Words: Meagan Robertson
Photography: Cameron Mackenzie & Henry Jaine

As a longtime supporter of volunteer trail builders, Trail Fund NZ increased its focus on advocacy four years ago. The catalyst was when it came to light that the classification of bikes as ‘vehicles’, on public conservation land, was causing significant delays to projects around the country and meant that iconic trails – including several Great Rides – did not comply. Since then, it’s been a slow ride towards resolving the issue, and several passionate volunteers are feeling defeated.

“Old Ghost Road, Great Lake Trail, Paparoa, Timber Trail… these are only a few of the country’s Great Rides that have sections that don’t comply with the local Conservation Management Strategy,” explains Trail Fund Advocacy Manager, Jimmy Young. “It is understood that numerous Great Rides have sections that don’t comply, and dozens of other iconic mountain bike trails are also caught in the crosshairs.”

The knot at the bottom of these cross hairs appears to be the Conservation Act 1987, under which bicycles are considered vehicles. However, most (if not all) of these trails have been built since then, with DOC permission an integral part of the planning and execution processes.

What changed?

At some point around 2018, Department of Conservation (DOC) staff started taking a different approach towards applications for cycle trails on department land. According to DOC, it is due to increased interest in biking around the country, but cycle trail managers and administrators say there appears to have been a complete reinterpretation of the 2005 legislation that overlaid the conservation management strategies.

“The ‘new’ approach was that a region’s Conservation Management Strategy (CMS) needed to identify the locations and use of vehicles (bikes in our case) and other forms of transport on land owned or administered by the department,” explains Jimmy. “However, DOC now wanted the locations of current and proposed cycle trails to be listed in the strategies before an application could be made to build them.”

Basically, bikes can only be used on trails explicitly specified (in a list) in the CMS, as opposed to assessing bikes on trails through an ‘effects–based approach’, which is the approach Trail Fund and other bike organisations are suggesting.

While this might not be an issue if the CMS’ were reviewed every few years, this is far from the case in New Zealand. CMS’ are only meant to be reviewed every 10 years and, in reality, seven of the 16 are current, two are under review, one is under development and six are overdue for review. Some are more than 20 years old.

Taupō trails on trial

Bike Taupō, which has built tracks and provided community representation for all Taupō cyclists since 2002, was one of the first clubs to face DOC’s ‘new’ interpretation of the Act. Chairperson, Pete Masters, and committee member, Rowan Sapsford, reached out to Trail Fund, and Jimmy has been working with them and other groups since then.

“We have more than 200kms of trails that we manage and approximately 160kms of these are on public conservation land,” explains Rowan. “A number of them were purpose–built by Bike Taupo, including the Great Lake Trails and the Rotary Ride, which were developed back in 2003.

“Approximately four years ago we were told that these trails were ultra vires (which means an act that lies beyond the authority of a corporation to perform), as they were not scheduled in the local CMS, despite all trails being developed with signed management agreements with the Department.”

Rowan says this has been extremely problematic for several trails on public conservation land managed by Bike Taupō, as they have not been able to renew management agreements or access funding – despite support from the local DOC office.

This prompted Bike Taupō to start working with Trail Fund and other trail groups around the country to request that DOC move away from the scheduling approach. Four year later, the discussion continues.

“We believe an effects–based approach, where trails are assessed against the values at place rather than just being written off because bikes will be ridden on them, should be adopted,” says Rowan.

The club felt like maybe it was making headway when the Department recently agreed that a new cycle trail within the Taupo Tongariro Conservancy, which is not scheduled in the CMS, will be able to proceed.

“While this is great news for the club and the community on this one trail, it’s not reassuring overall, as we’ve been told by the Department that this will not apply to any other trails in the area,” says Pete. “This makes no sense, and feels like a cop out if the Department planners are going to take a consistent approach.”

With management agreements for some of the club’s trails up for renewal soon, Bike Taupo says it will be a real test of the Department’s approach.

“We have awesome support from the local DOC team, but I guess we will have to wait and see if the Department refuses to renew our management agreements for biking trails which have been in place for 20 years, such as the Rotary Ride between Taupō and Huka falls.”

Kaihu cut short?

On 10 June, 150 local cyclists were thrilled to cross the new Ahikiwi Bridge at the official opening of stage one of the Kaihu Valley Trail, a 30–kilometre route between Dargaville and Kaihu comprising two off–road trail sections currently linked by low–volume roads.

Once complete, the Kaihu Valley Trail in Northland is intended to allow cyclists and walkers to wind their way through forest and farmland, and along the Kaihu River from Dargaville to Donnelly’s Crossing – a distance of some 45km. It will largely follow the historic rail line built in 1896 to service the kauri industry. The top third of this old rail corridor is stewardship land administered by DOC.

However, excitement was muted due to news received just weeks before that the DOC concession for Stage 2 of the trail – which would take riders off the narrow state highway and reduce climbing – was declined.

In late 2022, DOC staff were asked if there were any issues related to the concession. They advised no, then took until May 2023 to decline the application.

Local Steve Gwilliam from the project team says the concession application was made in mid–2021, and the team reached out to Trail Fund for support in early 2023, in desperation.

“They declined our application despite granting a concession a year before, for the bridges and trail in Kaiwaka township (50km away), which specifically states ‘walking and cycling’,” says Steve. “This should have set a precedent or provided exceptional circumstances for consideration.

“It’s disappointing that it took 20 months for DOC to respond to the project team and advise the application for cycling was inconsistent with the General Policy Statement (GPS) and CMS,” says Steve. “Even more disappointing is that the corridor, which has little conservation value, is farmed (stock, vehicles etc) by adjoining farmers ‘without’ any concession, which is in complete breach of the GPS and CMS. In our view, it’s likely a cycle way would offer more protection to the remaining historic rail corridor and features, than the current illegal farming operations.”

Ironically, Northland MP, Willow–Jean Prime, who is also Conservation Minister, joined Kaipara District Council deputy mayor, Jonathan Larsen, in cutting the ribbon at a June 10 ceremony hosted by Ahikiwi Marae in Kaihu.

“This is an investment in the region,” said Prime. “It is good for locals and their wellbeing and also for visitors who come to the region.”

The track will form part of existing and proposed trails traversing the whole Northland region, including the Kauri Coast Cycleway Heartland Ride, which runs southward from Rawene on the Hokianga Harbour – and which itself links to the Twin Coast Cycle Trail from the Bay of Islands to Hokianga, one of the 23 Great Rides of New Zealand.

The trail has received significant investment from various sources, including $4 million from the Infrastructure Reference Group, a $600,000 contribution from Waka Kotahi and funding through the government’s COVID–19 Response and Recovery Fund from MBIE.

Unfortunately, the MBIE funding had a deadline and, due to the delay on DOC’s part, Steve says the opportunity to build the section of trail that had the most benefit to riders – by taking them off the narrow state highway and public roads with 100km/hr traffic and no shoulders, taking away substantial climbs and travelling through some iconic northland topography – has now been missed.

The concession application has been amended to be ‘walking–only’ in hopes it might get traction, but has heard nothing since.

“It’s pretty demoralising to put in so much effort and just feel like you get nowhere, despite everyone being seemingly on board in public,” says Steve.

Under pressure

Despite the frustrations, many bike organisations are loathe to publicly criticise local departments for fear it could make things worse, or because there’s generally a good relationship locally. However, one region’s results suggest public pressure could do the trick.

This is what happened in Otago, where the department – under pressure to consider many new cycle trails, including the Kawarau Gorge link between Queenstown and Cromwell funded by the Government as part of a grand cycleway from Central Otago to Dunedin – was forced to take action.

DOC launched a partial review of the 2016 Otago CMS, which attracted almost 1750 public submissions in 2019, and a decision listing 112 possible cycle trail sites was issued in July 2022.

However, the proposals still needed to go through an assessment process, including engagement with Ngāi Tahu and consultation with the Otago Conservation Board, and organisations spent thousands of hours covering every piece of land where they might want to develop a biking track.

“While it’s great that a partial review means there’s the possibility of new cycle trails that are in line with the CMS, retaining this approach isn’t the answer,” says Jimmy. “What we need is an effective mechanism for assessing tracks on their merits and impacts – not one approach for walking tracks and another for cycling.”

Looking ahead

Despite little progress in three years, Trail Fund and the organisations it’s been working with continue to strive for a solution.

“We really want to work with DOC on this for the cycling stakeholders and provide greater access opportunities for recreation,” says Jimmy. “We are keen to be part of the solution and assist DOC to come up with a pragmatic solution that can solve the issue permanently.

“We all want a result that legitimises the activity of cycling on public conservation land and values the time and resources that committed volunteers put into trails around the country, week after week.”

This article is taken from:NZ Mountain Biker, Issue #111

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