Environment minister invokes “grandeur,” “awe” in declining a hydro proposal
The Minister for the Environment announced today that he has declined Westpower’s proposal to install a run-of-river hydro station on the unmodified Waitaha River, on the South Island’s West Coast.
This decision has been a long time coming. I wrote about the issue in January 2017.
At the end of that story, I wrote:
Māori use the words ihi and wehi to describe the psychic force and awestruck response of an encounter with nature’s raw essence. Morgan Gorge has those qualities in full measure. Is this, then, a place to be exploited or revered?
The recreational community, in particular, argues that just knowing that such places remain intact in this country affirms something fundamental in our cultural identity, and that they should not easily be set aside.
It seems that minister David Parker agrees. His decision is important—indeed, remarkable—for two reasons. First, it gives significant weight to the interests of the recreational community, especially kayakers. In many land-use conflicts, recreational users feel their interests receive less consideration than, say, economic prospects or biodiversity values. Here, recreational values are front and centre of the decision—particularly for the elite kayakers who paddle Morgan Gorge (see photo above).
Parker writes: “I have found that the effects on intrinsic values, which are experienced by those using the area . . . for recreation are, in my view, significant.” Speaking of the dewatering of the Morgan Gorge by the proposed hydro generation scheme, he writes: “It appears incontrovertible that the Waitaha River is the apex of whitewater kayaking in New Zealand. This recreational pinnacle is to be changed from its free-flowing state by reducing its flow throughout the abstraction reach [Morgan Gorge].”
Westpower had offered to provide no-take days when the few kayakers who are capable of tackling Morgan Gorge could enjoy the river’s full flow (which is, in fact, the only way to paddle the gorge), but the minister decided that there was an overarching context to consider: “The adverse effect that remains [from the installation of the hydro scheme] is the change of the River and its setting from a wild and unencumbered state and the resulting impact on the recreational experience, attraction and use of the River.”
He’s saying that although the physical alteration to the environment may be small (the presence of some engineered structures such as a weir and intake portal), a kayaker’s experience of that altered environment may be considerable. “The experience will be significantly lessened through the loss of the environment’s near-pristine, unmodified, wild and remote qualities,” writers Parker.
In other words, perception is important—and this is the second aspect of the decision that I find remarkable. Clearly, Parker was moved by the very values that the outdoors community had been speaking about in submissions opposing Westpower’s proposal. “I visited the area at Westpower’s request,” he writes. “At that time I only saw the entrance to Morgan Gorge, but from a review of the evidence I am convinced the Gorge’s grandeur is awe-inspiring.” He concludes: “I do not think the flow in Morgan Gorge should be modified.”
Westpower has the right to challenge the minister’s decision in court, but whatever happens next, an important recognition of values that lie beyond the usual utilitarian calculation of costs and benefits has been made. A line has been drawn in the Waitaha sand.
Update 29 August:
Mick Abbott, associate professor of landscape architecture at Lincoln University, points to another significant development in the Waitaha case. Kayakers, trampers, climbers, hunters and others who enter the wilds of our country are increasingly taking on the role of “sentinels to the values these places hold,” he emailed.
“This extends the nature of recreation to include an ethics of practice,” he wrote. The “recreationalist sentinel” becomes identified with and responsible for landscapes in a way that aligns with the partnering practice of mana whenua: I am the awa and the awa is me.
“This opens up exciting possibilities that recreation can expand its meaning beyond a parks management framing.”