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Building a trail to our future
This article originally appeared in the Parks & Leisure Summer 2018 Issue 21.4 magazine, published by Parks & Leisure Australia and the New Zealand Recreation Association.
Nicole works at the Perching Parrot Café in Paekākāriki. A couple of years ago her village changed completely.
“It’s not a sleepy little village anymore,” she says.
The reason is the Paekākāriki Escarpment Track. Nicole’s café was already a successful business, but now it can be “stupid, crazy busy” she says. On sunny weekends it can be so busy that it’s bursting. Before visitors to the village start their walk they want coffees and muffins or sandwiches. Afterwards, they want a glass of wine and a meal.
The Paekākāriki Escarpment Track is spectacular. Not just because it towers over the Tasman Sea but because it links two close but previously disconnected communities – Paekākāriki and Pukerua Bay.
The story of the Escarpment Track is the story of how tracks and trails are the economic, social and environmental future of our country.
It starts with the volunteers at Ngā Ururoa – Kāpiti Project but grows to include many others including Kiwirail, local councils and, nationally, Te Araroa Trust.
The track cost $1.4 million dollars but in its short life it already it has drawn over a hundred thousand visitors. It has become one of the places locals list on their fingers when asked by visiting friends what they need to see while in Wellington.
Last year the trail had about 40,000 visitors. That’s not bad when you think Paekākāriki and Pukerua Bay each have populations of under 2000. These thousands of walkers are particularly big news for the Paekākāriki shops and cafes – not to mention the trains, because most walkers walk the trail one way and use the train at the other end to get back to where they started.
What makes the trail special is not just the spectacular views, or the two dizzying 40-metre swing bridges, or the Māori archaeological sites.
It is smaller things: People can get to it easily by public transport. It connects two small communities. It enhances and protects its surrounding environment. And it builds a sense of community and pride in the people nearby. Those people build and care for the track. They see how it links them to their environment, to tourists and to nearby communities.
Tracks and trails are New Zealand’s most prominent and successful links between the environment, recreation and tourism. If we care for our tracks and trails right, and expand them into a network that links New Zealanders we will build an environmental and tourism legacy that defines the type of country we want to be.
Early this year, when we published our South Island High Country Access Report, we said our goal needs to be creating connections - turning our hundreds of isolated tracks into a network of trails.
New Zealand is full of great organisations and individuals doing amazing work creating and maintaining tracks and trails.
As well as hundreds of small community groups of volunteers who get out there on the weekend with their spades and trimmers, there are dozens of local councils, the Depart of Conservation, trusts and private tourism operators.
That means though, that there are too many places to look for information that is not always reliable or complete.
We need to connect these groups more closely. The millions of tourists, trampers, cyclists, hunters and anglers, and families that pass over our tracks and trials each year don’t care who owns them and maintains them. They simply want connections – connections to where they are going, connections to good infrastructure, connections to nature and connections to other like-minded people.
But to make those connections we need infrastructure.
We need carparks. We need public transport that gets people to the start of tracks. We need toilets and signs and maps and shelters.
Unlike the Paekākāriki Escarpment track many others of our most beautiful tracks are not near to a big city. They rely on very small communities with a small ratepayer base to maintain them.
We often hear that our tourist hubs are bursting at the seams - Queenstown and its surrounding attractions does not have the infrastructure or space to take more people. But it is important to recognise that we have beautiful spots and the potential for amazing attractions in regions all over New Zealand.
With good infrastructure, numbers become less of an issue. 100,000 people with no toilets on a track is a huge issue, but if you build a clean and large enough toilet block, we can accommodate those people easily. There are always going to be limits to how many people a track can handle but infrastructure is the key to extending that limit, protecting the environment and getting the most benefit to the local community.
For instance, outsiders are often quick to declare the West Coast a dying region. But the Steve White from the Charleston-Westport Coastal Trails Trust disagrees. His trust is helping build Kawatiri Coastal Trail. He has a study that shows that, when built, the trail could bring $5 million a year into the local economy.
The 50km cycling and walking trail will open in 2020 and hopefully it will carry over 8000 cyclists a year and tens of thousands of walkers.
It will showcase stunning scenery, including seals, penguins, weka and kiwi.
It will feature significant Māori history dating back over 800 years including part of the ancient Māori West Coast Pounamu trail. It will follow the historic gold rush route from Westport to Charleston.
People displaced by mining can start their own little businesses,” says Steve. "The trail will support 100 jobs a year as well as providing crucial social and health benefits.
To succeed it needs infrastructure. But when it does succeed the small region of Buller will have an amazing, enduring asset that enhances their environment, brings jobs and visitors and links their towns to each other and to the world.
Nationally we will have another option, with this trail, to spread our tourism more evenly among our regions.
Politically this year may be the year for tracks and trails to step into the sunshine. The Finance Minister and Treasury have been working hard this past year to develop the Government’s new Living Standards Framework. This framework will measure the value of things not just by their contribution to gross domestic product but by four capitals; human, social, natural, and financial/physical capitals.
Tracks and trails like the Escarpment Track and the Kawatiri Coastal Trail sit at the nexus of all four of these four capitals that Treasury will use to measure wellbeing.
Treasury will look at these tracks and trails and see them supporting and protecting our natural capital, including the environment. It will see growth in our human capital, through improvements to recreation and preventative healthcare (mental and physical). It will see growth in our social capital, including connecting communities. And it will see growth in our physical capital, through the development of enduring assets like tracks and trails.
Our role as people in the recreation, education and environment space is to make sure that we are putting in place the infrastructure and planning we need so communities benefit from our tracks and trails. We need all the good work people are doing on the trails to link up to a bigger plan that includes tourism infrastructure, promotion, access to and from, and environmental stewardship.
Photo credit: Dan Walker at Flickr