27 Jul 2016

Farmer accuses officials of breaking walkway deal

8:46 pm on 27 July 2016

A stoush between a Taranaki farmer and the Department of Conservation is threatening public access to one of the region's top walks.

Tongaporutu land owner Russell Gibbs says DOC has broken an agreement not to allow commercial operators on the Whitecliffs Walkway about an hour's drive northeast of New Plymouth, and he is withdrawing permission for all trampers to cross his land.

Mr Gibbs said in the 1980s his father gave permission for walkers to cross his land on the condition the walkway was not developed commercially.

He said DOC had reneged on that deal.

"Well DOC has just taken it upon themselves to issue a commercial concession. There was to be no assigning rights, it was strictly only for walking access, that's all it was for," Mr Gibbs said.

"It wasn't for vehicles, it wasn't for dogs, it wasn't for commercial operations, it wasn't for anything else."

Tongaporutu farmer Russell Gibbs is withdrawing permission for public access to his land over an alleged breach of agreement.

Tongaporutu farmer Russell Gibbs is withdrawing permission for public access to his land over an alleged breach of agreement by DOC. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

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Photo: Supplied

Mr Gibbs said when Discover Taranaki - which is offering two-day Whitecliffs packages at $1000 per person - approached him about using the walkway, he told them permission would not be given to cross his land.

He said he had nothing against walkers per se.

"A lot of people don't affect it much. Most people these days they'll just park at the road end here and might walk 500 metres in their high-heeled shoes, lycra and stuff and they've had enough.

"Other times it's a complete nuisance when people take dogs and stuff like that or come through during lambing, but most people are all right. There's always a few nuisance people."

The Whitecliffs Walkway stretches 14km from Pukearuhe to Tongaporutu it offers great views of the Paraninihi Marine Reserve - which takes its name from the white cliffs - and of Mt Taranaki.

The walkway traces the route of the Kapuni to Auckland gas pipeline and crosses conservation estate, freehold Maori land and private farms via a combination of tracks and paper roads.

The Whitecliffs walkway connects Tongaporutu with Pukearuhe.

The Whitecliffs walkway connects Tongaporutu with Pukearuhe. Photo: DOC website

At two points walkers can access the coast and tide permitting, return to their starting point along isolated beaches flanked by huge white cliffs.

DOC's New Plymouth partnerships manager Darryn Ratana said the concession it granted Discover Taranaki did not include the Gibbs property.

"DOC has granted Discover Taranaki a concession to run guided walks on a section of the White Cliffs Walkway that is public conservation land, owned by the Crown and managed by DOC.

"DOC has made it clear to Discover Taranaki that their guided walks must not cross onto private land owned by Russell Gibbs and his family."

Trampers on a beach section of the Whitecliffs walkway

Trampers on a beach section of the Whitecliffs Walkway Photo: Supplied

Mr Ratana said DOC expected Discover Taranaki to respect the terms of its concession.

But the company's co-owner Cathy Thurston said as far as she was concerned the concession covered the entire walkway.

"I have a concession for the Whitecliffs Walkway, which obviously goes through Ngati Tama land and then through the Gibbs' land - but it's a public walkway.

"I've never received any advice from DOC or the New Plymouth District Council that I cannot go through that road."

The Whitecliffs walkway runs through a mix of public and private land.

The Whitecliffs Walkway runs through a mix of public and private land. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Ms Thurston, who was general manager of customer services at the council, said it was up to Mr Gibbs, DOC and the district council to resolve any issues about access to the paper road on his property.

"DOC says you should contact any private land owner but because it's a paper road I take that as permission to use it because it is available for anyone to use it."

In the meantime, walkers face the prospect of being turned away, which did not impress a Tongaporutu local who only wanted to be known as Kayla.

"It's a little bit upsetting for them to shut down the track up there for all us down here. You know, we use it quite a bit, but I don't know it is a good idea to let a whole bunch of people through."

Kayla said the track was popular with locals and visitors alike.

"Especially in the summer time a lot of people from down here take family and that up for a walk along there. It's quite a beautiful view up there so it's quite a special place for people down here."

The Whitecliffs coastline offers spectacular scenery.

The Whitecliffs coastline offers spectacular scenery. Photo: Supplied

New Plymouth Tramping Club president Kevin Curd said slips had complicated access to the walkway.

"In years gone by the access they had for DOC got washed into the sea so they had to go back inland and they went on the Gibbs land and I think that's always been part of the background to it."

He said it would be a shame if public access was denied.

"It's disappointing because it's a lovely walk along there. Anybody if they come from the Tongaporutu end heading back to New Plymouth on the road way - and some of that is of course in the Gibbs' property - it's a wonderful sight right across the Taranaki bight, the mountain's out, it's a fantastic view so it is very very good."

Mr Gibbs said he was willing to meet with DOC to work out a new arrangement before the track was scheduled to re-open in August once the lambing season was complete.

Kevin Curd

Kevin Curd Photo: RNZ