I met Sue Woods-Markwick on a rocky bank beneath the lower cafe at Turoa skifield last week. The Aucklander was introducing her four grandkids to the snow. I had my 3-year-old son, who was gleefully sliding down the bumpy slope on his bottom.
This doting nana talked to me about her frustrations: she didn’t feel her grandchildren were welcome. Ruapehu Alpine Lifts, the not-for-profit company licensed to manage the skifields in Tongariro National Park, is required by the Department of Conservation to designate areas for tobogganing, snow-playing, snow-caving and the like.
This is one of the Department’s guiding principles: to ensure public access to New Zealand’s most beautiful and treasured lands and waters. And this requires robust negotiations with everyone from coastal iwi to farmers to skifield operators to (as we report today) disgraced American TV host Matt Lauer, who has bought his own slice of Kiwi paradise on the shores of Lake Hawea then locked the gates to local hikers.
To be fair, Ruapehu Alpine Lifts doesn’t charge for under-4s. But Woods-Markwick said they’d been told they couldn’t use their sleds and felt caged in the backyard of the cafe. She wasn’t happy. “Next year, I’ll put them on a plane and take them to Rarotonga.”
I understand her annoyance but I think Ruapehu is actually a success story, of sorts. The skifields operator has publicly and sometimes painstakingly sought to strike a balance between the needs of families who just want to bring their kids to touch the snow, and paying customers who finance the upkeep of this beautiful part of the National Park, including vulnerable conservation areas.
They’ll probably never find a perfect balance but over the past two weeks of school holidays, a record 25,000 of their visitors were there just to play in the snow. Those people are not paying for lift passes.
This weekend, I talked to the skifields’ boss Ross Copland and asked him whether he was putting full-paying skiing and boarding customers ahead of lower-value family visitors.
Absolutely not, he said. They’d made mistakes in the past, he acknowledged: last year in particular, they’d been inflexible and communicated poorly with families. But this year, an increase in the numbers of non-skiing visitors suggested they were doing a better job at looking after a wider group of New Zealanders.
Contrast that, then, with the tense stand-off in Central Otago between the Department of Conservation and Matt Lauer. The 6500-hectare Hunter Valley station is leased by Lauer’s company for $13 million, and owned by the Crown.
There, the similarities end.
Ruapehu Alpine Lifts has worked constructively with the Department to find ways to enable access to Ruapehu for all Kiwis, despite the health and safety risks that entails. Lauer, by comparison, has dug his heels in and is demanding millions of dollars in compensation if New Zealanders are to be allowed to walk the 40km unsealed, lakefront road that runs through the property.
This is especially galling, given the Crown finds itself tied into a contract with a man whose reputation is tarnished, as officials say, by numerous sexual harassment allegations at NBC’s Today show.
It is a reminder of the care we, as a nation, must take when we allow private control or ownership of our most valued lands and waters. The Department of Conservation and the Overseas Investment Office had the chance to set the terms when Lauer sought permission to lease the station. New Zealand missed that opportunity – and it may be a long time before it comes by again.
New Zealand must ensure its most beautiful treasures can be enjoyed by all Kiwis – not just by overseas visitors with deep pockets.