In reporting on the commission of inquiry into the Cave Creek tragedy, Judge Noble made several recommendations to the Department of Conservation. Here’s how we have progressed.
Among the recommendations was a project management system for managing DOC’s visitor assets. We have completed this assignment - it’s called the Visitor Assets Management System (VAMS).
Making an inventory was the first task. Our rangers and engineers walked every kilometre of track in our 12,890km network and catalogued every structure, from signs to toilets to suspension bridges across remote creeks. They photographed them, attached a number to each one, wrote a description of each, assessed their condition and safety.
Today all structures are inspected by trained DOC staff every two years. As well, the 4641 high-risk structures – viewing platforms and bridges with a fall height of 1.5 m or more and dangerous fall surfaces – are inspected every six years by an engineer.
A viewing platform, South Westland
The VAMS informs staff when structures are due for inspection or other maintenance work and sends an automated message to the relevant area manager.
Most visitors to DOC-managed land will be familiar with our suspension bridges across rivers and streams. When a bridge is inspected, experts check the foundations for undercutting by river action, erosion, subsidence or exposure of piles. They look for signs of rot in any wooden parts, or other signs of deterioration, and at the state of all fixings including bolts and nails, and the condition of handrails. All work required is logged and an estimate is made of the numbers of years of life the structure has left.
If the structure is deemed unsafe, it is closed immediately for repairs which are carried out on a priority basis. For example, a bridge on the Milford track closed during summer because of undercut foundations would be a “critical” task.
Secondly, the Crown’s exemptions to the Building Act and the Health and Safety in Employment Act were removed post-Cave Creek. The department promotes health and safety, a byword for any industry in New Zealand, among its staff nationwide.
We have developed health/safety and visitor service standards for our infrastructure, with the help of the building industry. In March last year Standards New Zealand published part of this work.
As our knowledge and skills have increased with time, so has our confidence in what we are doing. Since 1995 the department has constructed three cantilevered viewing platforms similar to the Cave Creek platform, at Mt Damper Falls (New Plymouth Area), National Trout Centre (Turangi), and Cape Farewell in Golden Bay. All are fully consented and certified, are in use and are safe, now requirements of DOC in legislation.
Thirdly, resources for the department were forthcoming. The Government spent $45 million between 1997 and 2003 developing and upgrading our tracks and structures, and committed a further $82 million for 2004–2012.
One of the spin-offs of developing the VAMS is that we now know how much it costs to own our visitor infrastructure. We have reviewed our visitor assets and reported on this to the Government. As a result, the Government committed $349 million over 10 years, starting in 2002–2003, to implementing DOC’s Recreation Opportunities Review.
In the first two years of this funding we concentrated on replacing huts, structures and toilets, where needed. Later this year we will begin work on upgrading tracks. It’s big business. The highest quality tracks can cost more than $18 a metre a year to maintain.
We can never become complacent about our tracks and structures. Health and safety are a permanent challenge for the department for the simple reason that recreation in the outdoors carries risks. One can never fully overcome human error or be sure that a tramping or climbing party will always get it right. In answer to the question whether Cave Creek could ever happen again, we are confident that the same set of circumstances that led to Cave Creek will never happen again.
Director-General of the Department of Conservation
DOC’s visitor infrastructure at a glance (2006)
- Tracks: 2,928, total length: 12,890 km
- Roads: 639, total length: 2,202 km
- Bridges: 3,921 bridges, spanning 48 km
- Boardwalks: 5,728, total length: 83 km
- Backcountry huts: 990
- Other buildings: 3,191, including 1,671 toilets
- Other structures: 4,386
- Campsites: 306
- Car parks: 570
- Amenity areas: 396
- Signs: 15,698