Our recent clarification of the ways to access the Horse Park from Muriwai have generated lots of commentary on this Facebook page and other social media forums.

Although the topic of public access into Woodhill Forest has been addressed before via our website, Facebook, newspapers, pamphlets and in public forums, we’ll present some key information again now.

In 2013 Ngā Maunga Whakahii o Kaipara (NMWoK, the ‘corporate’ entity representing Ngāti Whātua o Kaipara) purchased the land under Woodhill Forest from the Crown as part of our Treaty of Waitangi settlement. The land then became privately owned. A key reason for purchasing the land was as a commercial investment to fund the hāpu’s social, educational, cultural and health programmes (as well as recognising its cultural and historical importance to us).

As private land, there is no obligation on NMWoK to provide access to the public – just as there is no public right to roam on the private land any of us own as our homes.

Ngāti Whātua o Kaipara have for centuries now welcomed new people into our region – even when for periods of time we became marginalised and dispossessed. We understand and value the development of a strong community and will play our part. The various activities we run or license within Woodhill (eg. Bike Park, Tree Adventures, off-roading / dirt biking, paintball) give opportunities to the public to enjoy the forest – whilst contributing to the commercial return we expected when we decided to purchase it. However unquestionably the most significant activity in the forest is forestry, which we both license and now, increasingly, participate in as a joint venture partner. Forestry is a high risk industry and the forest is a workplace. Other mobile businesses such as firewood collection also use the forest. One-off events are increasingly common. There is even a live-firing weapons range at the northern end of the forest and military exercises at times outside of that area. We have strict obligations on us as landowner, landlord and now forestry company to keep this workplace, and all within it, safe as required under legislation. The new health and safety legislation that came into force this year is much tighter than the old, and sets out massive penalties for our senior staff and board members should an incident occur and our processes be found lacking. This encourages caution. We know other organisations with similar responsibilities to us are grappling with how to manage their obligations in a sensible way. You may well see a range of responses but no-one wants to be the test case in a prosecution under the new legislation. Our tenant businesses are as conscious as we are of their organisational risks operating in the forest. We need to take their concerns into account in how we manage the forest.

So, for now, having taken legal advice, discussed these matters in depth with our licensees and business partners, and considering our own appetite for risk (especially those in positions of authority for us who would face fines into the millions should we be convicted of a failing under health and safety legislation), our cautious position is that the public may only access Woodhill Forest by permit, or in one of the licensed activity areas. For horse-riders, this means the exclusive horse park area, the boundary of which is described as the ‘perimeter trail’ on your maps. As registered riders, we know we have your details should we need to contact you. We know you have been informed of the dangers in the forest and made aware of where to find information on changing situations in the forest (eg. areas that are out of bounds because of harvesting activity). We know the area within which you will be found (and importantly where you should not be but where we could then permit other activity). The same can be said of all the other licensed activities we sanction in the forest. This knowledge and ability to exert control and keep things safe is absent when we don’t know who is in the forest, doing what and where. Managing this mosaic of use takes a lot of staff time and attention – and so there is a cost to this. There is also a limit to the complexity of use that we believe we can actually keep track of across all 12 500 hectares of the forest, and keep everyone within safe to a reasonable standard. Only we out of all the businesses / groups / individuals that access and use the forest can appreciate, and need to know, everything that is happening in it every day. Thus we reserve the right to only permit what we believe we can safely manage. We will continue to make use of tools like media, signage, pamphlets, our kaitiaki educators and trespass to discharge our responsibilities and preserve our own rights.

Constructive feedback is welcome but we will continue to take a precautionary approach that allows us to feel we are discharging our duty of care to ourselves and our workers, our licensees and business partners, and our customers. Over time we will make changes to the forest regime as experience, understanding and the mosaic of activities change. Some of these may be less restrictive, some may prove to need to be more restrictive.

We came to help with the working bee in the Five Mile Strip this Sunday gone, knowing that we are encouraging people to use that as a way to reach the Horse Park from Muriwai. It was good to confirm on the ground that it can be used by riders. We are also working with Council in other ways to improve this area for use by horse-riders, and clarify the boundary between public and private land.

Going into the new horse-riding season this spring, we are intending to allow the use by registered horse riders of some trails between the exclusive horse park (southern boundary Wightman Way) and Muriwai. This is reliant on us getting those trails up to spec by then and getting in place a system by which riders can effectively be warned if these need to be closed from time to time (eg. for harvesting or other events that may be taking place). The intention is that generally only horse-riders will be using those trails, but the area may still be offered up for use for another activity / event from time to time – in which case access for horse-riding may need to be restricted.

Eke Hōiho will likely change its name in October to ‘Kake Hōiho’ (pronounced ‘Kar-keh Hoy-hoor’) to better reflect the Kaipara dialect.

It would be easy (and tempting) to discuss and debate public access in the forest forever but we are loathe to endlessly revisit this. Now and again we will respond if there is something new to be added or clarified but generally we hope and trust that people will respect us as a private landowner and business. We know we won’t meet the wants of all the wider public who would like to have unfettered access into the forest, but this posting sets out again why we are acting as we are. We will take note of reasonable suggestions but will generally consider these in our own way and time as we manage the large, complex beast that is Woodhill Forest.

Happy riding”