New Zealand Bus Tunnel to UNESCO Site Hits Opposition

Queenstown is the starting point for many trips to Milford Sound.

New Zealand knows its natural resources are its most-important assets. And preserving them is the key to Kiwi tourism.

But it seems the New Zealand Department of Conservation, led by Kate Wilkinson, has a case of amnesia. The department granted consent in principle to build a bus tunnel that runs through and under the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area.

Opponents hope an online petition will help stop the project, which will bring even more tourists to Milford Sound. So far, more than 4,300 people added their names to the petition. Organizers say there are already plenty of ways to get from Queenstown to Milford Sound.

They also argue that the $150 million NZ route (which would include a 7-mile tunnel) would violate a National Park Policy of New Zealand that forbids new roads in national parks – and that a new road could endanger the area’s status as a World Heritage Area. Some even argue that the construction of a tunnel through Te Wahipounamu, a UNESCO site, amounts to nothing short of vandalism. On her website, New Zealand resident Sissi Stein offers great details about the project and an intelligent outline of why she opposes it.

According to The Southland Times, the tunnel to Milford Sound would burrow under a forest populated by threatened species of birds and bats – plus a swath of virgin forest.

I realize that there’s often more than one side to a story – and that policies about a UNESCO World Heritage Area are seldom as clear as the petition organizers make it sound.

But here’s an important point: The tunnel through the Te Wahipounamu UNESCO site would be for buses only … and only for buses from a company called Milford Dart Limited. It would give the bus company a huge leg up on competition by slicing the time of a trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound from four hours to two hours.

I’m also swayed that residents from nearby communities like Glenorchy oppose the tunnel. If there was a true economic and social benefit to the route, it seems a rural community could cash in. Instead, Glenorchy seems to uniformly oppose the project.

Given the commercial advantage the project creates and opposition from residents, this project seems like a bad idea for the Te Wahipounamu UNESCO site. Will signing the petition do any good? It’s tough to tell. But it can’t hurt for now. I’ll also watch for more news and more concrete ways for anyone concerned to voice an opinion about the Queenstown to Milford Sound bus tunnel.

Thanks to WanderingJustin.com reader Amanda for the news tip!

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