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Sunday Times 13 May 2001

By Kim Newth

Celebrated writer Keri Hulme wants the government to give special environmental protection to the tiny West Coast settlement of Okarito, which she says is in danger of being turned into a tourist trap.

Hulme, a devoted whitebaiter and conservationist, regards herself as a kaitiaki (guardian) of Okarito's lagoon, wetlands and special character.

She is opposed to development plans for Okarito, which include at least 50 residential sections, a cafe-cum-backpackers' lodge and a replica paddle boat tourist operation.

The Westland District Council has already issued Hokitika developer Gavin Molloy a licence for the town's Wharf Street road reserve on the edge of the settlement's lagoon.

The Department of Conservation and Land Information New Zealand - which is being asked to free up unallocated crown land for the development - plans to make a recommendation to Land Information Minister Matt Robson. A spokesman in Robson's office said local stakeholders would be consulted over the next two weeks.

Okarito was laid out in the gold rush era when the town looked set to boom. It also used to be South Westland's port, exporting timber and flax. Plans for a dozen roads, hundreds of residential sections and a railway reserve were drawn up but never used. Much of the area is covered in swamp and bush. Only about 30 residents live there.

Molloy is asking for some of the unallocated sections to be released for development, but the Okarito Community Association (OCA) is opposed. It has asked the government to abandon the original town plan and instead transfer it to the conservation estate. It wants the Nature Heritage Fund to buy freehold sections that come up for sale, as well as unformed legal roads.

Hulme lists Okarito's special qualities as its valuable wetland, its large relatively unspoilt lagoon - the largest on the West Coast - as well as its Maori history, including for her own tribe Kai Tahu. Local south Westlanders, as well as thousands of New Zealanders and overseas travellers valued the area's unspoilt and 'untouristy' atmosphere.

'I am, among other things, a whitebaiter, a conservationist, a self-employed house owner here for the past quarter of a century,' said Hulme.

'There are plenty of dear little tourist traps up and down the coast. I think - and will fight to the utmost over this - that Okarito, as it currently is, is an iconic place, a place that many New Zealanders - and people from overseas - draw sustenance from,' she said.

'I think I am - along with all of the OCA members and anyone else who truly loves the place - a kaitiaki (guardian).

'Developers should put their energy into places like Hokitika, Fox and Franz - and Whataroa! - and not muck up Okarito.'

She is tired of government bodies consulting over the area's future but not making decisions. She said consultation had been going on since January last year.

OCA chairman Greg Husband, who has a holiday home in the settlement, believes Okarito's infrastructure cannot support a larger population and development could damage its wetlands and forested slopes. Rare white herons also frequented the lagoon.

Locals were already concerned that Molloy had cleared the Wharf St road reserve, although Molloy insists they are over-reacting.

'We don't want to be confrontational,' said Husband. 'We're just a voluntary association and a diverse group of people. It's putting a big onus on us to take up these issues. Our main concern is we don't think the ecological problems associated with further development are fully appreciated,' he said.

Molloy bought land in Okarito in 1972. By February 1999, he saw a demand for more holiday homes, but found there were none to buy - 'but there was 20 hectares of crown land sitting there'.

The previous National government had instructed LINZ to dispose of land-holding assets - so Molloy applied for land in Okarito.

Molloy said his development would include promotion of the area's Maori and European history and environment. The paddle boat planned for operation in the lagoon would be a replica of a boat that used to service south Westland in the 1860s. 'Clearly, this is not a screaming jet boat - it's a put-put paddle boat,' he said.

OCA was exaggerating the conservation value of the land sought for development, he claimed.

'This area is not wetland according to the Resource Management Act,' Molloy said. 'It used to be farmland. And there was a sawmill here in the early 1900s which cleared the hills round here bare - it's all gorse, manuka and regenerating forest.

'In any case I want to develop the land in such a way people will still be able to appreciate the place.

'There will be high quality sewerage disposal. I want to get rid of the exotic vegetation and restore the native vegetation and habitat. It's about sustainable development.'

He rejects suggestions he wants to run a commercial airstrip, saying he wants to retain a grass airstrip already there for recreational purposes.

Westland District Council regional manager Richard Simpson said 90% of land in Westland was already 'locked up' as conservation land. The council supported unallocated crown land being freed up.

Issues of possible adverse effects could then be addressed through the Resource Management Act.

Hulme's novel the bone people won the Booker Prize in 1985.

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