Story: Conservation – a history

Page 10. Changing organisations and ideas, 1985–2010s

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For many years the management of native plants and animals was complicated by overlapping and divided responsibilities. The Lands and Survey Department managed parks and reserves, and land development for agriculture. The New Zealand Forest Service controlled forests and forestry, and the Wildlife Service (Department of Internal Affairs) oversaw native and some introduced animals (but not the land they lived on).

Government organisations

A new Labour government in 1984 undertook wide-reaching reform of public sector administration. After considerable discussion, the Department of Conservation was set up in 1987 to oversee management of parks and reserves, and protect inland waters and native wildlife. This means that all government-owned land designated for conservation is now under the control of the Department of Conservation.

The Ministry for the Environment was set up as a policy adviser to oversee major environmental issues and land-use planning. Subsequently, the Resource Management Act 1991 consolidated all laws related to land use, with the ultimate goal of ‘sustainable management’. The act makes it clear that conservation issues must be considered in all future development plans.

Change for the better

One of the most dramatic changes in land-use was in 1984–85, when the new Labour government withdrew subsidies for conversion of so-called ‘unproductive’ land into farmland. This led to a halt in forest and scrub clearance, and a reduction in wetland drainage. Unintentionally, it may have been one of the most effective moves for environmental protection in the 20th century.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is an independent officer of Parliament, established in 1986, to investigate and report on environmental concerns.


During the 20th century, effort went into saving a small number of threatened species, mostly birds. Thousands of other plants and animals were overlooked, and many still remain undescribed. The emphasis changed in the 1990s to consider the whole range of plants and animals native to New Zealand and the ecosystems they live in – its biological diversity (biodiversity).

In 2000 the government launched the New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy. This aimed to reverse declining biodiversity, restore a full range of natural habitats and ecosystems, and maintain or increase populations of native species.


Growth in overseas trade and travel has allowed many exotic organisms to leapfrog the ocean barriers that once protected New Zealand from biological invaders. For example, Didymosphenia geminata, an invasive algae also known as ‘rock snot’, was first noticed smothering the Waiau River bed, Southland, in late 2004 – the first recorded occurrence in the southern hemisphere. By early 2007 it had spread to many other South Island rivers. Increased biosecurity has become part of maintaining biodiversity.

Paradise lost

The state of New Zealand’s environment (1997) was a wide-ranging evaluation of environmental issues published by the Ministry for the Environment. It was a wake-up call for those who still had a tourist-poster vision of their country. One of the most alarming problems was the decline in biodiversity, with a recorded 85% of lowland forests and wetlands gone. Over 800 species and 200 subspecies of animals, fungi and plants were considered threatened.

Marine conservation

Conservation in the 20th century focused on plants and animals of the mainland and offshore islands. Underwater exploration, publicised through films and scuba-diving, has raised awareness about the sea floor and its life forms. In the early 2000s there was a focus on protecting the large area of sea floor surrounding New Zealand.

The first marine reserve was created in 1975 at Leigh, north of Auckland, and by 2014 there were 44 marine reserves.

Increased public involvement

Since 1970 there has been a dramatic change in public attitudes. There is now widespread acknowledgement of the damage humans have done to the environment, and a determination to preserve what remains.

One of the most tangible signs of this is the large number of individuals and groups doing volunteer conservation work – planting trees, clearing tracks, controlling possums, and helping maintain city parks. For example, there are at least 60 kiwi conservation projects under way, mainly in the North Island.

Acknowledgements to Peter Clayworth and Bernie Napp (Department of Conservation), Kevin Hackwell (Royal Forest and Bird Preservation Society of New Zealand), Bruce Hayward (Geomarine Research), Alan Tennyson (Te Papa Tongarewa) and Gerard Hutching.

How to cite this page:

Simon Nathan, 'Conservation – a history - Changing organisations and ideas, 1985–2010s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 April 2024)

Story by Simon Nathan, published 24 Sep 2007, updated 1 Aug 2015