to make a decision to destroy a world heritage site in an election year but, credit to Nick Smith, he has made the right decision. He's listened to the thousands of New Zealanders who love our country and want to protect it."

Developer 'devastated'

Developer Bob Robertson said on Thursday he had put $5 million and 10 years into the proposal and was devastated by the decision.

Mr Robertson said Dr Smith's rationale that the financial aspects of the proposal did not stack up was flawed, as he had given specific guarantees the project could be funded and completed. However, he accepts that the project is officially over.

"I am devastated, because I thought we'd passed all the milestones that were needed. It's pretty disappointing, because it's going to negatively impact on what could have been something fantastic for New Zealand tourism."

Action group celebrating

The Save Fiordland action group is celebrating the decision not to go ahead. Spokesperson Bill Jarvie said years of hard work have paid off and congratulated Nick Smith on making what he believed was the only decision possible.

Mr Jarvie said a monorail through conservation land was never going to be viable. He said the group would now take stock and have some down time, but those living in Fiordland would always remain on guard. He believed other developers would be eyeing up the area.

The proposed monorail.

The proposed monorail, from above. Photo: Fiordland Link Experience