Freedom campers

The well-predicted summer influx of freedom campers into Golden Bay is putting Tasman District Council’s designated sites under increasing strain. According to observers, the large numbers of campers overnighting at Waitapu Bridge and Taupata Gravel Reserve are creating health, safety and nuisance concerns, while at the same time degrading fragile environments, disturbing wildlife and desecrating sacred sites. While TDC slowly progresses its much criticised Responsible Camping Strategy, locals are saying “enough is enough”. One of those speaking out is Golden Bay resident Ron Eckman. Over the last few weeks he has collected photographic evidence documenting flagrant abuse of the Waitapu site, including overcrowding, campers washing clothes and dishes in the river, unpermitted fires, and human faeces and toilet paper scattered on the ground. Ron was so appalled that he wrote directly to TDC CEO Janine Dowding and Nelson-Marlborough District Health Board’s medical officer, Dr Stephen Bridgeman urging, “In the interest of public health and safety I request that you immediately close the freedom camping site at Waitapu Bridge, Takaka”. He signed off his letter by highlighting what he perceives as the double-standards applied by council. “Commercial campgrounds require resource consents and have to meet standards for toilets and hygiene. If a private business operated in the same manner as TDC operates the Waitapu Bridge freedom camping site, it would be shut down by TDC.” TDC’s regulatory manager Adrian Humphries responded by suggesting that the council knows what is going on and claimed that TDC’s compliance officers and freedom camping ambassadors were effectively reducing and managing the risks. “I am fully aware of the situation at Waitapu Bridge and along with my colleagues have been taking action to reduce problems associated to that site and others.” Until very recently, Mr Humphries was promoting the idea of an additional temporary freedom camping site in Takaka, but the planning and consultation requirements ruled this out. Ron believes such a demand-led approach is completely misguided and should never had been considered. “We don’t have any obligation to provide thousands of tourists with free rubbish, free toilet and free camping sites just because they want to come here.” He now has some support from the Tasman mayor. “We welcome visitors but we can’t provide unlimited facilities,” said Tim King. Practical measures taken recently by TDC to mitigate the problems at the Waitapu site include the installation of an additional toilet, additional signage, daily visits by enforcement officers and asking camping apps to advise users of limited space. The negative impacts associated with mass freedom camping have been building for several years, but in stark contrast to other local authorities around New Zealand, and despite consistent local opposition to the practice, TDC’s strategy appears to involve facilitating the growth of underregulated freedom camping in Golden Bay – at the expense of the local community, the environment and commercial campground operators. Mayor King explained that council are endeavouring to balance rights and freedoms with their obligations. “There are limitations on what we can do, both legally and financially. Although we want to protect the rights of our ratepayers, we are required to give reasonable support to tourists and other visitors to the district and to allow them to freedom camp.” While recognising these limitations, Ron is highly critical of TDC’s handling of the issue. “Adrian Humphries is clearly completely out of touch with what is happening at the Waitapu Bridge freedom camping site. The freedom camping ambassador programme is a total failure and yet another waste of taxpayer and ratepayer money.”