Mandated reserve closures 'not the right approach': Skyline

by Lauren Pattemore - Mar 15, 2024

The fire dangers on Ben Lomond Reserve have brought its stakeholders, including business operators, together, but they can't yet agree on how to best control the wildfire risk.

Conversations are continuing this month between the Queenstown Lakes District Council, Fire and Emergency New Zealand, and businesses operating within the Ben Lomond reserve - Skyline, AJ Hackett Bungy, and Ziptrek.

Skyline Enterprises boss Geoff McDonald says it is his view the council's new policy of mandated closures of the reserve is not the right approach.

Mr McDonald says any closure will have a "significant negative impact" on businesses operating on the reserve as well as for the wider local economy.

The tourism giant says it's after more long-term solutions.

New protocols were introduced by the Queenstown Lakes District Council in December to close the reserve to the public and businesses operating on the hill if fire danger reaches extreme levels.

This has also been put in place for Queenstown Hill and Wānaka's Mount Iron, with the latter closed for three days in January.

Based on historical data from the council's wildfire reserve closure plan, Queenstown would've experienced 11 closure days in 2023, and six in 2022, while in Wānaka it would've been 29 and 14 respectively.

Instead of closing the reserve, Skyline's Mr McDonald is suggesting instead to extend the tree clearance zone further on Bob's Peak and says they have a forestry operator at the ready and want to act now.

He says this proposal is a "more sustainable approach" to managing wildfire risks by directly addressing the accumulated fuel load and won't disrupt Queenstown's residents or the visitor economy.

"We hope to receive prompt and positive collaboration from the QLDC and FENZ to help us achieve this."

Mr McDonald says the tourism corporation is very concerned about wildfire risk on Bob's Peak, which is why it has been conducting "an extensive tree clearance operation" over the past few years.

A Wildfire Threat Assessment report commissioned by the QLDC and published in 2022, also recommends creating a minimum 20-metre fire break surrounding the base of the reserve and 100 metres from the Skyline complex.

The report recommends planting low flammable species around the fire break, whilst acknowledging a 20-metre fire break already exists in the form of access tracks as well as walking and biking tracks.

It also recommends installing early warning systems to mitigate the risk to users operating in forested areas of the reserve, such as Ziptrek and AJ Hackett Bungy, the QLDC has erected large fire detection poles at Ben Lomond.

These poles have also been put in place around Wānaka's Mount Iron.

The report says a fire in the reserve would pose a significant risk to life and property and would be hard to stop if one were to ignite.

"Once it does it may be very hard to control due to the steep slopes, large amounts of vegetation and limited access," the 2022 report details.

"The threat to the users of the reserve is compounded by the limited escape routes in the event of a fire."

A spokesperson for the QLDC acknowledges that businesses have been operating in Ben Lomond Reserve for some years via a council lease, and any changes to previous arrangements will take some time to adjust to.

The council spokesperson says the organisation has assessed the recommendations in the 2022 report to understand what is practical and reasonable to implement.

"This assessment is helping inform the forthcoming Long Term Plan in terms of funding and a proposed work plan.

"Above all, council’s priority is to use the latest technology, data and expert advice to minimise the risk to life and property."

Read more: Mt Iron, Ben Lomond, Queenstown Hill flagged to close if fire risk peaks

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