Tourism businesses put in hard mahi for the environment while borders were closed

They may have been quiet, but the businesses in South Westland weren't slacking off.
They may have been quiet, but the businesses in South Westland weren't slacking off. Photo credit: Supplied / Bare Kiwi

South Westland on the West Coast of the South Island has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, but that doesn't mean the businesses have been slacking off.

While the borders have been closed, businesses usually busy with tourists have quietly been working together to maintain and enhance their local environment.

A big part of that is due to the Department of Conservation (DoC), said Development West Coast chief executive Heath Milne.

"During the downturn many local businesses have been putting in hard mahi through DoC's Jobs for Nature programme as well as their own environmental initiatives."

And while borders reopening has provided some light at the end of the tunnel for the businesses, most remain cautious.

"We went from three tours per day to one per week. At times one per fortnight, then one per month. Some months we've had no tours at all," said Tash Goodwin, who with her husband Cliff runs Glacier Valley Eco Tours.

"We are at around 2-3 percent of what we 'normally' would. We are still operating in crisis mode."

DoC's Jobs for Nature initiative provided a lifeline for the couple during the downturn.

"We were the first company to trial run it, with Cliff building predator trap boxes in the DOC workshop in Franz Josef," Goodwin said.

"We have been fixing access tracks through the bush, analysing predator footage, kiwi audio monitoring, running the Ōkārito Nursery, working in the nursery restoration area cutting gorse and planting trees - all work which follows on from our core business of nature guiding and is part of who we are."

Glacier Valley Eco Tours
Photo credit: Supplied / Jase Blair

169 people have been involved in the programme in the area, with 43 businesses registered with the initiative, according to statistics.

Skydive Franz and Fox Glacier is another of the businesses to benefit from the programme, with the team maintaining tracks instead of jumping out of planes.

Base manager Rob Stewart said Jobs for Nature had been a lifeline to both our business and the community, and allowed his team to quickly get back to work when skydive bookings game in.

"The geographic isolation of the area means that it is not possible to attract, and train, staff for just a few days' work," Stewart said.

"Jobs for Nature has allowed the community to continue to offer a world best travel destination in an environment where world travel was non-existent."

Skydive Franz and Fox Glacier
Photo credit: Supplied / Skydive Franz and Fox Glacier

Other businesses have been working on their own environmental initiatives while visitors have been absent.

Barry Hughes and Gemma van Beek from Ōkārito Kayaks recently won the Sustainability Award at the Development West Coast Leading Light Business Excellence Awards for their Ōkārito GorseBusters initiative.

Hughes said they decided to do something positive with their time, and to "do some real, tangible environmental good for the stunning place we call home".

"The aim was a small project pushing back against the gradual spread of gorse and weeds around the stunning Ōkārito Lagoon - just a few mates and some local volunteers. It got away on us a bit though; we've created a monster," he said.

The GorseBusters initiative has attracted people from across the county to provide a helping hand, with 90 "good buggers" volunteering in the first year and 116 this year.

Since the start of GorseBusters, around 31km of shoreline has been cleared of gorse and 50,000 gorse plants have been treated.

Photo credit: Supplied / Petr Hlavacek

Another booming environmental initiative is Project Early Bird, which has been operating since 2018.

Tash and Cliff from Glacier Country Eco Tours have been running a predator trapping community project at Lake Matheson after noticing a low bird song, which made them sad.

"It is such a beautiful Jurassic area and at one time there would have been a deafening amount of bird song," Tash said.

"We named the project after our 'Early Bird Tour', which is a very early tour at the lake to catch the outstanding mountain reflections and the morning bird chorus.

"We have a core group of around ten dedicated volunteers, including kids – who are really into it."

With $5 for everyone taking the Early Bird tour going towards the project, they've managed to add 115 predator traps to the 200 that DoC supply.

Project Early Bird
Photo credit: Supplied / Project Early Bird

"It's unrealistic to think we will eradicate pests here indefinitely with this project alone - it's about education, and giving birds, invertebrates and lizards a bit more of a fighting chance. 

"Since our project started, DoC have released Rowi kiwi into this area which is fantastic, and we like to think we had some kind of help with that happening."

IIt has been an incredibly difficult couple of years for businesses in South Westland, Development West Coast's Milne said.

"However, the break from international tourism has given the region an opportunity to reset its approach to sustainability and conservation which has left the Coast more beautiful and well preserved than ever."