What are Wilderness Areas?
Wilderness Areas might be FMC’s biggest success in our 90 year history. Wilderness Area is a legal classification for land that is preserved in a state as close as possible to its original natural state.
In a Wilderness Area, you can travel for days with no huts or tracks, having to rely entirely on yourself and what you bring. They are protected from helicopter landings and any other form of motorized access, cannot have roads built through them, no livestock are allowed to graze on them and they cannot be mined. Each must take at least a day to reach on foot, no less than two days to cross and generally be at least 20,000 hectares in size. In a rapidly developing world, they are enclaves of the true natural environment. Internationally, wilderness is rare, and in New Zealand amounts to roughly 3% of our land area.
Following in the footsteps of earlier advocates, FMC has been championing the preservation of these environmental and recreational values since 1959. The most influential moment was FMC’s 1981 Wilderness Conference, which got the issue into the political limelight. FMC’s Wilderness Recreation in NZ report was the remarkable result: a clear vision for the future of Wilderness Areas that was shared by the government and public alike. FMC put forward reasoned proposals for 10 Wilderness Areas, six of which were established in the following years. More were later established, the most recent being the Ruakituri Wilderness Area (23,550ha) Te Urewera in 2006. Shaun Barnett wrote an excellent history and timeline of Wilderness protection, which is available on FMC’s Wilderlife.nz blog.
New Zealand now has 11 Wilderness Areas, four in the North Island and seven in the South island. We encourage you to explore their boundaries on our interactive map, and challenge you go and visit them. We are compiling a resource for each Wilderness Area on our Wilderlife.nz blog. Each will eventually contain downloadable Geographx poster maps, inspiration for classic trips as well as a history and outline of the natural and recreational values of each area.
The legislative context
A Wilderness Areas is a designation which overlays an existing classification of land. This means although each Wilderness Area shares the same Wilderness management principles, each has its own underlying level of actual protection. This can vary from excellent for the Olivine Wilderness Area in Mt Aspiring National park through to virtually none for places like the Garden of Eden in the Adams Wilderness Area, which is on Stewardship Land. For example, Stewardship Land can be swapped or disposed of (sold) easily by the government. Learn more about Stewardship Land and FMC’s campaign to see it appropriately reclassified and protected.
Because they are overlaying other classifications of land, Wilderness is provided for in several statutes:
- Conservation Act 1987, section 20.
- Reserves Act 1977, section 47
- National Parks Act 1980, section 14.
- Te Urewera Act 2014, section 119.
All Wilderness Areas are protected from mining by being listed in Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act 1991.
What is FMC doing for Wilderness currently?
Advocating to designate the remaining areas
Of the original 10 proposals at FMC’s 1981 Wilderness Conference, four have not been gazetted;
- Garvies (Central Otago),
- Preservation/Waitutu (Fiordland)
- Pegasus (Rakiura/Stewart Island).
Although we have spent periods advocating for each of these areas since 1981, currently the only proposal which appears to have enough multi-lateral support is Pegasus, which is now referred to as the Southern Wilderness Area.
This area had numerous challenges with the varying land tenures; these challenges have essentially put the proposal into hibernation. Les Molloy’s 2017 article on the issues is reproduced on our Wilderlife.nz blog.
The Garvies were proposed as a ‘winter wilderness’. In summer, many parts of this area were awash with dirt bikes and 4WD, but when snow covered the ground the area’s natural quiet returned, and met the criteria for Wilderness designation. Again, the fact that most of the land was in pastoral lease meant the proposal didn’t gain traction. But with several of the main pastoral leases undergoing tenure review and FMC’s Remarkables National Park campaign (which includes the Garvies), there is a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel for this Wilderness Area.
The original Preservation/Waitutu area has taken different forms, with numerous boundary proposals which have been variously labeled as South-west Fiordland, Cameron, or Poteriteri. And that lack of consistency highlights the issue: no one can agree on a boundary. Historically, the Department of Conservation has managed the general area as a de-factor wilderness area, with policies that are very restrictive on air access and concessions. The current (2007) Fiordland National Park management plan labels it the ‘South West / Cameron Remote Area’. The same 2007 plan stated that DOC would commence a public consultation process regarding its Wilderness Area designation ‘within 5 years’.
Aircraft access to Lake Poteriteri for hunting remains as a key sticking point, with many hunters opposing the proposal on these grounds. The ongoing disagreement on the boundaries and lack of support from major stakeholders has left this Wilderness Area yet to be gazetted. FMC’s Poteriteri Wilderness poster (2008) outlines our vision for the area, which we have been steadily advocating for, but not gaining headway on.
Southern Wilderness Area (formerly Pegasus)
DOC have had work tasks and milestones to progrss this Wilderness Area since at least 1996 (in the original Visitor Strategy), in the original Stewart Island/Rakiura Conservation Management Strategy (the CMS), and in the current Rakiura National Park Management Plan (where it has been a milestone to gazette the Wilderness Area since at least 2015). The New Zealand Conservation Authority has also instructed the Minister of Conservation to ensure that the Wilderness Area is gazetted. FMC continues to provide support to DOC, whilst placing sufficient pressure to ensure the proposal does not stall.
To understand why it’s important to preserve this area – there’s no better descriptor than what is in the current Rakiura National Park Management Plan:
The Southern Place is the wild core of southern Stewart Island/Rakiura, a large, almost totally unmodified block of land stretching from the bleak tops of the Tin Range to the wild western and southern coastlines. Resolute against the Southern Ocean, the Southern Place is the last unmodified part of Stewart Island/Rakiura, a refuge for many important species such as the Southern New Zealand dotterel and the backbone of southern Stewart Island/Rakiura. It is a Place etched in the horizon, rising mysteriously in the distance above Paterson Inlet/Whaka a Te Wera where there are plentiful opportunities to experience nature in peace and solitude..The Southern Place is challenging and arduous, providing visitors with the opportunity to engage in wilderness tramping and hunting in a demanding and isolated environment. Self-sufficiency, self-reliance and entering on nature’s terms are key requirements for those who venture into this Place. A sense of achievement and satisfaction is gained by those who come here to explore..The Southern Place is a Place to be preserved as it is, set aside in perpetuity to protect the southern most wild Place in New Zealand.
Protecting Wilderness from motorised overflights
Wilderness is a recreational concept as well as environmental, and a key element of a Wilderness experience is a lack of any human intrusion. Whilst Wilderness Areas are protected from helicopter landings, nothing currently prevents low-level scenic overflights. The visual and noise impacts are completely at odds with the legal intent for Wilderness Areas, and FMC is working hard with DOC and the Civil Aviation Authority to establish ‘Restricted Areas’ where aircraft may not overfly below a certain altitude.
It is not purely FMC’s own idea; DOC’s own visitor strategies and conservation management strategies have urged the Department to get these restrictions on motorised overflights in place for some time:
DOC’s own 1996-2021 visitor strategy said:
“There is now an opportunity for the department and other parties to seek restrictions on airspace for conservation purposes (including the enjoyment of visitors) … Discussions will be held with the Civil Aviation Authority and regional representatives of the aviation industry on how these restrictions can be applied.”
Section 9 Protecting Natural Quiet. This document was recently superseded by the “Heritage and Visitor Strategy”
And for example, policies in the West Coast Tai Poutini Conservation Management Strategy say:
8: The Conservancy will liaise with relevant authorities, interest groups and operators in order to minimise the adverse effects of aircraft overflights of West Coast Te Tai o Poutini public conservation lands;
9: The Conservancy should seek Civil Aviation authority agreement to regulatory restrictions over airspace where implementation of Policy 8 has failed to adequately minimise the effects of aircraft overflights on West Coast Te Tai o Poutini public conservation lands.
The Parlimentary Commissioner for the Environment has issued several reports, urging clarification of relevant procedures and resolution to the low overflight issue:
Unfortunately, progress is glacial, but we are determined to stay the course and keep at it for as long as it takes.
What can you do to help FMC reach its Wilderness Area goals?
Further reading on Wilderness
- New Zealand’s Wilderness Heritage, by Les Molloy and Craig Potton.
- About our Wilderness Areas: classic trips, maps, history and more on Wilderlife.nz
- New Zealand Geographic article, ‘Hunt for the Wilder Places’
- The state of wilderness in New Zealand by the Department of Conservation
- New Zealand Walking Access Commission Ara Hīkoi Aotearoa