Story: Conservation – a history

Page 4. A background issue, 1908–1965

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Conservation issues were not a high priority in New Zealand in the first part of the 20th century. With two world wars and an economic depression, most people were concerned with financial security. However, there was growing interest in the natural environment, especially as more people began to take part in tramping, mountaineering and other outdoor activities.

Formed in 1923, the Native Bird Protection Society (later to become the Royal Forest and Bird Society of New Zealand) has consistently advocated conservation issues, especially in relation to forested land.

Development of forestry

The 1913 Royal Commission on Forestry stuck to the traditional settler view that forests should be cleared for farmland, although it wanted to protect the remaining forest as a future source of timber. Its recommendations led to the formation of the New Zealand Forest Service, headed by Canadian forester L. MacIntosh Ellis. He took steps to regulate timber production, organise fire protection, curtail illegal logging, and review remaining forests.

Felling and milling

The 1923 National Forest inventory showed that of the remaining millable timbers, most were softwoods – mainly rimu (45%) and beech (30%). Kauri had almost disappeared. Because kahikatea, mataī and tōtara grow in rich, lowland soils, most had been felled when the land was cleared for agriculture.

When completed in 1923, the review showed that New Zealand’s timber resources were being rapidly depleted. Ellis won parliamentary support for his vision of sustained-yield forestry of native trees supported by exotic plantations. This led to widespread planting over the next decade of fast-growing trees (mainly Pinus radiata), which were to mature in the 1950s and 1960s.

Forestry after the Second World War

To ensure a supply of houses for the growing population, successive governments kept strict price controls on timber. Although effective in providing housing, cheap timber led to a quicker depletion of native forests than Ellis and his successors had expected. A survey made between 1946 and 1952 showed that the remaining area of millable native timber was only about a seventh of that estimated in 1923.

The next few decades saw arguments about the future of forests. For the Forest Service, conservation meant managing the forests to maintain timber supplies, rather than preserving the trees.

Parks and reserves

National parks are usually large areas that include unique natural features. In 1950 there were five national parks: Tongariro, Egmont, Fiordland, Arthur’s Pass and Abel Tasman. The National Parks Authority was set up in 1952 to oversee them. There were 10 by 1965, mostly in mountainous areas, where there was no demand to clear the land for agriculture.

There was continuing rivalry between the Lands and Survey Department (which managed national parks) and the New Zealand Forest Service (which controlled most forested land). The Forest Service opposed the inclusion of any potentially millable forests in national parks. Tararua Forest Park, gazetted in 1954, was the first of several forest parks that combined recreational use, high-country protection and some commercial use.

Reserves are smaller and may just contain bush for preservation or as a sanctuary for wildlife. In 1965 there were over 1,300 reserves. This included the Kermadec and subantarctic islands, and a number of nearshore islands designated as bird sanctuaries.

Waipoua Forest Sanctuary

In the late 1940s there was public pressure to place some of Northland’s remaining kauri forest in a national park. This was resisted by the Forest Service. In one of the first cases of environmental activism, Roy McGregor and a group of supporters spearheaded a vigorous publicity campaign. Once political support was also strong, the Forest Service created Waipoua Forest Sanctuary rather than allowing the area to be designated a national park.

Petrels in the post

Attempts to eradicate pests from island sanctuaries were all but abandoned during the Second World War. When ornithologist Lance Richdale became worried about the damage done by cats to nesting petrels on Herekopare Island, near Stewart Island, he posted the birds’ corpses to the Department of Internal Affairs to spur action.

Changing public opinion

J. T. Salmon’s influential book, Heritage destroyed: the crisis in scenery preservation in New Zealand (1960), drew public attention to major changes in the landscape caused by large-scale engineering projects.

Perhaps sensing the winds of change, the National Party included a section on conservation in its 1960 election manifesto – the first political party to express concern about environmental matters. After being elected, they set up the Nature Conservation Council in 1962. For the next decade it provided an influential alternative view to that of pro-development government advisers.

How to cite this page:

Simon Nathan, 'Conservation – a history - A background issue, 1908–1965', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 June 2024)

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