Best known for his pivotal role in the successful Save Manapouri Campaign, Ronald James McLean was born on 22 January 1914 at Wyndham, Southland, the son of farming parents Alexander Henry McLean and his wife, Petra Mathilde Petersen. He was educated at Quarry Hills and Kennington primary schools, and took night classes in engineering at Southland Technical College. A farmer all his adult life, he had a lifelong love of the outdoors, and enjoyed boating, fishing, tramping and shooting.
Ron McLean married Annie Isabella Henderson in Invercargill on 20 March 1940; they were to raise a family of two daughters and a son. During the Second World War he served three years with the army training staff, mostly at Burnham Camp, attaining the rank of temporary captain. In July 1943 he transferred to the Royal New Zealand Air Force. He became a flying officer and served as a bomber pilot in Britain in 1944–45. McLean remained a keen flyer after the war, serving on the executive of the Southland Aero Club for eight years. He gained some publicity in July 1959 when he made a forced landing in an Auster aircraft in snow-covered tussockland on Beaumont station, near Lake Onslow in the remote eastern Otago uplands. The drama was heightened when another light plane carrying newspaper reporters crashed alongside. All were eventually rescued by local musterers.
McLean became active in many local rural organisations. He chaired the Kennington section of Federated Farmers of New Zealand, and later became Southland president (1964–66) and a national councillor. He was a member of the electoral committees of the New Zealand meat and wool boards, chairman of the Waimatua Rabbit Board, and a director of the Southland Co-op Phosphate Company and the Southland Cement Company. In 1957 he was awarded a Nuffield Foundation scholarship to study agriculture in the United Kingdom. A councillor of Birthright New Zealand, McLean served for seven years on the executive of the New Zealand Federation of Tuberculosis Associations and was its president in 1978. He also chaired the Kennington Public Hall committee and the local boy scouts committee.
However, McLean’s most notable contribution was to the Save Manapouri Campaign in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau were threatened by hydroelectric development. The Manapouri–Te Anau Development Act 1960 required the construction of a dam on the lower Waiau River which would have raised the level of Lake Manapouri by up to 11 metres, with serious consequences for the local environment. It was later revealed that Lake Te Anau would also be seriously affected. McLean was involved with the formation of the campaign in Invercargill in October 1969, and later served as co-convener and chairman of its Southland committee, and as president of the national campaign throughout its existence. Almost constantly on the road, usually in the family car with daughter Jill, Ron carried the campaign throughout the country and assisted with the establishment of most of the 19 regional Save Manapouri committees, and addressed numerous public meetings. He developed his oratorical skills and used his charisma to inspire enthusiasm in his audiences.
The issue was finally resolved after the election of the Labour government in 1972. The new prime minister, Norman Kirk, honoured his party’s pre-election pledge not to raise the levels of the lakes. Moreover, in February 1973 Kirk’s minister for the environment, Joe Walding, appointed McLean as one of six founding ‘Guardians of Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau’. He served diligently, and with great satisfaction and resolve, in this role until his death at Kennington on 26 May 1980; he was survived by his wife and children.
Ron McLean’s effective and untiring efforts to save Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau helped considerably to raise the profile of nature conservation and promote the concept of integrating conservation with development. He was selected as Man of the Year for 1970 by the Dominion newspaper, which stated that he had ‘demonstrated the power of ordinary people when they find something is worth fighting for’; he was made an MBE in 1974. The Save Manapouri Campaign, to which McLean devoted the last decade of his life, has come to be recognised as the greatest environmental debate in this country’s history and the major milestone in New Zealand’s transition from the pioneering era of resource exploitation to the sustainable management of our natural and physical resources.