Two characteristics of the Nelson region, diversity of landscapes and isolation, contend for first place in the discussion. The rapid alternation from valley to mountain, from intensive close-packed farming areas to rough grazing, or forest and desolation, from densely populated to uninhabited areas – these are the changes rung for the traveller as he emerges from the hill country to reach Nelson or as he climbs the road leading from Motueka and Riwaka across the bleak pass to Takaka. The isolation of the region is the characteristic borne upon the mind of the visitor when he enters or leaves the district.
Massive blocks of hill country and mountain composed of greywacke and later rocks, volcanic series, but principally of granites and schists, are separated by huge faults from low-lying alluvium-filled plains, extensive, like the one laid down by the Wairoa and Motueka Rivers, or small, like the ones around Takaka and Collingwood. The mountains rise to 5,000 ft, to 6,153 ft in Mount Owen, in the remoter parts; between Golden Bay and Tasman Bay they rise to 3,722 ft and reach over 4,000 ft above the Motueka Valley. These altitudes give some impression of the asperity of the landforms. The economic value of the ranges is negligible; for the most part they remain in native bush or tussock and only on limited fringe areas are they used exclusively for pastoral purposes. The force of the Cobb River has been tapped to produce hydro-electricity, installed capacity 32,000 kW, although it is indicative of the slow development of the area that the station did not come into production until 1944. Small amounts of economically useful minerals are obtained from the more accessible areas – asbestos, 572 tons maximum production, clays, 8,000 tons; dolomite, 3,390 tons; limestone, 20,253 tons; serpentine, 35,449 tons – the annual value of mineral production is approximately £200,000. This activity is important to the local economy and contributes a little towards saving overseas exchange. In addition 20,925 tons of coal, representing 0·66 per cent of the national production, were mined at Collingwood and near Murchison in 1960. The region is one of the main mineraliferous zones of the Dominion and hopes are naturally concentrated here, especially, because of the rather undiversified structure of the local economy. But even though the stage of geological mapping is primitive, the prospect of discovering important deposits is authoritatively discounted.
The valleys and lower-lying areas contain almost the whole of the region's population, but, even within the valleys, marked concentrations of settlement occur beside areas of much lower densities. This is particularly true of Waimea county, where the intensively farmed areas around Richmond and Motueka contrast with the sparsely settled lands of the Moutere gravels. These Pleistocene gravels cover some 135,000 acres in Waimea county (they continued further south to Lake Rotoiti and the Hope Saddle) and extend as a band of country some 12 miles broad through the centre of the county, from Tophouse and Glenhope in the south, at an altitude of over 2,000 ft, to Tasman and Mapua on the coast. They can be visualised as a surface sloping towards Tasman Bay, which represents the bed of some ancient river system, now dissected by the rivers Wairoa, Wai-iti, Motueka, and their tributaries. Their notoriety derives from the leached soil, poor in organic material, which makes farming difficult, so that their farming history has been marked by some conspicuous failures; failures attested to by the deteriorated quality of the pastures over large areas and the decline in carrying capacity, the increase of erosion, and the conversion of much of the land to plantations of exotic conifers of which the State plantation at Golden Downs is the largest (net area planted, 29,292 acres). Of the total acreage of the gravels located in Waimea county, it was calculated in 1952 that 30 per cent was under native or exotic timber, 25 per cent was in partly reverted pasture, the degree of reversion varying from slight to bad, and another 25 per cent was in pasture which had fully reverted to bracken and second growth. A mere 14 per cent was classified as improved pasture and cultivated area. As this land occupies a third of Waimea county's area, its deterioration could not be ignored and, in the post-war period, much consideration has been given to its improved use and potentialities. With the right type of management and with finance made available some measure of success has already been obtained. The most successful adaptation to the gravels has been made in the coastal regions where, largely since the First World War, orchards have been established over some 2,500 acres of land. This section of the Moutere gravels is best considered, however, as part of the localised and densely settled special-crop district of Waimea county.