The era of growth in national parks was followed by a period of turmoil. Māori, whose opinions had been largely overlooked as parks were set up, became more vocal. People of the Tūhoe tribe (iwi), who had been pressured into cooperating with the establishment of Urewera National Park, were especially aggrieved. As plans for the park took shape, they were stopped from logging trees on their land within and near the proposed boundaries. Once the park was set up, they could no longer gather traditional food and resources there freely. Under the Ngāi Tūhoe Treaty of Waitangi settlement in 2014, Urewera National Park was disestablished and administration of the land – which was granted legal personhood – passed to the Te Urewera Board. Te Urewera remained open to the public and the Department of Conservation continued to manage tracks and facilities.
The ‘Urewera Mural’ was commissioned from Colin McCahon for Urewera National Park’s visitor centre in the mid-1970s. The powerful painting showed the region as Tūhoe land, steeped in Tūhoe history. In 1997 it was taken from the visitor centre in what was widely seen as a symbolic protest by tribal activists. Its return was negotiated 15 months later.
During the 1960s, the conservation lobby also began to gain strength. A key battle was the 1969 campaign to stop the level of Lake Manapōuri, in Fiordland National Park, from being raised as part of a hydroelectricity scheme. For the first time, there was public debate about what activities could or should be allowed in national parks. There were also protests against the ongoing logging of native forests.
The influence of ecology
As scientists gained a deeper understanding of ecology, their attitudes towards national parks changed. From the mid-1960s they put more stress on protecting diverse ecosystems, and less on preserving places of scenic beauty. Most national parks were in mountainous areas, but some scientists thought other areas with diverse plant species or important wildlife habitats were even more valuable ecologically.
The National Parks Act 1980 addressed some scientific and conservation concerns. It added ecological systems to the list of features meriting national park status, and allowed for ‘specially protected areas’ within parks to guard against harmful human activity. The act did not refer to the Treaty of Waitangi, but the 1987 act that set up the Department of Conservation did. After 1987, Treaty principles were applied to earlier laws covering parks and reserves, leading to more consultation with iwi.
In 1990 the National Parks Authority and park boards were abolished. A new act established the New Zealand Conservation Authority and local conservation boards.
The new bodies were made responsible for all conservation land, and strategies for managing national parks were similar to those for other reserves. The public’s right of access to national parks was to be balanced with the need to protect plants, animals and natural features. Restrictions were placed on facilities such as buildings, roads and signs, and on vehicle, boat and aircraft traffic.
Defining new parks
More national parks were set up from the 1980s:
- Whanganui (1986)
- Paparoa (1987)
- Kahurangi (1996)
- Rakiura (2002).
This choice of places reflected ecologists’ and conservationists’ concerns more sharply.
But there was further debate about the impact of national parks on local iwi. Some national park proposals faltered or failed because they conflicted with Māori land claims to the Waitangi Tribunal. Many iwi have sought the return of national park land in Waitangi Tribunal claims. Māori began to have more say in how parks were run, and management partnerships were set up between some iwi, such as Ngāi Tahu, and the Department of Conservation.
World heritage sites
Several New Zealand national parks have been named, or included in, world heritage sites under a 1972 UNESCO convention.
Westland Tai Poutini, Aoraki/Mount Cook and Fiordland national parks were listed as world heritage sites in 1986. In 1990, along with Mount Aspiring National Park, they were included in a single vast site called Te Wāhipounamu – South West New Zealand.
Tongariro National Park was listed as a world heritage site for scientific reasons in 1990, and for its cultural significance in 1993.
Changing times, changing names
One sign of the greater role of Māori in managing national parks was the change in some park names from the 1980s. Westland National Park became Westland Tai Poutini, incorporating the Māori name for the West Coast. Mount Cook became Aoraki/Mount Cook, incorporating the Ngāi Tahu iwi’s name for the mountain.
Tourism and funding
National parks are important for New Zealand’s tourism industry. In the late 1990s 55% of overseas tourists visited at least one national park, and their needs were a major focus for the Department of Conservation. In 2017, 1.7 million overseas tourists visited a national park. Tracks were maintained to a high standard – especially the eight that were designated ‘Great Walks’. In 2000 the New Zealand National Parks and Conservation Foundation was set up to seek corporate funding for conservation projects in national parks and reserves.