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Conservation – a history

by  Simon Nathan

The arrival of humans and the animals they introduced has had a devastating effect on New Zealand’s natural environment. Since the 1960s there has been growing awareness of the need to conserve the land for future generations.

The need for conservation

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.

Nature conservation

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

Human impact

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.

  1. J. M. Diamond, ‘New Zealand as an archipelago: an international perspective.’ In Conservation Sciences Publication 2 (1990): 3–8. › Back
  2. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 1894, vol. 85, p. 443.3. › Back

Māori conservation traditions

Surviving in a new land

When the Polynesian ancestors of Māori arrived in New Zealand after a long time at sea, they would have been astonished by the abundance of food. Moa and fur seals were easy to catch. But within 100–200 years, moa and other large birds were extinct, and seals had disappeared from much of the coastline. Archaeological excavations of middens show that bird and seal bones were replaced by fish bones and shells.

Eat or be eaten

The first Polynesian settlers introduced kiore (rats) and kurī (dogs). Kurī were eaten and usually stayed close to human settlements. Kiore, however, quickly spread throughout the country and had a devastating effect on lizard, insect and bird populations.

Māori and conservation

The evidence of Māori attitudes to what we now call conservation is indirect, and varied within different tribal groups. As with all peoples, immediate survival would have taken precedence over longer-term issues of sustainability. As the population increased, there would have been times when food was scarce, and whatever was edible would have been taken. But by the time of European contact, a number of conservation traditions were evident. There was a widely recognised spiritual relationship between the gods, people, the land and its creatures.


Settlements were usually near the sea, and Māori relied on fishing and shellfish gathering for food. The sea belonged to the god Tangaroa, who needed to be appeased because the fish were his children. Shortages of seafood led to the imposition of rāhui (restrictions or bans) on the gathering of certain species. It is not known how effective rāhui and other methods of resource management were.

There was an awareness of the effects of pollution on fishing grounds, with bans on gutting fish, or discarding food, bait or rubbish at sea. Human waste was also not to be disposed of there – this was in contrast to Pākehā settlers, who tended to regard the sea as a dumping ground.

Despite concern to preserve marine resources, archaeological evidence shows that there were progressively fewer crayfish, pāua and other shellfish at all localities that have been investigated.

Food from the land

Although forests were widespread, they could not sustain humans year round, especially once moa had been hunted to extinction. So forests were burnt down, especially on the drier, eastern side of the South Island. The bracken fern that grew in regenerating areas was a staple of the Māori diet.

Rat rāhui

Missionary Richard Taylor described a tribe’s rāhui in 1855: ‘the woods in which they hunted the rat were tapu, until the sport was over, and so were the rivers; no canoe could pass until the rahue [rāhui] (usually a pole with an old garment tied to it) was taken down.’ 1

Close to settlements, slow-growing, fruit-bearing trees such as kahikatea, mataī and hīnau were often kept to ensure a supply of birds, especially kererū (New Zealand pigeons). Karaka trees were planted and harvested for berries, and had special significance for many tribes as the place where whenua (placentas) were buried.

Rāhui – restrictions

Rāhui allowed a food source to recover, or guided harvesting – for example, they set times when godwits or eels could be caught. But rāhui were also used to define tribal boundaries or prevent unauthorised harvesting, so were not solely a sustainability practice.

    • Richard Taylor, Te Ika a Maui, or, New Zealand and its inhabitants. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1974 (originally published 1855). › Back

Voices in the wilderness, 1769–1907

Transforming the land

On his visits to New Zealand between 1769 and 1777, James Cook introduced a number of northern-hemisphere plants and animals, including potatoes, cabbages, pigs, goats and rats. They were the first of many exotic introductions, and their progeny survive to this day.

From the early 1800s there was a trickle then a flood of mainly British immigrants. Most hoped to farm their own land. Timber milling, wetland drainage and clearing the land destroyed expanses of forest and many animals. Naturalists recorded the country’s unique plants and animals, but initially there was little concern for the effects of widespread changes.

Attempts to save forests

Concerns were being expressed in the 1860s about the devastation of forests and the dwindling of native bird populations. In October 1868, Canterbury MP Thomas Potts made what was probably the first conservation speech in Parliament, asking the government ‘to take steps to ascertain the present condition of the forests of the Colony with view to their better conservation’. 1 He was supported by James Hector, director of the Colonial Museum, who reported that over 20% of forest had been cleared between 1830 and 1868.

Preventing predators

The Protection of Animals Act 1867 aimed to safeguard introduced game rather than native animals. Nevertheless, later conservationists can be pleased it outlawed the importation of predators such as foxes, venomous reptiles, hawks and vultures.

In the summer of 1873–74, Premier Julius Vogel toured the South Island and was disturbed to see the damage caused by the milling and burning of native forest. He made several attempts to pass laws controlling deforestation. His State Forests Act was passed in 1884, allowing forest reserves to be created, and a conservator to be appointed. However, within two years funding was withdrawn by the next government as an economy measure.

Parks and reserves

In 1887, Horonuku Te Heuheu, paramount chief of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, gifted the peaks of Tongariro, Ngāuruhoe and Ruapehu in the central North Island as ‘a sacred place of the Crown, a gift forever from me and my people’. The mountains became the nucleus of Tongariro National Park (1894), one of the world’s earliest national parks. Egmont National Park, encompassing the upper part of Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont), was created in 1900.

Growing tourism led to the preservation of important scenic areas. The Scenery Preservation Act 1903 ensured the protection of existing reserves and allowed the Crown to establish new ones. Although forest clearance continued for some years, many significant areas were gazetted as reserves, including strips of native forest along main roads. Many early reserves were created by the government on Māori-owned land, leading to long-standing grievances.

Declining bird numbers

New Zealand’s native birds, especially the ground-dwelling species, were badly affected by forest clearance and introduced predators such as rats and cats. Their decline was hastened by hunters, who shot birds by the hundreds to send to collectors and museums.

Arbor Day

New Zealand’s first Arbor Day – a day for planting trees – was held in Greytown on 3 July 1890. It gained widespread public support, and in 1892, 4 August was made the official national date. This day was presumably chosen for political rather than forestry reasons – it is rather late in the year for tree planting. Since 1977, New Zealand has celebrated Arbor Day on 5 June, which is also World Environment Day.

The dwindling of bird life was obvious by the 1860s, but it would get worse. A plague of rabbits in the drier eastern areas led farmers to call for the introduction of mustelids (ferrets, stoats and weasels). Despite warnings from local and British scientists, mustelids were imported in the 1880s (and classed as protected animals until 1893). As predicted, bird numbers dropped further.

Responding to the likely extinction of many species, in the early 1890s the government designated mustelid-free island sanctuaries – initially Resolution Island in Fiordland and Little Barrier Island (Hauturu) in the Hauraki Gulf, later followed by Kāpiti Island, north of Wellington. Large numbers of birds were relocated to the islands. However, stoats were seen on Resolution Island in 1900, and it was subsequently abandoned as a sanctuary. Some birds survived in other sanctuaries, but it was too late to save the huia – its last confirmed sighting was in 1907.

    • New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 1868, vol. 4, p. 188. › Back

A background issue, 1908–1965

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.

Soil conservation


When settlers cleared the land for farming in the 19th century, they soon saw the problems caused by heavy rainfall. School inspector and naturalist Henry Hill recorded the effects of torrential rain near Gisborne, in December 1893: ‘When going through the district shortly after the floods took place, I was surprised to find how much the appearance of the country had changed. Thousands of breakaways or slips were to be seen, some of them of large extent.’ 1 Hill surveyed the affected areas, and estimated that a 4-inch (10-centimetre) layer of soil had been washed away.

Widespread erosion occurred after the First World War when returned servicemen, settling on blocks of forest-covered hill country, cleared the land of trees.


In February 1938, Kopuawhara works camp near Gisborne was washed away with the loss of 21 lives. This was followed a few weeks later by floods in the Esk Valley of Hawke’s Bay, which damaged hill country and buried downstream farmland under metres of silt. There were calls for action on flood control. After a committee of enquiry, the Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Act was passed in 1941.

Soil conservation under way

Under the 1941 act, a Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Council was set up to oversee catchment boards and river control programmes. The council and catchment boards had the power to regulate burning and land use, and levy rates.

Initially, farmers were concerned that the law would affect their livelihood and farming methods. In practice, however, a strong voluntary ethic evolved, reinforced by community pressure and subsidies for approved remedial work on farms. There was university training for soil conservators, and farm demonstrations of wise husbandry.

A new philosophy

1950s publicity about soil conservation was aimed at farmers, but the wider relevance was clear. Geographer Kenneth Cumberland, an influential advocate, wrote: ‘Every citizen is concerned with this; no New Zealander can escape its implications … all have a personal stake in the urgency and thoroughness which we accord to the formulation of plans for conserving and developing land.’ 2

Satanic spell on soil

This dramatic account of high-country erosion at Molesworth Station was made by Doug Campbell, a strong advocate for soil conservation:

‘[O]ver vast areas the mantle of soil has been torn or stripped off. Remnants of it are found towards the base of the slopes as though some satanic spell had been cast on the mountains and hills, and the soil had been atrophied and sloughed off. Exposed skeleton rock seems to grin with malice or frown with disdain on man’s handiwork as it creeps and flows down the mountainside in a final gesture of triumph to choke rivers.’ 3

Soil conservation today

Today, soil conservation and erosion control are an accepted aspect of land use. Many erosion-prone areas have been withdrawn from agriculture, either by using them for exotic forestry or by allowing them to revert to native forest.

By the 1980s it was realised that erosion in the steep alpine region of the South Island was caused by actively rising mountains. Conservation efforts have moved to dissected hill country, especially areas underlain by soft rocks, which wear away easily. Such country was badly affected by Cyclone Bola in 1988, and the Manawatū floods in 2004. Debate continues about whether this land should still be farmed, or should be planted in trees to stabilise the slopes.

    • H. Hill, ‘Denudation as a factor of geological time.’ Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute, 1895. Vol. 28, p. 673. › Back
    • Kenneth B. Cumberland, Soil erosion in New Zealand: a geographic reconnaissance. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1947, p. 129. › Back
    • Quoted in Michael Roche, History of New Zealand forestry. Wellington: New Zealand Forestry Corporation in association with GP Books, 1990, p. 53. › Back

Control of introduced animals

The effects of introduced mammals

Introduced mammals such as deer, goats, pigs, rats, mustelids and possums have had an immense effect on New Zealand’s native forests and wildlife. Continual browsing by larger animals opens up the forest canopy and clears the undergrowth. Eating out certain palatable plants has changed the makeup of forests. Mammalian predators that hunt by scent (such as rats and mustelids) have had a devastating effect on populations of birds and other small animals.

Because introduced mammals have spread throughout the two main islands of New Zealand, their removal is now extremely difficult. Instead, effort is concentrated on controlling their populations and clearing them from certain high-priority areas.


Deer were introduced from the 1850s. The government supported importing them in the early 1900s to encourage tourists who wanted to hunt. By the 1920s, deer had spread through the forests, where they ate out the undergrowth, causing extensive damage. After a ‘Deer Menace’ conference in 1930, organised culling began, and continued for the next 30 years.

Deer cullers came to represent a male culture of outdoor independence and resilience, later portrayed in the book A good keen man (1960) by Barry Crump. Between 1931 and 1956, over 600,000 deer were killed. However, the real question for conservation is how many remained alive. Deer numbers rose again when hunting slowed down. Since the 1970s, helicopters have been used to shoot deer or capture them for farming.


The Australian brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) was deliberately introduced for the fur trade from the mid-19th century. It was a protected species except to licensed hunters until 1938. Possums found New Zealand forest more palatable than the eucalypt-laden fare in their homeland, and thrived.

Fur then foe

In the 1920s, school children were given the day off to watch and celebrate the release of Australian possums into the forest at Mt Bruce. The animals were to form the basis of a possum-fur industry in the Wairarapa. Mt Bruce is now a bird sanctuary, and millions of dollars have been spent freeing the area of possums.

Because they eat the upper forest canopy, the damage they caused was not always obvious. Their impact was debated until about 1950, by which time they had spread through the country. They drive small animals out of their dens and nests, and eat eggs and chicks. They also carry bovine tuberculosis, and can infect cattle.

There are probably about 65 million possums in New Zealand in the early 2000s.

1080 poison

New Zealand is one of the few countries where 1080 (sodium monofluoracetate) is used to control introduced animals, especially deer and possums. The poison biodegrades quickly and has little impact on native birds.

Fashion statement

Although wearing fur and animal skins is out of favour in most countries, accessories made of possum fur are acceptable in New Zealand – and a good way to demonstrate your support for ridding the country of a damaging pest.

It has been used since the 1950s. In 2006, half of possum control programmes run by the Department of Conservation involved the aerial dropping of 1080, mainly in remote areas. In more accessible regions the focus was to control bovine tuberculosis, and ground trappers put poison in bait stations.

The use of 1080 has been controversial, but it is generally supported by conservationists because there is no effective alternative. In 2007, Department of Conservation director-general Al Morrison stated that ‘if we cannot carry out aerial 1080 operations, more than half the country … will be left to the ravages of possums, rats, stoats, and other pests.’ 1

    • Dominion Post, 19 May 2007. › Back

Saving native birds

Takahē rediscovered

In November 1948 the rediscovery of takahē, long thought to be extinct, caused great public interest. The New Zealand government quickly closed off a remote part of Fiordland National Park to prevent the bird from being disturbed.

There were differing ideas about how takahē should be protected. The official view of the Forest and Bird Society was that the birds should be left in peace to work out their destiny. But some were concerned that this would allow them to slip into extinction like the huia. A more interventionist strategy was to relocate the takahē to island sanctuaries and breed them in captivity. However, nothing happened for almost 10 years, partly because of lack of resources, and partly to avoid controversy.

Pūkaha Mt Bruce National Wildlife Centre

In 1957, visiting British ornithologist Peter Scott voiced his support for breeding endangered native birds in captivity while giving New Zealanders the opportunity to see them. An experiment to collect and incubate takahē eggs and rear the chicks led to the Pūkaha Mt Bruce National Wildlife Centre being set up in the Wairarapa. Initially, breeding takahē was only partly successful because knowledge of rare bird biology was limited. It took 20 years to develop successful breeding techniques, which were later applied to other bird species.

Lessons learnt

Ornithologist Don Merton commented: ‘The tragedy of Big South Cape was a timely and valuable lesson for us. It convinced even the most sceptical that predators could induce ecological collapse and extinctions. But it also has a massive, enduring impact because it shaped the way we developed policies about conservation and put them into practice.’ 1

Predators and extinction

Many biologists were reluctant to believe that introduced predators caused extinctions – following European experience, it was believed that predators were a normal part of the environment, and habitat destruction was the problem. This attitude changed in 1964, when rats gained a foothold on Big South Cape Island, near Stewart Island. The island had a large native bird population, including the only known South Island saddlebacks. Some saddlebacks were transferred to nearby rat-free islands, but the tiny Stead’s bush wren, the Stewart Island snipe, and the greater short-tailed bat became extinct. From then on it was accepted that human intervention was needed to save critically endangered species.

Recent strategies

In the 1970s the protection of threatened species was led by the Wildlife Service of the Department of Internal Affairs, and since 1987 by the Department of Conservation. Their approach has been to:

  • improve the birds’ natural habitat
  • remove predators in areas where threatened species live naturally
  • transfer threatened species to predator-free islands
  • breed threatened species in captivity.


Numbers of takahē, kākāpō, black stilt and the Chatham Islands black robin – once facing extinction – have increased, as have kākā and kōkako numbers.

Early birds

When National Radio announcer Robert Taylor began greeting listeners with a mimicked morepork call, the Wildlife Service provided him with a selection of bird-call tapes. When he moved to the early-morning programme in 1974, he took the bird calls with him. They became so popular that attempts to remove or modify them met with public outcry.

Small predatory mammals have been removed from some island sanctuaries. For example, rats and possums have gone from Kāpiti Island, and cats and rats from Little Barrier Island (Hauturu). A number of ‘mainland islands’ have been created by controlling predators and using fences. An example is Zealandia in Wellington.

Concentrated conservation efforts are costly. When a few threatened species are prioritised, there are fewer resources for other species.

    • Quoted in Gerard Hutching, Back from the brink: the fight to save our endangered birds. Auckland: Penguin, 2004, p. 13. › Back

Environmental activism, 1966–1987

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.

Rivers, landforms and geysers

Many conservation protests in the 1970s and 1980s were about so-called green or biological issues such as the protection of birds and native forests. These overshadowed aspects of the physical environment that were seen as permanent and unchanging, but were also vulnerable to human damage.

Wild and scenic rivers

When it became clear in the 1970s that there were plans to develop hydroelectric dams on almost every large river in New Zealand, several outdoors groups set up the Wild and Scenic Rivers Committee. They were concerned about the loss of wild water for scenic and recreational purposes, and the demise of unique habitat for wildlife such as whio (blue ducks).

Canoeing for conservation

In 1977–78, canoeists Graham and Jan Egarr paddled New Zealand’s rivers as part of a nationwide survey. Their work contributed to the eventual legal protection of wild and scenic rivers.

The committee argued that the law should not only allow water to be exploited, it should help safeguard it. In 1981 the government passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers amendment to the Water and Soil Conservation Act, to ensure the wild and scenic values of a river were conserved. By 2005, 13 waterways, including the Buller River, had been given this protection.


The protection of landforms and significant scenic features has been haphazard. Many are already protected, especially in mountainous areas where they form key features of several national parks. The conservation of lowland and coastal sites is much less comprehensive.

In 1983 the Geological Society of New Zealand set up the New Zealand Geopreservation Inventory to document important earth science sites. Some 2,650 places have been classified according to their significance internationally (208), nationally (932) and regionally (1,510). Places of international importance include caves where fossil bird bones have been found, the unique earthquake-formed terraces at Turakirae Head, and sites where particular minerals were first discovered in New Zealand.

The information is used by land management and conservation groups, and by regional and district councils for planning. By 2005, planning protection had been given to over 1,000 of the sites.

Save a cave

Because lava flows and scoria in the Auckland region are sought after for quarrying aggregate, it took over 25 years to get legal protection of a unique lava cave near Wiri. The gazetting of the Wiri Lava Cave Scientific Reserve was signed in 1998 in the cave itself by the minister of conservation, who used the back of campaigner Les Kermode as a writing desk.


Geysers are hot springs that intermittently emit jets of boiling water and steam into the air. Worldwide they are rare – only about 1,000 are known, about half of which are in Yellowstone National Park, USA. The geysers of New Zealand’s volcanic region have long been one of the country’s unique attractions.

Geysers are sensitive to changes in the underground water supply, and to human activity, especially drilling for geothermal steam. In the 19th century about 220 geysers were recorded in the volcanic region; by 2004 there were only 56, some very small.

In the 1970s there was public concern about the decline in geyser activity around Rotorua, and a ‘save the geysers’ campaign began. It was not known how best to regulate geothermal development, and what the government’s responsibilities were. In a landmark case in 1982, the Court of Appeal found that geothermal exploration involved natural water, and therefore it was necessary to obtain a water right.

In 1988 the bores within 1.5 kilometres of Whakarewarewa were shut down. By 2006, water levels had risen, but geyser activity had not recovered.

Changing organisations and ideas, 1985–2010s

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.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Simon Nathan, 'Conservation – a history', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 June 2024)

Story by Simon Nathan, published 24 September 2007, updated 1 August 2015