In the “A short history of DOC: 1987-2007

On 28 April 1995 a viewing platform in the newly-formed Paparoa National Park collapsed with the loss of 14 lives. DOC was “shaken to the core”. Denis Marshall was Minister. Immediately afterwards, more than 520 structures were inspected, of which 65 were closed for repairs.

No one person was held accountable for the accident by the Commission of Inquiry. The subsequent State Services Commission review found that DOC was functioning as well as could reasonably be expected. But adequate national project and risk management systems were lacking. The engineering expertise present in the NZFS had not been transferred into DOC. The new requirements of the Building Act 1991 and Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 had not filtered down to field staff.

Hooker River Bridge, one of 20,000 assets inspected after Cave Creek. Photo: C Rudge.
Hooker River Bridge, one of 20,000
assets inspected after Cave Creek

Within three months 20,000 assets were inspected and inventoried over 12,500km of track. Eighty engineers were hired over three years to write safety standards, and design new and modified structures. Extra funding was allocated during 1998-2000 to continue the upgrade of visitor infrastructure.

DOC became increasingly risk conscious, as did New Zealand as a whole. In its visitor assets management system, every platform, bridge, boardwalk, hut, track and sign is catalogued and regularly inspected. “Quality conservation management” has been written into Standard Operating Procedures, of which many cover health and safety of staff.

Before stepping down, Bill Mansfield led a second major round of restructuring in 1996, advised by Bach Consulting. East Coast and Hawke’s Bay Conservancies were amalgamated, reducing the total number from 14 to 13. But the big change was to strengthen the “line management” system, largely current today. Three regional offices (now two) headed by general managers would improve the accountability of Conservancies to the Director-General.

Among the SSC’s findings was one with a familiar ring, that in the mid-1990s “controversy over the use of 1080 poison, Kaimanawa wild horses, Treaty of Waitangi issues, whale watching, tussock grasslands … in Central Otago, fast ferries, and the Poor Knights marine reserve, to name but a few, showed the heat and litigious activity that can be generated around modern conservation issues.”

The new structure and the setting was, essentially, the Department that Hugh Logan took over on being appointed Director-General in 1997.

The mid-1990s saw early steps towards site-based ecological restoration, with the development of world-leading control of rats and stoats (as well as possums and goats). The “mainland islands” had new funding confirmed in 1996.

Children diving at Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve. Photo copyright: Daryon Rapana. DOC USE ONLY.
Snorkelling at Poor Knights Islands
Marine Reserve

In that year Northwest Nelson was established as Kahurangi National Park, and there were 13 marine reserves (cf. two in 1987, Cape Rodney-Okakari Pt near Leigh, and the Poor Knights).

In 1996 Part IIIB was inserted into the Conservation Act to bring the management of concessioned activities on public conservation land in line with the RMA. Tourism and recreation were continuing to grow in New Zealand, and a visitor strategy completed in 1996 would help ensure a variety of recreation experiences around the country.

“Restoring the Dawn Chorus” was the title of DOC’s strategic plan for 1998-2002, in light of the urgency of native species conservation, and was retained as a title until 2002-2005. This period was marked by an improving relationship with the Treasury, and a review of historic heritage.

As the 20th Century came to an end, tenure review of South Island high country pastoral leases was bringing more land into conservation management, hut booking systems started being introduced for the Great Walks to limit crowding, and the Crater Lake of Mt Ruapehu was refilling after the 1995-1996 eruptions. Nick Smith ended his term as Minister by allocating funds to research a hitherto-underestimated predator, the stoat.

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