Story: Conservation – a history

Page 8. Environmental activism, 1966–1987

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Changes in attitude

The mid-1960s was the beginning of a period of rapid change in New Zealand society that was to last for two decades. There were major economic and political shifts, while the younger generation protested against the Vietnam war and the Springbok rugby tour, and supported women’s liberation, the anti-nuclear movement, and environmental activism.

Since the Second World War there had been pressure to develop New Zealand’s infrastructure – to build hydroelectric dams, roads and houses. Environmental damage, once seen as the inevitable consequence of development, was now being challenged.

The ‘Save Manapōuri’ campaign

The hydroelectric potential of Lake Manapōuri, in Fiordland National Park, had long been recognised, but developing it would mean building a dam and raising the level of a beautiful lake. Tempted by the prospect of attracting an aluminium smelter, which needed cheap electricity, the Labour and National governments negotiated with Comalco, an overseas consortium, and agreements were signed in the 1960s.

The ‘Save Manapōuri’ campaign began in Invercargill in October 1969, and soon had branches all over the country. Public anger was fuelled by suspicion about secret provisions in the agreement. A petition in 1970 gained more than 260,000 signatures, a record at the time. The Labour Party promised in its 1972 election manifesto not to change the level of the lake, and passed legislation as soon as they were elected.

The Manapōuri campaign was the first time a major development scheme had been successfully opposed on environmental grounds. It showed what could be achieved when public opinion was mobilised.

An end to logging native trees

In October 1971 a government white paper proposed large-scale milling of South Island lowland beech forest, to provide timber for one or more pulp mills. Half of the milled area was to be replanted with exotic Pinus radiata, while part of the remainder was to be selectively logged and planted with eucalypts.

At the time, the only New Zealand environmental group concerned with forests was the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society. But the proposal prompted many others, including the Beech Forest Action Committee, which later became the Native Forests Action Council. It produced the Maruia Declaration, signed on the banks of the Maruia River – one of the first areas designated for clear-felling – on 4 July 1975. This was circulated as a public petition before being submitted to the government in 1977. It demanded legal recognition of native forests and an end to their logging.

Although the Maruia Declaration seemed radical at the time, almost all of its demands were met in the next 30 years.

Trust in the land

Many landowners are keen to preserve land or forest with special conservation value. The Queen Elizabeth II National Trust, established in 1977, allows owners to register these features in a contract. The trust has also been gifted 27 properties.

Economic versus ecological value

Rush to destruction (1975), by British conservationist Graham Searle, criticised the New Zealand Forest Service’s management of native forests. It challenged the idea that forests should have multiple uses, which usually involved felling. Searle was one of the first to argue that forest should be preserved for its inherent ecological value, and that this should take priority over economic arguments.

Lowland forest

Discussions over the scheme to mill beech forest had raised fundamental issues about existing reserves. Although there were large areas of beech in national parks, the land was too mountainous to be logged. There was little remaining lowland forest, and most of it was earmarked by the Forest Service for milling. It was argued that logging must continue to maintain timber supplies and full employment.

Out on a limb

The 1986 West Coast Forest Accord was a controversial agreement between the government and environmental groups. It allowed 180,000 hectares of native forest to be preserved, while 120,000 hectares were set aside for logging. More radical protesters rejected the accord. Their 1990 tree-sitting campaign eventually led to the decision to stop logging native trees.

There were several major protests about the logging of native forests between 1975 and 1985. One was at Pureora Forest, a remnant of podocarp forest in the central North Island that is home to the rare blue-wattled kōkako. In 1978 a group of protesters, led by barefoot activist Stephen King, hoisted themselves onto platforms in the trees. Milling was forced to stop and was eventually abandoned.

Similar confrontations took place at Whirinaki in the North Island and Ōkārito in the South Island. By 1985 some areas of lowland forest had been reserved, and the end of large-scale milling of native timber was in sight. Two national parks containing lowland forest were created – Whanganui in 1986, and Paparoa in 1987.

How to cite this page:

Simon Nathan, 'Conservation – a history - Environmental activism, 1966–1987', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2024)

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