On New Chums Beach

The calls to save New Chums Beach risk snatching defeat from the jaws of conservation victory, by romanticising pristine examples. Surely we can do better

Around 9,200 of Close Up-polled viewers (92% of almost 10,000 txtrs) said they wanted special protection for beaches like New Chums. As do I.

Lonely Planet and National Geographic have both rated New Chums, on the Coromandel Peninsula, among the best deserted beaches in the world, reported TVNZ. A developer’s application to build 20 houses there — obliquely said by Close Up to be “on track” — has received 989 submissions, yet to be heard.

It may be turned down, on the ordinary tests under the Resource Management Act. And yet, the fact that the Environmental Defence Society (EDS) is ‘in discussions’ with the developer suggest that Gary Taylor and his colleagues have assessed the application as having some reasonable risks of success, in the absence of a new national coastal policy statement, that would otherwise govern the decision.

That new draft policy was finalised in July 2009 by its board of inquiry. Ministerial failure to act on it has already been controversial. Former Labour Conservation Minister Philip Woollaston, one of the board members and authors of the report, published his own unauthorised copy in May, because he was “so incensed by the government’s refusal to publicly release the Board’s recommendations”.

He accused the government of intending to bury it, and the responsible Minister Kate Wilkinson of having “a surprising lack of awareness of her statutory responsibilities”. Environment Minister Nick Smith, by contrast, in remarks to an EDS conference, put it right at the top of the government’s several national policy statement priorities, whilst noting it was his colleague’s responsibility.

Now her “considered response”, originally supported by the EDS, has lapsed into a delay of over a year, EDS is calling for urgent action: “It is reasonable for the Minister to take time to consider the Board of Inquiry’s report but the delay is now becoming excessive”.

Phil Goff, who had made a private submission on the New Chums application, having spent time there recently with his wife, came on Close Up to criticise the Minister and put his weight and the Labour Party’s behind calls to save the beach:

“It’s no exaggeration to say that New Chums beach is probably the most beautiful, untouched, unspoilt beach in New Zealand and probably the world. … This is the one last accessible beach that has been left untouched. Let’s leave it that way for our kids.”

It reminded me of Forest and Bird calls, echoed by the Greens, to establish a ‘Drylands Park’ in the Mackenzie Basin, which have been nagging me for some time as the saddest possible solution to a conservation problem: evidence of our failure.

I’m not being contrarian, or trying to be anyway: by all means, I will join the chorus to protect New Chums, climb on the bandwagon, whatever it takes. It’s just that on the evidence of the 92%, my views on the matter are kind of redundant. I will do it though, on one condition: that we also look at the bigger picture.

Of course, I want to ensure that our pristine coastal areas have similar protections to our pristine mountain areas, in national parks. But once we have saved the last pristine beach as an example for our children, and carved off a little piece of the Mackenzie as a memorial to how the rest of it used to look, let it not stop there. These things are necessary, but not sufficient.

A real conservation policy would see us, in addition, treading more lightly and kindly all over the country, not salving our collective consciences by saving a beach here and there. Let’s not let something that really only speaks of the massive size of our conservation loss, be our sole remaining measure of success.