Te Urewera has been closed since August due to Covid-19, and is not set to open until late January. (File photo)
It looks to be at least another month before visitors will be able to enjoy the scenic natural beauty of Te Urewera, which has been closed since August.
Wairoa mayor Craig Little says the closure of the former national park is hurting the local community, but iwi leaders say it is to ensure the safety of vulnerable local communities and manuhiri (visitors) to the area.
The whole of Te Urewera has been closed since the country was plunged to Covid-19 alert level 4.
In a statement Tāmati Kruger, chair of Te Urewera Board, which is responsible for managing and speaking on behalf of Te Urewera (a recognised legal entity in its own right), said they were working with Te Uru Taumatua and the Department of Conservation towards reopening at the end of January.
* Conservation minister backs Tūhoe over Lake Waikaremoana closure, at odds over reopening date
* Lake Waikaremoana and its Great Walk have been closed for months as Tūhoe say the relationship with the Crown has failed
* Easing protections at Te Urewera would put communities at risk, Tūhoe says
He said health and safety was the “paramount” factor when considering access, especially as Te Urewera was home to Tūhoe communities, which included some of the country’s most remote and vulnerable populations.
“The board has previously expressed its gratitude for the patience and sacrifice of the many New Zealanders who love Te Urewera during this time, and remains grateful and humbled by the widespread support for its decision.”
Little said the ongoing closure was hurting his district, which serves as the southern gateway to Te Urewera.
“This closure means our local whānau have nowhere to go, and local businesses are suffering.”
The council had received hundreds of complaints about the decision, and the lack of direction from DOC or Tūhoe Te Uru Taumatua left them “bearing the brunt of complaints” from the public alone.
Kruger said Te Urewera did not sit in the Wairoa District, but rather four local territorial authorities, and the economic benefits it experienced from visitors travelling through as well as the locals enjoyment of the area, could not take precedence over the needs of the four district health boards and vulnerable communities.
As an example, he pointed to Rotorua Hospital, closest to Ruatāhuna, being a four-hour ambulance trip over gravel roads with four ICU beds, adding it would be almost impossible to retrieve sick trampers from many of the huts.
Kruger said all must play their part and everyone was making sacrifices, adding Tūhoe had also asked whānau to hold off visiting their families in Te Urewera over holidays.
However, Little felt there were rules and regulations in place to help protect residents from the risk of Covid-19 transmission, while the isolation of the area served as an added layer of protection.
Reopening Te Urewera by late-January would come “too late” for the thousands of visitors to the district who contribute to its economy.
“The Government needs to take leadership, provide messaging for our public and work with Tūhoe Te Uru Taumatua to get Te Urewera open now – not at the end of January, if that even happens, once our captive visitor market has gone.”
Kruger emphasised the decision was made by the board in accordance with the act, rather than by Te Uru Taumatua or central government.
Conservation Minister Kiri Allan agreed it was the board’s decision to make and said in a statement they were the “appropriate body” to communicate these decisions and provide guidance to the Wairoa District Council.
She did not support a rāhui, designed to stop visitors entering the Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tane Conservation Park, but said as Te Urewera was not conservation land it was not for her to determine the most appropriate policy.