Franz Josef

A town on the move?

Sunday Star-Times - - FOCUS COMMUNITY -

Franz Josef Glacier, a jewel in the crown of New Zealand’s tourism in­dus­try, is con­stantly on the move. The frozen river of ice that meets sub-trop­i­cal for­est in spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion on the has been steadily re­treat­ing since 2008.

Now Franz Josef town­ship, pop­u­la­tion 221, has been told res­i­dents may have to up­end their en­tire way of life, or face be­ing wiped out by an earth­quake or floods.

‘‘There are risks to the town,’’ says Franz Josef res­i­dent Poppy Gor­don with an air of res­ig­na­tion. ‘‘There is an alpine fault go­ing through it and the river is right there, but what do you do?’’

Franz Josef is the only town on the West Coast that strad­dles the alpine fault, mean­ing a ‘‘big one’’ is in­evitable. And the steady re­treat of the glacier is caus­ing the banks of the Waiho River which flows from it to push per­ilously close to burst­ing.

A risk anal­y­sis re­port was com­mis­sioned, and the three op­tions for man­ag­ing flood and earth­quake hazards at Franz Josef were pre­sented to the town last week: re­lo­cate, do noth­ing, or im­prove pro­tec­tion from the river.

A more de­tailed re­port from engi­neer­ing firm Tonkin + Taylor will give a more de­tailed cost­ing for shift­ing the town, amid claims it would be as much as $1 bil­lion. The bill is ex­pected to be closer to $600m. The lo­gis­tics of how an en­tire town can be moved re­mains to be seen.

Ei­ther way, that’s a de­cent chunk of change for Franz Josef which has al­ready been lumped with dou­ble-digit rate in­creases in re­cent years, to help pay for the in­fra­struc­ture re­quired to ser­vice the es­ti­mated 500,000 an­nual visi­tors.

Poppy Gor­don thinks the town will grad­u­ally re­lo­cate, but the huge cost may pre­vent mov­ing in­fra­struc­ture such as the ho­tels and restau­rants along the state high­way.

‘‘Peo­ple would still come here re­gard­less of what the river does or where the town is,’’ long-term res­i­dent and Air Sa­faris and Ser­vices West Coast man­ager Steve Hen­ery says.

Hen­ery, whose com­pany has taken thou­sands of visi­tors for flights over the glacier, says the area is unique.

‘‘It’s an ex­tra­or­di­nary ge­o­log­i­cal area and botan­i­cal area. Most peo­ple don’t re­alise this is the beech gap, it’s where the glaciers are cov­ered with ice from Grey­mouth to Lake Paringa, from the moun­tains to the sea.’’

On a typ­i­cal day, camper­vans file into the town as pas­sen­gers stop for sou­venirs, a meal or a dose of caf­feine be­fore they trek to ac­tiv­i­ties rang­ing from adrenal­in­charged to tran­quil.

If the weather is clear, he­li­copters dot the sky on a con­tin­ual loop to the glacier.

Named af­ter Em­peror Franz Joseph I of Aus­tria by ex­plorer Julius von Haast in 1865, the glacier is the main draw­card.

There’s also the Franz Josef Wildlife Cen­tre, a short turn off from the state high­way, which is home to a suc­cess­ful breed­ing pro­gramme for the rowi, the rarest of the five species of kiwi.

Suc­cess­ful hatches are then raised on pest-free is­lands be­fore be­ing re­leased into the Okar­ito For­est north of the town­ship.

‘‘We’ve got clay bird shoot­ing, we’ve got quad bikes and horse treks and kayaks and for­est walks, white herons and a gon­dola would just top it off,’’ Hen­ery says.

He be­lieves res­i­dents will be staunchly op­posed to mov­ing.

‘‘My view is it’s hu­man na­ture, peo­ple won’t move.

‘‘So the best thing is to en­cour­age de­vel­op­ment to the north, which is what is hap­pen­ing. The next thing will be the po­lice sta­tion, the fire brigade and the petrol sta­tion to be moved to a safer lo­ca­tion.’’

The braided river is an im­me­di­ate threat, and haz­ard plans pre­pare for a one in a hun­dred years event.

‘‘Those times where we’ve had a foot of rain in a day. That will hap­pen again and that’s what they are wor­ried about. So it’s just where the river will go. But one of the things is to man­age it, stop-bank it and chan­nel it.’’

Many com­mu­ni­ties were liv­ing un­der the threat of an earth­quake, he says.

‘‘The whole coun­try is fault-driven, that’s why it is here. That’s why Mount Cook is there. It’s been pushed up,’’ he says.

The 600km fault has rup­tured five times in the past 1100 years. Each time it pro­duced an earth­quake of mag­ni­tude 7.0 to 8.0, the last be­ing in 1717. Ex­perts have ad­vised an earth­quake oc­curs about ev­ery 300 years.

One op­tion is to shift the town fur­ther north, closer to Lake Mapourika. An­other is to build greater pro­tec­tion from the Waiho River, while a third op­tion is to live with the risk..

At an ex­tra­or­di­nary West­land District Coun­cil meet­ing in July, the coun­cil ap­proved a new fil­tra­tion gallery and main­te­nance on a 650-me­tre sec­tion of the flood em­bank­ment that pro­tects prop­er­ties and schools north of the town from the Waiho River.

The work en­sured the school, power sta­tion, sewage ponds and hol­i­day ac­com­mo­da­tion on the north­ern side of the river will re­main pro­tected in the in­terim.

At the most re­cent Franz Josef com­mu­nity meet­ing, res­i­dents were ad­vised that within 20 years, the river would be built up to the stage where it’s at the same level of the town. Rais­ing the Waiho River bridge was also tabled in the West Coast ac­tion plan.

Gus Gor­don sug­gests that the town does not need to be re­lo­cated ‘‘at the mo­ment’’ and sup­ports re­mov­ing gravel to chan­nel the river.

The Franz Josef work­ing group, con­sist­ing of lo­cal gov­ern­ment, Crown agen­cies, iwi, and lo­cal busi­ness own­ers, will put to­gether a busi­ness case for Gov­ern­ment pend­ing the fi­nal re­lease of the haz­ard re­port.

West Coast Re­gional Coun­cil chief ex­ec­u­tive Mike Mee­han ex­pects it will take 10 to 12 months be­fore the com­mu­nity had ‘‘some­thing in front of Gov­ern­ment and hope­fully some kind of de­ci­sion’’.

Ray Elder­shaw and his wife Dawn, who ran the Gra­ham Mo­tor Inn for six years, was one of the first mote­liers in the area, and re­calls the first wave of mass tourism to the town in the 1980s.

He also re­calls the great 1982 Waiho River flood, when 73 inches of rain fell over three days and left 108 guests stranded at his inn.

‘‘We were com­pletely and ut­terly stranded, we lost our air­port, we lost the bridge, we lost ev­ery­thing as far as Franz was con­cerned,’’ Elder­shaw says.

They re­built and re­cov­ered, as peo­ple do on the West Coast.

He re­calls that Franz Josef wasn’t the des­ti­na­tion that it is to­day, as coaches tended to drive through to Fox Glacier.

‘‘We turned that around com­pletely in the six years and had ev­ery­one, bar one, of the coach tours stay­ing in Franz,’’ he says.

Elder­shaw put the change down to ‘‘peo­ple power’’ where busi­ness op­er­a­tors em­braced cus­tomer ser­vice, ‘‘be­ing nice to tourists’’ and im­prov­ing the look.

Qual­i­ties that are part of the fab­ric of the new

Franz Josef.

And re­gard­less of the risk, Franz Josef res­i­dents like

Poppy Gor­don will con­tinue to en­joy this won­der of the

West Coast for as long as pos­si­ble.

‘‘It’s just a beau­ti­ful spot,’’ she says.

Peo­ple would still come here re­gard­less of what the river does or where the town is. Steve Hen­ery


Franz Josef al­ready faces heavy costs for tourism in­fra­struc­ture. The re­treat of the Franz Joseph Glacier has flood im­pli­ca­tions for the tourist town shar­ing its name. Steve Hen­ery, pic­tured with Ras­cal, be­lieves res­i­dents won’t move.

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