23 Nov 2022

The stoush in Te Urewera that's about more than just huts

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 23 November 2022

The decision by Tūhoe's leadership to knock down and burn many of the old Department of Conservation huts used by hunters and trampers in Te Urewera has been challenged and blocked by iwi members. The leadership wants to erect new purpose-built huts, but opponents say the wider value of the huts is being overlooked.

One of the Department of Conservation back country huts in Te Urewera given historic status within the department, Waiotukapiti Hut, is a rare totara-slab hut built in the 1950s by the Department of Internal Affairs as a base for deer cullers.

One of the Department of Conservation back country huts in Te Urewera, Waiotukapiti Hut. It was used as a base for deer cullers.  Photo: Supplied / Pete Shaw

Deep in Te Urewera sit 19 huts tagged for demolition. They are to be replaced with buildings designed to represent a new era in the ancient forest.

Twenty-nine others have already been dismantled and burnt, but a court injunction has stopped the rest of the work.

Many of the huts tell decades of stories of hunters, trampers, and of Tūhoe, for whom Te Urewera is their homeland.

Not all of the stories are happy ones for Tūhoe, including this latest episode.

"There has been a lot of historical trauma for the whānau Tūhoe within the Te Urewera ranges," says John Boynton, reporter for The Hui, Newshub's Māori affairs show.

He feels lucky to have the whakapapa connection to the place. He has many fond memories of holidays at his grandmother's house in the Matahi valley and whānau trips to Te Pakau Eight Acre, a camping and picnic spot where they cooked pipi over a fire.

He has also reported on ongoing tensions within the iwi over Tūhoe's leadership and the actions of its operating arm Te Uru Taumatua - its perceived lack of transparency and decision-making without consultation. Boynton says the huts row is an extension of that.

"The huts have been a way for whānau to connect with Te Urewera. They might be DOC buildings, but I think the community and Tūhoe have given them life. It's been their way to hunt and have that relationship with the ngahere (forest).

"But you also have to look at what Te Uru Taumatua is trying to do, in creating a new whakapapa and a new relationship for whānau and for the wider community in Aotearoa to have in Te Urewera," says Boynton.

Te Uru Taumatua plans to replace the huts with new purpose-built structures for the use of locals and manuhiri (visitors). It is part of its vision for Tūhoe to reconnect with the land.

Te Uru Taumatua chair Tamati Kruger told RNZ recently that it was not tenable to continue to run shelters and huts that become memorials to what happened in the 1950s and 1960s.

"We should be more excited with what follows decommissioning which is a brand new place, a cultural experience closer to Te Urewera with brand new facilities," Kruger said.

On its website, DOC says the huts' removal is part of Te Urewera Board's efforts to better connect Tūhoe people to Te Urewera, which is a principal purpose of Te Urewera Act and it supports Ngāi Tūhoe in its vision for Te Urewera.

Tūhoe's website explains that one of the purposes of the Act is to provide for Te Urewera as a place for public use and enjoyment, for recreation, learning, and spiritual reflection, and as an inspiration for all.

But Te Uru Taumatua has been criticised for making the decision to remove the huts behind closed doors, and for failing to consult with users.

It was a Tūhoe member, Wharenui Clyde, who went to the High Court to stop the programme, saying he was concerned about the loss of access to Te Urewera for his whānau "to use the huts as a base for food gathering, recreational and cultural purposes".

He said authorities had not taken into account the culture and heritage of the huts, and failed to consult on their plan. On November 9, Justice Woolford granted the interim injunction saying there needed to be a hearing on the issues and ordered demolition to stop.

"It's been a flashpoint for something that has been simmering and something that is deeper," says Jamie Tahana, RNZ's Māori news director, pointing to the fact that among the protests against the demolition were some hapū members as well as trampers, hunters and conservationists.

Tahana explains to The Detail some of the history of Te Urewera, how the land was taken from Tūhoe over many decades then turned into a national park in 1954, then disestablished in 2014 and given status as a legal entity under the Treaty of Waitangi settlement with Tūhoe.

Te Urewera is spoken for and governed by a board made up of Tūhoe and Crown representatives. Care for Te Urewera, including the tracks and facilities, is carried out by Te Uru Taumatua, Ngāi Tūhoe's operational entity.

Boynton says some of his whānau work for Te Uru Taumatua and are proud of its vision of self governance and self determination.

"Then you have whānau who feel like they're not being heard, they're being left out. You've got different hapū who've pulled away from Te Uru Taumatua, so I see it from both sides," he says.

"If these huts are a way to draw more whānau home and to help my generation who have moved out of Te Urewera to find that connection back to their whānau I think that could be really beneficial."

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