Public to have say on NZSki's 40-year right to Remarkables

by Lauren Pattemore - Mar 02, 2023

A hearing to decide if the Remarkables Ski Area can get the permissions it needs to continue to operate on public land and grow its business is set for Friday.

The ski business was originally given a 33-year lease on the Queenstown alpine site – within the Rastus Burn Recreation Reserve - but that expired in February last year.

It’s now seeking another long-term concession from the Department of Conservation to secure its existing activities for a further four decades as well as add new infrastructure – including a longer chairlift – to the mountain.

While most of the 24 parties who made a submission on NZSki’s application are in support of it, two are on the fence and six, opposed.

Four of these objectors - Forest and Bird, Federated Mountain Climbers, Queenstown Climbing Club, and Queenstown-based film company, UphighNZ - have requested to speak at Friday’s hearing.

Opponents to NZSki's plans say the new chairlift terminal will be visible from Lake Alta.

NZSki is requesting to have use of the public reserve land until 2063, which exceeds the maximum lease time of conservation land under the Conservation Act 1987. The act specifies concessions are generally not granted for longer than 30 years, unless there’s “exceptional circumstances”.

In its application, NZSki makes an argument for this: the 40-year concession is appropriate considering the millions of dollars spent on skiing infrastructure.

It’s proposing a new Shadow Basin chairlift, to travel slightly higher up the mountain, requiring the extension of two trails to connect with pre-existing ones, as well as snow-making infrastructure.

Existing ski infrastructure has "exceeded its working life”, supporting documents to its application say.

The proposed new lift will be able to transport an extra 900 people up the hill per hour, increasing the lift's capacity by 60 percent, from 1,500 to 2,400 people.

Queenstown economist Benje Patterson, in his submission in support of the application, says the data backs NZSki’s investment in ski infrastructure, which has wider benefits.

The data he quotes comes from a NZSki and RealNZ commissioned analysis in 2021.

“Skiing holidaymakers in Queenstown-Lakes during the 2019 ski season spent an estimated $430.9 million.

“The GDP generated by skiing holidaymakers (in 2019) was equivalent to 14 percent of Queenstown-Lakes entire tourism industry.”

Former-mayor Jim Boult also backs the upgrades in his submission, saying he supports infrastructure for tourism, which pre-Covid was the country’s “largest foreign exchange earner”.

Others whose businesses benefit from tourism have also offered their support in submissions, including Jim Moore of Novotel Queenstown and Geoff Macdonald of Skyline Enterprises, both noting the benefits for the wider local economy, and the need for a chairlift upgrade.

“The current existing facility needs to be replaced to meet community needs and to ensure modern, safe operating systems,” Mr Macdonald says.

Submittor Ross Copland says in his submission NZSki should be given the extra years in its lease, as 40 years isn’t very long considering the money being put in.

“In my view 40 years is the absolute minimum necessary to make an investment of this magnitude for a business that operates with the inherent business risks all ski areas are subject to.”

Mr Copland was a ski area manager at Coronet Peak Ski Area and a previous chief executive at Ruapehu Alpine Lifts.

But not everyone agrees.

Ngāi Tahu, in its submission opposing the proposal, says the “exceptional circumstances” being offered by NZSki do not warrant a 40-year term.

“The effect will be that Ngāi Tahu – who have already been prevented from connection with, or benefiting from, this area through the concession for decades – will be locked out for another generation.

“NZSki has explained in its application that the 40-year term is to recoup the cost of investing $15 million on (the) project.”

The iwi doesn’t think this is an “exceptional reason” and believes concessions in the Remarkables should be granted on a limited basis.

The iwi is disappointed they hadn’t heard of the “very lengthy” concession process directly from the Department of Conservation.

“The conservation area is a tangible and intangible representation of Ngāi Tahu whakapapa.”

NZSki’s application says during construction 37,800 square meters of land will be disturbed and, in total, 48,856 square metres of indigenous vegetation removed - more than 70 percent of this on previously unmodified land. The plan’s for most of it to be temporarily stored, and put back in the earth on the edge of the trails.

Forest and Bird is requesting the application be “declined in its entirety due to its effects on the natural habit”, saying there is no certainty the native vegetation can be successfully relocated.

It’s calling for a long-term management plan for the reserve, including identifying the remaining ecological, natural character and landscape values and how to look after them.

The “creeping development” on the reserve makes it difficult to manage the ecological impacts, its written submission says.

“It creates a situation where one development necessitates another.”

Plus, it says the ski field’s proposal does not address the issue of climate change.

The location of the proposed top station, towers eight, nine and 10, and the Calypso and Cushion trails (Image: DoC/NZSki application).

Others have voiced this concern also.

The Queenstown Climbing Club says NZSki’s proposal does not consider the “reality of climate change”, with last winter the warmest on record according to NIWA, with the Mount Ruapehu ski fields in the North Island closing early.

“The addition of the chairlifts and the change of landscape, including disturbance of fauna and flora is unjustified when faced with the uncertain future of the skiing industry.”

Its members are some of those who use the Rastus Burn Recreation Reserve for purposes other than skiing, and their questioning the impact of the ski field’s expansion on their own activities.

They say the new infrastructure will impact the natural character, remoteness, and visual amenity values of the reserve because the proposed new top station for the chair lift is visible above Lake Alta.

Federated Mountain Climbers has also expressed its fears more development will increase the number of skiers around an area traditionally used for alpine climbing.

This organisation also speculates its submission NZSki’s commercial concession to use conservation land for skiing had run out.

Its suspicions are correct, with a Department of Conservation spokesperson confirming the original lease – issued under the Reserves Act 1977 – was for a term of 33 years and had finished in February 2022.

In the interim, the parties have agreed to a periodic tenancy whilst work to migrate the lease arrangement to a concession is in progress, the DOC spokesperson says.

Meanwhile, another submitter, Matthew Tyrrel, is also opposing the proposal, saying that more capacity on the chairlifts will lead to more visitors and more parking needed.

“The Remarkables already struggles with this (parking) at present levels.”

The hearing, to be held virtually, will commence this Friday at 9.15am.

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