How much do we care about nature we can't see?
I have just been reading Rebecca Macfie's Listener article about the Waitaha River, on the West Coast of the South Island, almost directly across the Alps from Christchurch. It immediately caught my attention - I recognised it from the chapter in New Zealand's Rivers which tells the story of recreational canoeing in New Zealand - I was fortunate to have been able to include a spectacular photograph taken by Zak Shaw of a kayaker airborne over one of the Waitaha River's falls.
Little did I realise when I wrote this chapter was that the 'wild' could be taken out of the Waitaha. Westpower has proposed a hydropower scheme on Morgan Gorge - one of the most venerated by kayakers - and it is already looking like it will overcome its first hurdle, that is, permission to build it on Department of Conservation land. Many - including one leading energy expert - question the need for the scheme, suggesting there is already a surplus of generation potential. Despite this, the proposal appears not to have attracted the fierce opposition that a proposal on a better known river might be expected to attract.
I suspect this comes down to a couple of things. It is inaccessible to all but the most intrepid (a chopper coming in quite handy), so few of us will ever see this spectacular wild place. And - perhaps most critically - it is not a sports fishing river, so conservation heavy-weight, Fish & Game has not weighed into this battle.
So, in essence, this a question of intrinsic value. As Keith Riley, one of the few kayakers who has experienced the raw power of the Morgan Gorge explains, it is not about whether a handful of elite white-water kayakers like him will be able to paddle the gorge in future, rather. 'It's about saving our wild places.' So, the question is, how much do we care about places like this that many of us will never see or experience? Is the knowledge that a wild place exists enough to save it from development?
Image from Jordy Searle, from Gradient and Water blogspot