Ahuriri Conservation Park opened for the public

  • Chris Carter

The Ahuriri Conservation Park, protecting one of the South Island's most spectacular and important high country landscapes, was opened today by Conservation Minister Chris Carter.

Spanning 49,000 hectares, the park gives the public guaranteed ownership and access to a slice of extraordinary mountain country in and around the upper Ahuriri Valley near Omarama in North Otago. The park contains glaciers, vulnerable wetlands, tussock lands and beech forest offering almost unparalleled opportunities for mountain biking, hunting, fishing, climbing, horse riding and walking.

"A year ago, the government faced a stark choice," Mr Carter said.

"Either we bought Birchwood Station, which forms the centrepiece of the Ahuriri Conservation Park, or we ran the risk of it ending up on the open market. We weren't prepared to accept that. The landscape of the Ahuriri is part of every New Zealander's birth right, and the government has a responsibility to protect it. Today, we have completed the task."

About half the new park was obtained in the purchase of Birchwood by the government in 2004, and the remaining 26,000 hectares has been woven together from land recently obtained through the tenure review of Crown pastoral leases, or land already managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC).

"By combining these areas in to one large conservation park, we are creating a substantial ecological, social and economic asset, which will deliver benefits for the people of New Zealand for generations to come," Mr Carter said.

"I have been delighted by the interest generated in this area since Birchwood was purchased. Locals believe public use has roughly tripled. Over the holiday season, 50 cars a day have been heading into the Ahuriri Valley. Bed nights at the Ahuriri Base Hut have doubled, and enquiries at nearby visitor centres are mounting all the time.

"The astonishing beauty of this area is now being recognised around the world. In the short time DOC has been responsible for it, we have been contacted by at least half a dozen organisations wanting to film in the park. We are talking about interest from a whole spectrum of companies from international car makers to a Danish ice cream company.

"The timing of this park is important, " Mr Carter said.

"Tourism is booming in nearby Omarama. The local visitor centre had a 46 per cent increase in visitors in January, and tourism numbers to the MacKenzie district are expected to reach 1.2m a year by 2010. This park will add to the profile of the area, and its tourism infrastructure.

"DOC will continue to invest in the park," Mr Carter said.

"To date, we have upgraded the access road. We have built toilets and introduced signage, and we have released 17 of the critically endangered kaki (black stilt) into the wetlands near the Birchwood homestead. In future, we intend to release more kaki, provide more interpretation of some of the natural and historic areas in the park, and further expand some of the recreation facilities.

"Ahuriri is just a beginning. The government intends to gradually establish more parks for the public throughout the high country alongside farmland and the private holdings of the rich and famous," Mr Carter said.

"These efforts are occurring as part of the government's Public Wildlands Programme, which aims to ensure more lasting protection of and access to key areas of importance for recreation and conservation, at a time of rapidly changing land ownership, land use, and development."