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Enhancing a national visitor icon

Boffa Miskell and Stantec have been consulting on the Milford Opportunities Project, managing conservation, landscape and natural hazards within the World Heritage Site. By Andrew Craig from Stantec, and Scott Hooson and Yvonne Pfluger from Boffa Miskell.

The Milford Opportunities Project (MOP) responds to the rapidly growing visitor numbers at Milford Sound Piopiotahi.
Pressure on the road corridor and Milford Sound Piopiotahi resulted in a rushed, congested visitor experience and increased environmental impacts the MOP Masterplan requires a new approach to safeguard the area’s World Heritage status, conservation values and enhance the visitor experience to address these pressures.
Some of the critical challenges for the Masterplan were ensuring staff and visitor safety and protecting and improving the exceptional landscape, ecological and cultural importance of the area while enhancing the visitor experience. The goal was to develop curated experiences and resilient infrastructure that respond to, and are sympathetic to, the landscape character, natural ecosystems and cultural heritage, including recognising sites of significance to Ngai Tahu.
Milford Sound Piopiotahi, the Milford Corridor and Fiordland National Park (Te Rua-o-Te-Moko) regions have exceptionally high conservation and landscape values, recognised through its National Park and UNESCO World Heritage status (as part of Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area).

‘The area is very close to the Alpine Fault, and the latest (2021) estimates suggest a strong probability of this fault producing a high magnitude earthquake over the next 50 years.’

The area supports a wide range of intact ecosystems that are nationally and internationally important for a high diversity of indigenous species, including threatened and at-risk plant, bird, insect, lizard, bat, and marine mammal species. Some of the habitats and species in the area are endemic and globally unique.
The impacts of introduced animals and plant pests threaten conservation values and rely on ongoing control efforts. Other critical challenges for the area’s outstanding conservation values are climate change, marine biosecurity and over-fishing, road maintenance and improvement activities and ensuring there is sufficient and sustained funding for conservation management. Direct visitor impacts to species and habitats are also of concern, particularly at stopping points along the road corridor and within Milford Sound Piopiotahi.
During the multi-disciplinary Masterplan development process, advice from the conservation analysis, land analysis and natural hazards workstreams were to consolidate or cluster development in areas already modified. This would minimise further modification and improve location-specific management of risks.
The outcome is a conceptual approach that focuses on visitor activity and the development of destinations and experiences at ‘hubs’ and ‘nodes’ located at existing modified or built areas where the conservation, landscape, and recreation effects can be managed more effectively. At these locations, new resilient infrastructure will be tailored to serve the numbers, types and duration of visitors. It will be sensitively located and designed, constructed and operated in a way that is sympathetic to the natural environment.
Consolidating infrastructure within existing modified or built areas and confining activities at a small number of locations rather than dispersed visitor impacts was essential in driving the choice of locations for development. Locations that offer opportunities for multiple trails and experiences have been designated as nodes.
In this environment, safety around natural hazards influenced the locations and conceptual layouts for visitor hubs and nodes along the Milford corridor.
The area is very close to the Alpine Fault, and the latest (2021) estimates suggest a strong probability of this fault producing a high magnitude earthquake over the next 50 years. Such an earthquake could trigger a large landslide capable of producing a destructive wave that significantly impacts everyone visiting Milford Sound at the time. While the Masterplan cannot guarantee zero risks to everyone, it can make significant strides in enabling a higher chance of survival.
While the landscape is a key visitor drawcard, the climate and steep topography increases the risk of avalanches and landslides. These slips can be triggered by small earthquakes or heavy rain and often occur without warning.
To account for them in the Masterplan, information was gathered, interpreted, and cross-examined from various sources covering all-natural hazards, including flooding, sea-level rise, remote-source tsunami, and local landslide-induced tsunami.
Elements of transport and business-as-usual risks such as ferries, cruise ships, recreational boats, aircraft, kayaks, walking tracks, water supplies, power and communications resilience, and evacuation options also needed to be considered.
Examining these elements enabled the MOP to understand not only current risks but future risks in the Masterplan. The Project was also a chance to step back and look at the bigger picture; what would bring about the most positive change across multiple aspects simultaneously?
This big-picture thinking required more than making minor adjustments to ‘business as usual’ by looking at some rare impact events. Sometimes the solutions to manage those rare events allow significant shifts in other areas too.
One of the most significant ongoing risks is the Milford Road between Te Anau and Milford Sound, ranked third for personal risk out of all the Transport Agency administered roads in New Zealand. This corridor has some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. Still, the winding Milford Road corridor is a challenging drive, particularly for international visitors, but even for drivers who are familiar with the conditions.
Distractions of the iconic views, winter snow and ice, avalanche and landslide risk, extremely high rainfall, and driver fatigue currently pose safety risks for anyone using the Milford Road. Allowing visitors to experience the corridor without focusing on safe driving was a key concept within the planning.
A mass transportation model with experienced professional drivers seemed evident. This model would result in fewer vehicles with distracted drivers on the road, offering a safer and more immersive visitor experience.
The recommendations in the Masterplan can achieve an enhanced journey by enabling a curated visitor experience with a wilderness and cultural focus by providing immersive stops along the Milford Corridor.
Tourism revenue will be reinvested back into conservation to restore and enhance the natural ecological values of the wider area, which will in turn, enhance the visitor experience and narrative.
For example, landscape-scale control of introduced mammalian predators, which was identified as a high priority for additional investment, would allow for the recovery of populations of native fauna currently being impacted by predators. This would have positive ecological effects for the area’s ecosystems, allow for the re-introduction of native fauna that previously occurred in the area and make native species more visible to visitors in their natural habitat.
An authentic landscape experience with high visual, ecological, and cultural values is a great experience but also a good news story for visitors knowing that they are helping to protect and enhance those values.
The Masterplan looks at a wide range of risks with numerous disciplines, including engineering, ecology and landscape, cultural, governance and economic considerations to provide integrated solutions.
Through the multi-disciplinary site selection process, safe and attractive locations for enhanced visitor stopping areas were identified where experiences include memorable landscapes, conservation values and places significant to mana whenua.
Risk management and protection of conservation and landscape values are also woven into the fabric of the design to provide for enhanced visitor experiences.
Achieving all of this will help to ensure Milford Sound Piopiotahi remains one of the most memorable and iconic places in New Zealand, admired by many from around the world.

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