Story: National parks

Page 1. National parks – the beginnings

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New Zealand’s national parks

In 2021 New Zealand had 13 national parks. These parks have scenery, ecological systems or natural features which are so beautiful, distinctive or scientifically interesting that it is in the national interest to preserve them permanently. New Zealanders value their national parks highly, and access to them for recreation, relaxation, or reflection is widely seen as a birthright.

The parks are, from north to south:

  • Tongariro, on the Volcanic Plateau
  • Egmont, in Taranaki
  • Whanganui, north of Whanganui
  • Abel Tasman, north-west of Nelson
  • Kahurangi, north-west of Nelson
  • Nelson Lakes, south of Nelson
  • Paparoa, on the West Coast
  • Arthur’s Pass, in North Canterbury
  • Westland Tai Poutini, on the West Coast
  • Aoraki/Mount Cook, in South Canterbury
  • Mount Aspiring, in Otago
  • Fiordland
  • Rakiura, on Stewart Island.

The origin of national parks

The Romantic movement, which celebrated the beauty and healing power of nature, inspired the idea of national parks in the 19th century. The world’s first national park, Yellowstone, was created in the United States in 1872. People in other New World countries saw that the awe-inspiring natural features of national parks could offer a substitute for the cathedrals and palaces of Europe.

Different attitudes to land

In New Zealand, there were added reasons for creating national parks. Some settlers were concerned that clearing the forest for farms was destroying scenic landscapes. A few scientists were worried about the loss of native plants and wildlife, especially birds. Also, the government was becoming aware of the tourism potential of New Zealand’s natural wonders.

Māori placed a different value on land. It was an essential aspect of tribal identity, and natural features such as mountains and rivers were regarded as important ancestors. But by the late 19th century many tribes were struggling to retain ownership of their land. Much of it had been confiscated by the government after the wars of the 1860s, and settlers were constantly pressuring Māori to sell what remained.

Growing support for national parks among some Pākehā, and the desire of Māori to protect their land, provided the context for the creation of New Zealand’s first national park.

Mana of the mountains

In the 1880s, there was a risk that ownership of the central North Island volcanoes would be disputed in the Māori Land Court. Tūwharetoa chief Horonuku Te Heuheu said, ‘If our mountains of Tongariro are included in the blocks passed through the Court in the ordinary way, what will become of them? They will be cut up and perhaps sold, a piece going to one pakeha and a piece to another. They will become of no account, for the tapu will be gone. Tongariro is my ancestor, my tupuna; it is my head; my mana centres around Tongariro.’ 1

The first national park – Tongariro

In 1887, following suggestions from some prominent Pākehā, the paramount chief of the Ngāti Tūwharetoa tribe, Horonuku Te Heuheu, made an agreement wirh the Crown that the central North Island volcanoes would become a national park. Different tribes were disputing ownership of the peaks of Ruapehu, Ngāuruhoe and Tongariro, and there was a danger that they would be divided and sold.

Horonuku’s action ensured that Tūwharetoa’s ancestral mountains would remain untouched, even if they were no longer directly controlled by the tribe. The government bought more Māori land to supplement the mountaintops, and Tongariro National Park was established by an 1894 act.

Setting land aside for parks

The national park movement gained momentum, and Egmont National Park was set up by statute in 1900. More lands were reserved under the Lands Act 1885 and the Scenery Preservation Act 1903, including areas in or around:

  • the Whanganui River
  • the Nelson district
  • Punakaiki on the West Coast of the South Island
  • Arthur’s Pass in Canterbury and the Ōtira Gorge on the West Coast
  • Aoraki/Mt Cook and the Hooker glacier in South Canterbury
  • the Routeburn Valley
  • Fiordland.

These reserves became the foundation for national parks, often established many years later.

  1. Quoted in Cathy Marr and others, Crown laws, policies and practices in relation to flora and fauna, 1840–1912. Wellington: Waitangi Tribunal, 2001, p. 267. › Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'National parks - National parks – the beginnings', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 July 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 24 Sep 2007, updated 1 Aug 2015