Our Conservation Initiative

By Environment Management student - Andrew Cousins

The current world economic crisis and the slashing of governmental department budgets of non necessity type areas such as conservation, have resulted in a number of eco-tourist operators taking on goals of conservation with financial assistance from eco-tourists. There has been conflict between adventure tourism touted as an eco-tourist activity leading to the development of a clear definition of ecotourism. The definition of ecotourism is an aid to tourists deciding what activities to partake in. The Wairaurahiri Jet is a great example of an eco-tourist activity available within New Zealand. There are issues involved with the use of jet boats within pristine river and forest ecosystems as jet boat activity has both negative and positive impacts on the river and the surrounding forest. Any potential negative impact contravene the basic principles of conservation to protect any natural features of importance, however if the resulting negative impacts are minimal they are not detrimental to continued conservation of the natural feature effected. The biggest risk to the river ecosystem in an environment that is not easily accessed by humans is the spread of invasive species, which can have devastating effects on river and forest ecology. Lodgings used and designed sensibly can have a limited affect on the surrounding environment, dependent on smart management and systems to dispose of waste materials. Local government can play a part in ensuring eco-tourist operators are functioning in a sustainable manner, by awarding publicly excellent standards of sustainable ecotourism.       

Ecotourism has developed as a niche industry in New Zealand over the last 20 years. There have been many attempts to define ecotourism as to create an industry standard as to what tourists should encounter or expect when partaking in eco-tourist activities. Defined broadly most ecotourism definitions involve mention of some conservation value, educational value, local ownership, small scale enterprise, economic benefit for local communities, the relevance of cultural resources, minimum impacts on environment and sustainability of the activity (Higham & Carr & Gale, 2001, p.9).  To be concise ecotourism is ecologically sustainable tourism with a primary focus on experiencing natural areas that fosters environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation and conservation, and in addition ecotourism needs to be a form of tourism that is increasingly understood to be based primarily on nature-based attractions, learning-centred and conducted in a way that makes every reasonable attempt to be environmentally, socio-culturally and economically sustainable (Higham & Carr & Gale, 2001, p.9). Even this concise definition of ecotourism can apply to may types of general tourism activities in part, but a main focus on the experience of natural areas in an activity would help define an activity largely as an eco-tourist type activity, such as a jet boat experience into Fiordland National Park.

Wairaurahiri Jet is an eco-tourist operation that transports tourists, hunters and trampers, to experience the remote areas of Fiordland National Park. The activities that tourists partake in are a jet boat ride up and down the Wairaurahiri River, with a guided walk in the Waitutu forest viewing and identifying indigenous flora and fauna, and an overnight stay in the Wairaurahiri Lodge (The Experience, n.d., para. 3). There is also an option of a tourist becoming part of a stoat trapping project, where the person for the price of a jet boat ride fee sponsors a stoat trap for two years and also includes a jet boat ride to the Waitutu Forest (Stoats Trapping Project, n.d., para 1). The main focus of the Wairaurahiri Jet tourist operation is to experience a remote part of Fiordland National Park, educate people about flora and fauna in the Waitutu forest and encourage the tourists to protect the birdlife against foreign predators. This focus coincides with the definition of ecotourism as the activity is ecologically sustainable, learning centred that has a focus on conservation, with a primary goal of exposing a natural attraction, it is a socially accepted activity and is budgeted in a way that is economically sustainable. The business model of Wairaurahiri Jet extends into the broader definition of an ecotourism venture as it is locally owned, is a small scale enterprise, and will have a total economic benefit for the local community as tourists will ultimately spend at other businesses in the locality. The Wairaurahiri Jet has many positive impacts on the environment, which up hold the main ideals associated with conservation.  

The Wairaurahiri Jet boat as a use of transport has minimal environmental impact on river and forest ecology. There is no track cut for walking down the Wairaurahiri River to get to the Waitutu forest, and travelling down the river on a jet boat is far less invasive on the forest itself, as no forest was cleared in order for the tourists to access the forest area. Jet boats do have an effect on rivers and water clarity in shallow water due to water disturbance. This disturbance can upset the nutrients required for algal growth, which has an effect on the dynamics of river ecology (Asplund, 2001, p. 4). The Wairaurahiri River however has a high flow rating consistent with the majority of Fiordland River types due to very high rain fall (Climate, n.d., para 1). With only one jet boat used in the tourist operation impact on water clarity would be low, as sediment dispersal in a river with a high flow rate is relatively fast. The ecological impact of using a jet boat for access to the eco-tourist destination on a Fiordland river type is low on the river and on the forest, the goal of conserving the river and forest is met and the activity is seen to be sustainable. There is however other negative aspects a jet boat can have on the environment.

Pollution caused by a jet boat incident or during normal operations can result in river water oil contamination and noise pollution caused by the operation of a jet boat along the river are negative aspects of the eco-tourists activity as they contravene goals associated with conservation. Many boat engines are inefficient and do not burn the total amount of fuel consumed, meaning that a percentage as much a 25% can enter the water body they are used in (Asplund, 2001, p. 5). The negative effect that this fuel pollution has on the river ecology is that it adds hydrocarbons into the river effecting water quality. In high quantities hydrocarbons can be toxic to fish, algae and other micro-organisms (Asplund, 2001, p. 5). Noise pollution can affect the population density of birdlife, but this outcome is generally associated with extremely high levels of noise found in conjunction with motorways (Spellerberg, 1998, p.5). The low use of the river by the tourist operator equate to minimal affects of noise pollution on birdlife and relatively low amounts of hydrocarbon pollutants entering the water body. The impact of hydrocarbon and noise pollution on the Wairaurahiri River and the Waitutu forest essentially do contravene basic principles of conservation, but as these impacts are relatively low it enables the activity to be sustainable.

The use of a jet boat as a means to access remote areas can lead to the spread of invasive species, either from the invasive weed particles attached to the jet boat on a microscopic level or from seeds attached to the eco-tourists shoes or clothing. A clearly identified effect of ecotourism is the introduction of weeds and pests (Buckley, 2004, p. 12). Didymo was found in the Wairaurahiri River in 2006, it is an invasive water weed that eventually smothers the river bottom, taking oxygen out of the water, which has an effect on fish and other micro-organisms (Duncan, 2007, p. 33). Didymo can be transferred between fresh waterways by wet fishing or tramping equipment, and even water in the bilge of a jet boat. Running an eco-tourist operation in a previously uninfected river could have heightened the risk of infecting that river with Didymo, as access via jet boat made it more at risk for contamination to occur. The Didymo infection of the Wairaurahiri River is most likely to have been via a human activity. This is contrary to common conservation goals, as the introduction of a pest weed species into a relatively pristine waterway would lead to the visual modification and degradation of that waterway however, the lodge design and management limit impact on the forest and river ecosystems.

The Waitutu lodge is consistent with the definition of ecotourism, as the facility has a focus on being environmentally sustainable and upholds goals associated with conservation. The lodge is more of a hut style accommodation than a high end hotel facility, so minimal resources are used by eco-tourists during their overnight stay such as, no excessive use of water for laundry. This use of the lodge has a low impact on the surrounding forest as all rubbish is bought out of the forest. Solar panels are used to produce electricity for lighting the lodge (The Experience, n.d., para. 3), which has a low impact on the forest as no forest was cleared to bring electricity to the building. All sewerage is treated on site in a containment tank which has a minimal impact on the forest and river ecology as opposed to a long drop type system which can leak into ground water leading to ground water contamination (Eiswirth, & Hotzl, n.d., page 1). The impact of the lodge on the Waitutu Forest is low, and the ideal of conserving the forest and waterways to be in a pristine state is upheld with the design aspects and continued sustainable use of the lodge, and the operator has received an award to reflect this.

Ecotourism operators are encouraged by local government organisations to be environmentally sustainable as awards are presented for environmentally sustainable tourist operations. Gaining an award has a positive affect on the ecotourism industry as better standards are achieved along with conservation goals. The Wairaurahiri Jet operation has been recognised by Environment Southland as winners of the Environmental Achievers Southland Environment awards 2010 for sustainable tourism (The Experience, n.d., page 1). The receipt of an award is an attractive addition to the eco-tourist operators resume, as it will help to attract potential future clients who wish to partake in an eco-tourist activity. Through a desirable awards system that ensures high standards of environmental sustainability, the environment will continue to benefit through ecotourism and goals of conservation will be met.

Ecotourism within New Zealand has both positive and negative impacts on the environment, but due to the educational aspect of eco-tourist activities matters important to conservation are brought into the public arena. In particular the Wairaurahiri Jet operation gives an eco-tourist the opportunity to take matters of conserving diminishing bird populations into their own hands. The negative implications of using a jet boat in a pristine river system can amount to hydrocarbon pollution, noise pollution and adverse water clarity but the actual impacts of the jet boat on the river are in reality very low as the river has a high flow, and is used sparingly. The major impact of using a jet boat to take tourists into remote areas is the unwanted spread of invasive species particularly plants which damage the natural river and forest qualities. The spread of invasive species undermines conservation ethics as the protection of pristine natural features are compromised. The design and management of a lodge sympathetic to impacts on the surrounding environment promotes conservation ideals, and encourages the awareness of issues involved with conservation. A local government awards system engages eco-tourist operators to run sustainably, and strive to gain public recognition for their contribution to environmental standards. Ecotourism is essential for conservation, as failure by central government to directly fund government agencies responsible for conservation leads to lack of protection for sensitive areas, and ecotourism is a means that can privately fund efforts towards the maintenance and protection of areas with a high conservation value.

Asplund, T. (2001). The Effects of Motorized Watercraft on Aquatic Ecosystems. Retrieved from http://www.dnr.state.wi.us/org/water/fhp/papers/lakes.pdf

Buckley, R. (2004). Impacts Positive and Negative: Links between Ecotourism and Environment. United Kingdom: CABI International Publishing. 

Climate. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.fiordlandnz.com/media/page.aspx?UID=57

Duncan, M. (2007), New Zealand-wide surveys in November 2006, February 2007 and May 2007 for the presence of the non-indigenous freshwater diatom Didymosphenia geminata in high risk sites. Retrieved from http://www.biosecurity.govt.nz/files/pests/didymo/didymo-survey-summer-06-07.pdf

Eiswirth, M. & Hotzl, H. (Eds). (n.d.). The Impact of leaking sewers on ground water. Retreived from: http://users.ipfw.edu/isiorho/G300Eiswirth-Hoetzl_IAH_Nottingham_1997.pdf

Higham, J. & Carr, A. & Gale, S. (Eds). (2001). Ecotourism in New Zealand: Profiling visitors to New Zealand Ecotourism Operations. Retrieved from http://www.business.otago.ac.nz/tourism/research/electronicpubs/EcotourismReport.pdf

The Experience. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.wjet.co.nz/index.php?page=6

Spellerberg, I. (1998). Ecological effects of roads and traffic: a literature review. Retrieved from http://elkhornsloughctp.org/uploads/1182794429ecolo_effects_roads%5B1%5D.pdf

Stoats Trapping Project. (n.d.). Retreived from http://www.wjet.co.nz/index.php?page=105