A controversial proposal to construct a tunnel between the Dart and Hollyford Valleys in the South Island has finally been declined by Minister for Conservation Nick Smith as the National government sees some sense for once.
The proposal, which had not just locals but people from all over the country up in arms – and would have threatened the status of a World Heritage Area – was deemed environmentally damaging, unsafe and economically not viable.
Smith today announced his decision to decline the application by Milford Dart Limited.
The tunnel would have gone through Mt Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks.
"l appreciate that there are strongly held opinions on both sides of the debate," Smith wrote in a letter to those who submitted on the issue. I have given the proposal very careful consideration and decided to decline it."
Smith said the environmental impacts were beyond what was appropriate in "two of New Zealand's most spectacular national parks and a world heritage area".
He cited three "major" reasons for declining the application.
Firstly, depositing half a million tonnes of tunnel spoil would have permanently damaged the "natural and landscape values" in Hollyford Valley.
Secondly, due to the impact of the new roads and portals at each end of the tunnel and the impact on visitors at the start of the Routeburn Track.
His third reason was that the engineering works and tunnel are "inconsistent" with the management plans for the Fiordland and Mt Aspiring national parks.
Smith has ultimately made the same conclusions that have been presented as arguments against the tunnel the whole way through this shameful debacle.
He also cited concerns about the safety; making a long, narrow tunnel safe requires huge investment in ventilation and emergency systems.
"I am not satisfied that the tunnel can be safely built for a price that makes it economically viable. The risk for the Government under these circumstances is that comers are cut or the project is left half-completed with a clean-up liability for the public."
A source close to Smith said he'd been convinced it wouldn't happen – and had been convinced in that viewpoint the whole way along, but particularly once Smith came back into conservation.
It was in Bill English's electorate and it looked to be "a killer", politically.
The source pointed to Smith's trip with a TV3 camera crew to the area several months ago, when he was filmed looking over the location.
"Would he have done that if he intended giving it the thumbs up? I doubt it."