West Coast: The forgotten province of New Zealand

It has barely 40,000 people but covers from Milford Sound to Nelson, from the Tasman Sea to the Southern Alps. A single electorate seat takes up that entire area covering rugged alps, swift rivers, hilly rainforested terrain and narrow alluvial outwash plains. Welcome to West Coast, the forgotten province in New Zealand.

Historically the West Coast has been built on mining, logging and tourism. The 1850s-1880s were a boom time for mining with places that today only have a few permanent inhabitants playing host to hundreds or even thousands of people who had come to make their riches from gold mining.

Then there was the logging. New Zealand’s native forests offered amazing exotic timber in the form of totara, kauri, rimu and rata. Old, long since abandoned tracks cut into the forests tell a story. But it was quickly found that native forests are considerably slower growing than the pinus radiata that was introduced to New Zealand to supplement native timber and which is now our primary plantation tree type.

The West Coast might have had a continuing future in gold mining had the Government not knocked back a proposed gold mine near Reefton in 2001. Instead coal mining accelerated through the 2000’s until the collapse of Solid Energy in the aftermath of the Pike River mine disaster where a methane explosion caused a cave in that killed 29 people in 2010.

Since then the West Coast has limped on with only lip service from National Government of former Prime Minister John Key and his successor Bill English. Neither Mr Key nor Mr English offered any significant ideas for getting the local economy moving again. Holcim concrete plant closed in 2016, taking 80 jobs with it. The collapse of Solid Energy took 187 jobs at its Stockton Mine. Another 113 followed in Christchurch and around West Coast.

Tourism has done well on the West Coast, which is noted for its stunning lush rain forests, native birdlife and glacial vistas at Fox and Franz Josef. However a combination of over tourism, the decline of the two glaciers along with the impact of environmental degradation has served to slow down the sector.

There have been ideas for new industries, but the idea of large industry on the West Coast seems to behave like a lead balloon with the Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage. Despite plans for a Waste to Energy plant for the West Coast which would achieve energy sufficiency for the province and create about 60 jobs, the Minister is not interested and even went so far as to declare that there would be no Waste to Energy plant whilst she was in charge.

But not all is lost. Minister for Regional Development Shane Jones set aside $625,000 to investigate a passenger train from Westport to Hokitika, upgrades of the ports for Hokitika and Westport and a master plan for Greymouth. I have wondered about the prospect of a railway link between Nelson and Westport extending from the end of the Ngakawau line, or which could prove to be another scenic railway route.

The West Coast is not the poorest province in New Zealand, but the lack of regard shown to it in Wellington and by other parts of the country it might well be the most forgotten.

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