Saturday, 19 May 2007

Ecosanctuary ticks the top option

Decision on Orokonui Ecosanctuary visitor centre location

The Otago Natural History Trust has consulted widely in considering
whether to continue with plans for the Orokonui Ecosanctuary visitor
centre at the top of the Orokonui valley or to take up the generous
offer of a site at the bottom of the valley. After careful
consideration of the pros and cons of each site, the Trust has decided
to continue with plans for the top site.

The visitor centre location must:

• Have good potential to attract visitors
• Provide quality visitor experiences for a range of market segments
• Enable both visitors and the ecosystem to be managed effectively
• Minimise the costs of establishment
• Maximise the potential for income so the sanctuary is self-sustaining

The top site is on a road that is likely to become part of the
Southern Scenic Route, with relatively slow-moving traffic that will
be able to see the visitor centre and stop to investigate. The bottom
site is invisible from any major roads, and to approach it from SH1 or
Mt. Cargill Road would require a deliberate decision based on prior
knowledge of the visitor centre's existence.

The top site enables visitors to approach from Port Chalmers, Waitati,
the Old North Road/Mt. Cargill Road, Donald's Hill Road, and SH 1,
none of which requires a return on the same route. All provide
commanding views and an overall impression of naturalness that are not
available on the approach by a lengthy cul-de-sac from Waitati to the
bottom site.

The top site has panoramic views of much of eastern Otago, as well as
over much of the sanctuary. Although relatively windy and fog-prone,
it demonstrates the conditions that allow the establishment of the
cloud forest for which coastal Otago's higher hills are renowned. The
bottom site is much more sheltered from the prevailing winds and is
less prone to fog, but little of the sanctuary or its surrounding
landscape is visible.

People will visit the sanctuary to see native vegetation and wildlife.
The top site is partly in native kanuka and broadleaved forest, with
the balance in low scrubby exotic vegetation that is progressively
being replaced by a variety of natural landscapes, including
grasslands, rocky outcrops, wetlands, low shrublands, and cloud
forest. These will offer an interesting diversity in both habitat and
wildlife; for example grasslands for takahe and weka, rock outcrops
for lizards, and wetlands for water birds. The bottom site, in
contrast, is of low naturalness, being surrounded by pasture and tall
eucalyptus forest. It offers little potential (at least in the
foreseeable future) for the establishment of native vegetation, and
access to native vegetation is constrained by distance and topography.

The top site has terrain suitable for many easily-graded walks of
short (1/2 to 1 hour) duration that the majority of visitors will
require. These will give access to a wide variety of native vegetation
and habitat types and the wildlife that these support. The bottom site
requires visitors to enter the sanctuary through tall eucalyptus
forest, and the only easy walk is to a very tall Australian tree.
Because only steep slopes are visible from the bottom site, visitors
would gain the impression that to explore the sanctuary requires a
degree of stamina that many would find daunting. There is limited
potential for the easy walks in native vegetation that would be
expected and required by the majority of visitors.

Construction of the 350 m access road to the top site would cost about
1/3 of that of the 1 km road to the bottom site; a difference costed
at about $380,000.

The visitor centre and its physical infrastructure are designed to be
environment-friendly, with the deliberate intention of showcasing
sustainable, efficient and cost-effective alternative ways of
designing and using buildings. The lack of a pre-existing water supply
and waste treatment facilities at the top site presents an opportunity
to use the latest low environmental impact technology, rather than the
1960s technology of the facilities that are established at the bottom
site.

The Trust has recently been informed that the Dunedin City Council
will look favourably on the proposal to include much of the Mihiwaka
water reserve in the sanctuary, either as a separate fenced area or
linked by an underpass under Blueskin Road. If this happens, then the
top visitor centre site will be more or less central in the enlarged
sanctuary, with obvious benefits for management of both ecology and
visitors.

Waitati people have expressed a clear preference for the top site at
public meetings over the last few years, and that was an important
factor in the Trust's choice of site. Although the recent public
meeting at Waitati showed that many people now support the bottom
site, there are still many opposed to it, especially those who would
be more or less directly affected. In contrast, the top site is
completely supported by neighbouring residents.

Ralph Allen, Otago Natural History Trust

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