Kōrero: Conservation – a history

Whārangi 9. Rivers, landforms and geysers

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

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.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Simon Nathan, 'Conservation – a history - Rivers, landforms and geysers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/conservation-a-history/page-9 (accessed 16 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Simon Nathan, i tāngia i te 24 Sep 2007, updated 1 Aug 2015