The history of conservation in New Zealand charts how people slowly realised the effects of human activity on the environment, followed by attempts in the later 20th century to repair the damage.
Changing meaning of ‘conservation’
The meaning of ‘conservation’ has changed over the last 150 years, and the term has been used differently by different groups. Foresters have traditionally used it for the wise management of forests to ensure future timber supplies, giving their chief foresters the title conservator. Until the 1960s, conservation meant preserving natural features so that they could be used in the future – the concept of wise husbandry, now called sustainable use.
In the 1960s the term ‘nature conservation’ started to be used in New Zealand, and gradually became the general meaning of conservation. It includes the belief that natural features should be preserved for their inherent value, and so they can be appreciated rather than exploited by future generations. This meaning has been formalised by an unambiguous definition in the 1987 Conservation Act:
Conservation means the preservation and protection of natural and historic resources for the purpose of maintaining their intrinsic values, providing for their appreciation and recreational enjoyment by the public, and safeguarding the options of future generations.
Conservation and environmentalism
‘Environmentalism’ and ‘conservation’ are often used interchangeably, but there is a distinction. Environmentalism is concerned with all aspects of the world in which humans live – from air pollution to the implications of nuclear power. Conservation is one aspect of environmentalism – the protection and preservation of natural heritage, including plants, animals, and other features such as rivers and volcanic cones.
Why New Zealand is special
Separated from the rest of the world by large oceans, New Zealand was the last major land to be settled. Before the first people arrived, about 1250–1300 AD, the country had been isolated for about 85 million years. A distinctive assemblage of plants and animals had evolved or made their way across the sea. Biologist Jared Diamond calls New Zealand ‘the nearest approach to life on another planet’. 1 It had unusual plant life, and no ground-dwelling land mammals – their ecological niche was filled by flightless birds, as well as insects and lizards.
Giving trees the chop
When Europeans first came to New Zealand, they placed little value on the native forests. In 1894, MP Thomas Kelly wrote: ‘The best way of dealing with the forest-covered land was to utilise it for agricultural purposes. The forest trees if not cut down and utilised would simply rot, they arrived at a state of maturity and then declined … the best way of using the land was to get it under grass as speedily as possible and to get the population on it.’ 2
First Māori and then European settlers changed the environment. Large birds were easily caught for food, and rapidly disappeared. Much of the forest was burnt to clear the land for agriculture, and the remaining forests were damaged by introduced browsing mammals, especially deer and possums. Some of New Zealand’s unique animals and plants are now extinct, and others are endangered.
Early European visitors remarked on the volume of birdsong. But forest clearance, wetland drainage and introduced predators have decimated the bird population. Today a full bird chorus can be heard in only a few island sanctuaries and some protected mainland sites.