7 September 2004
The sad sight of a dead Caspian tern, pictured in a recent edition of The Press, (Saturday, August 7), was another reminder of the environmental impact of off-road driving.
The tern was killed beneath the wheels of a motorcycle on a Canterbury beach. Throughout Canterbury there is mounting evidence that two and four-wheeled vehicles are having a significant impact, with tracks appearing up riverbanks and dune plants flattened on many beaches. In some places, noise and dust is becoming a nuisance that robs others of quiet enjoyment of the outdoors. In almost every situation we don’t fully understand the full impacts on the ecosystem over an extended timeframe, but we continue to allow off-road driving as an individual right.
Off-roading driving is nothing new – the only difference now is that it’s become so much more commonplace. Vehicles are cheap and fuel is relatively inexpensive. Advertising encourages us to explore the outdoors in our vehicles. The message is that we can go anywhere we want – through rivers, up muddy slopes, along beaches – if we have the right type of machinery. We can see it will be jolly good fun that brings us closer to nature and makes us feel good to be so outdoorsy. Companies are free to perpetuate these ideas – there is no code of advertising standards relating to the environment protection – and consumers buy into the messages eagerly. As a result, vehicles are becoming more and more common in some of our remote places, and especially on beaches and in riverbeds.
For several years the debate over off-road driving has centreed on how to manage the environmental impacts and who, if anyone, should regulate access and police the rules. Four-wheel drive clubs have done an admirable job of encouraging responsible driving, but they can’t be expected to control everyone or every situation. A code of practice is only as good as the people practicing it and with two-tonne vehicles it only takes a thoughtless few to undo the good work of the majority.
The latest attempt to control off-road vehicle impacts is through the Canterbury Regional Council’s long-awaited Natural Resources Region Plan (NRRP), released for discussion in July. It has a chapter relating specifically to the beds and margins of Canterbury’s lakes and rivers but contains a rather unpleasant surprise: ECan say it is “beyond the function of Environment Canterbury to regulate land use within the beds of margins of lakes and rivers to solely avoid conflict between users or to protect indigenous bird nesting sites.” These functions, according to ECan, belong to the territorial authorities – the district councils.
This is hardly a satisfactory outcome and seems destined to produce a fragmented response. Motorists will be left confused about where off-road driving is permitted and where it is subject to conditions. If some councils take a firm approach and declare areas off limits, the effect will be a concentration of vehicle pressure in areas where the rules are softer – with even more environmental impacts.
I have spoken with two local authorities directly on this issue since the release of ECan’s proposed policy and both say it demands immediate attention. Both favour a more co-coordinated approach. They also want the Department of Conservation to play a role because of its experience in managing public areas, but this is where the issue gets bogged down. Beaches and rivers don’t have the same legal status as a park or reserve, and so there is no statutory basis for DoC to act. The issue seems to be falling into a no-man’s land – it’s a regional environmental issue that deserves a coordinated regional response but the regional environmental authority says it can’t deal with it.
In the meantime the impacts continue to accumulate and there will inevitably be more delays. It has taken several years to develop a special chapter of the NRRP on beds and margins and the implementation of any form of active management could be years away.
We should be able to do better than this. Any environmental policy for the beds and margins of lakes and rivers will have a gaping hole if it does not address the issue of vehicle access clearly and firmly. The district councils within the region should act immediately to ensure there is a regional solution that does not rely entirely on voluntary compliance – and to ensure they are not left holding the baby.
Ian Spellerberg is Professor of Nature Conservation at Lincoln University .