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Protected areas

by  Les Molloy

New Zealand has three world heritage sites, 13 national parks and an array of other reserves. More than 10,000 protected areas cover almost a third of the country, safeguarding stunning scenery, important ecosystems, and places of historic and scientific value.

New Zealand’s protected areas

What are protected areas?

Protected areas are places where natural or cultural resources and biodiversity are protected, maintained and managed, usually by law. New Zealand’s best known protected areas are its 13 national parks and a large number of reserves.

The country has more than 10,000 protected areas, covering more than 8.6 million hectares (around 32% of the total land area).

Plants, animals, landscapes

In 1974, scientist G. C. Kelly summed up the importance of national parks and reserves. He believed they were to ensure the survival of native plants and animals, and to preserve representative types of the natural landscape which originally gave New Zealand its distinctive character.

Developing a protected areas network

New Zealand’s first national park, Tongariro, was formally established in 1894, after the central North Island peaks were gifted to the nation by chief Horonuku Te Heuheu in 1887. After that, a comprehensive network of national parks and reserves developed, mostly managed by the Department of Lands. A parallel system of forest reserves and parks was also introduced by the Forest Service.

In 1987 the government’s land management agencies were restructured, and the Department of Conservation was set up. It now manages most public protected areas.

Types of protected area

There are around 60 different types of protected area. The most important are:

  • national parks
  • conservation parks
  • nature reserves
  • scientific reserves
  • scenic reserves
  • historic reserves
  • other conservation land
  • recreation (and other) reserves.

These categories vary in their conservation value and the opportunities they provide for outdoor recreation. ‘Other conservation land’ includes over 7,000 protected areas, and ‘recreation (and other) reserves’ combines many of the smaller reserve classes.

New Zealand’s protected areas are managed under six main laws:

  • Conservation Act 1987
  • National Parks Act 1980
  • Reserves Act 1977
  • Wildlife Act 1953
  • Marine Reserves Act 1971
  • Marine Mammals Protection Act 1979.

National parks

What are national parks?

National parks are large areas that protect iconic landscapes. Many hundreds have been created worldwide since the first national park, Yellowstone in Wyoming, USA, was set up in 1872.

New Zealand national parks management was first consolidated under the National Parks Act 1952. Its successor, the National Parks Act 1980, states that national parks contain ‘scenery of such distinctive quality, ecological systems, or natural features so beautiful, unique, or scientifically important that their preservation is in the national interest’.

The Dutch connection

In 1642 the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman and his men became the first Europeans to discover New Zealand, but four of the crew were killed in a bloody encounter with the Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri people in Golden Bay. When Abel Tasman National Park opened 300 years later, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands agreed to become its patron – a tradition continued by later monarchs. In 1992 Queen Beatrix visited the park and was welcomed by Māori in an emotional ceremony.

New Zealand’s national parks

In May 2019 New Zealand had 13 national parks, covering 2,947,318 hectares – about 11% of the country’s total land area. Three were in the North Island, nine in the South Island, and one, Rakiura, covered most of Stewart Island. Many of the parks were the result of decades of campaigning by conservationists and recreational groups.

The first park was Tongariro (1894); the most recent is Rakiura (2002). The largest is Fiordland, which at 1,260,288 hectares is one of the world’s great wilderness landscapes; the smallest is Abel Tasman (23,703 hectares), between Tasman Bay and Golden Bay. Most are in mountainous and forested areas.

Scenery and recreation

National parks protect many of New Zealand’s most famous natural landscapes and tourist attractions, including:

  • Milford Sound and the other spectacular sounds of Fiordland
  • Aoraki/Mt Cook and Mt Tasman
  • the Tasman, Franz Josef and Fox glaciers
  • the volcanoes of the central North Island
  • the coves and headlands of the Abel Tasman National Park coastline
  • the near-perfect volcanic cone of Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont)
  • the forests along the Whanganui River.

They also provide outstanding opportunities for tramping, mountaineering, hunting and other outdoor recreation. They contain most of the tracks designated Great Walks – the Milford, Kepler, Routeburn, Rakiura, Heaphy, Abel Tasman and Tongariro Northern Circuit walks – as well as the canoe trip down the Whanganui River, a Great Journey.

Conservation parks, nature and scientific reserves

Conservation parks

Like national parks, New Zealand’s conservation parks are generally large areas (50,000–150,000 hectares).

Most are forest parks. They include the Ruahine and Remutaka forest parks in the North Island’s central ranges, and the Richmond, Victoria and Lake Sumner forest parks in the low-altitude ranges of the northern South Island. These parks were set aside to protect water and soil conservation values and provide opportunities for outdoor recreation.

High-country conservation parks

In the early 2000s, conservation parks were created in the high-country tussocklands of the eastern South Island. They included the 20,328-hectare Korowai/Torlesse Tussocklands Park, near the Waimakariri River in Canterbury, and Te Papanui Conservation Park, 21,000 hectares of rolling tussock plateaus, patterned wetlands and string bogs in Otago’s Lammerlaw and Lammermoor ranges.

Parts of large high-country sheep runs leased to farmers by the Crown were seen to have high conservation value. Some were voluntarily retired from grazing through a process called tenure review, and added to the conservation estate. The government also bought some properties. There are plans to develop a network of parks in the high country east of the Southern Alps, from Marlborough to Southland.

Most conservation parks have a lower profile than national parks, and are less popular with tourists. Their tracks are often more rugged, and their huts more basic.

Nature reserves

Nature reserves are generally smaller than conservation parks (mostly 100–1,000 hectares). They protect habitats of threatened plants and animals. Many nature reserves have access restrictions and permit systems.

Goodbye to pests

Kāpiti Island became one of New Zealand’s first bird sanctuaries in 1897, and was later made a nature reserve. By the 1970s, however, it was overrun by possums and rats. A trapping and poisoning programme began in 1982, and by 1996 the rats were gone – a world first for such a large island. Possums were also eventually eradicated. Since then, the numbers of birds have increased markedly.

Island reserves

New Zealand’s nearshore and outlying islands are important for saving threatened species, because they are either free of introduced predators like rats, stoats and possums, or pest eradication programmes are under way.

The largely pristine and remote subantarctic islands (the Snares, Auckland, Antipodes, Bounty and Campbell groups) and the Kermadec Islands are nature reserves. So are many well-known nearshore island sanctuaries, including Hauturu/Little Barrier Island, the Poor Knights Islands, Kāpiti Island, and Whenua Hou/Codfish Island (the most important sanctuary for the endangered flightless parrot, the kākāpō).

Mainland reserves

Some mainland nature reserves are quite large, such as Farewell Spit Nature Reserve (11,423 hectares), which protects the habitat of migratory and New Zealand wading birds. However, many are much smaller, often preserving isolated habitats. The 6-hectare Lance McCaskill Nature Reserve, in Canterbury’s Broken River basin, protects the habitat of the rare Castle Hill buttercup (Ranunculus crithmifolius paucifolius). In Central Otago, the 83-hectare Cromwell Chafer Beetle Nature Reserve is a sanctuary for the insect of the same name (Prodontria lewisii).

Scientific reserves

Scientific reserves are smaller still (10–100 hectares). They protect ecological groupings, plant or animal communities, soils and landforms for scientific study and education. They are similar to nature reserves, but are often used for intensive research or education programmes. Many have access restrictions and permit systems.

Turakirae Head and Waiohine Faulted Terraces scientific reserves both protect landforms that developed after earthquakes along the West Wairarapa Fault. Bankside and Eyrewell scientific reserves on the Canterbury Plains preserve small areas of original vegetation that survived when the surrounding land was turned into farms. The Wilderness Scientific Reserve protects the best surviving remnant of bog pine (Halocarpus bidwillii) in the Te Anau Basin.

Scenic, historic, recreation and other reserves

Scenic reserves

Scenic reserves are New Zealand’s most common, and probably most widespread, protected areas. They were first created when communities wanted to retain some original vegetation in an otherwise modified landscape. Most scenic reserves are attractive patches of bush, often close to roads. They vary in size – many are less than 100 hectares, but some are more than 1,000 hectares. Outstanding forested scenic reserves include Gray’s Bush near Gisborne, Boundary Stream and Ball’s Clearing in Hawke’s Bay, and Carter Scenic Reserve in Wairarapa. These are all islands of unspoilt nature in a sea of farmland.

Exotic imports

Volunteers play an important role in Kawau Island Historic Reserve, tending the palatial house and Italianate garden of 19th-century governor George Grey. Grey was a keen collector of plants and animals, and his gardens included olives, cork trees, spider lilies, loquats, custard apples, almonds, pineapples and cinnamon. He also introduced exotic animals, and the island is still home to peacocks, wallabies and kookaburras – but the zebras and monkeys are gone.

Historic reserves

Historic reserves protect places, objects, and natural features of historic, archaeological, cultural or educational interest. They are often quite small (1–10 hectares). Two well-known Northland examples are Te Ruapekapeka , the site of a significant battle in 1846, and Pompallier House, an early Catholic mission at Russell. The Second World War fortifications at Stony Batter on Waiheke Island and the old wooden Government Buildings in Wellington are also much visited.

Sometimes neighbouring historic reserves are related – for instance, those associated with the Otago gold rushes, including the St Bathans Post Office and the former diggings at Gabriels Gully.

Recreation, government and local purpose reserves

Recreation reserves

Recreation reserves are found throughout New Zealand. There are 2,842, covering a total of 255,750 hectares. Many provide public access to coastlines, lakes and rivers. Most are small (1–100 hectares), but a few are very large. They include Te Paki in Northland, which comprises nearly 19,000 hectares of New Zealand’s finest coastal landscape, and Pūponga Farm Park at the mainland end of Farewell Spit. Pelorus Bridge and the many recreation reserves of the Marlborough Sounds are well known, as are Five Mile, Whakaipo, and other reserves around the shores of Lake Taupō.

Government purpose reserves

Government purpose reserves are a mixed bag – some are important wetlands, while others are small areas of land around lighthouses.

Local purpose reserves

Local purpose reserves are usually small. Most are domains, road reserves, and land around public halls and cemeteries in rural areas. Local authorities are usually responsible for their day-to-day management.

Stewardship areas

Stewardship areas are the second largest type of conservation land after national parks, and together cover more than 2.6 million hectares. They are generally large natural areas (100–10,000 hectares) in the back country. Stewardship areas are not formally identified as important for biodiversity conservation or recreation.

However, some have very high conservation value. For example, North Island brown kiwi are found in Tongariro Forest Conservation Area, and Māpara Forest Conservation Area in King Country has a large population of North Island kōkako.

Specially protected areas

Nearly one million hectares of land – much of it within existing reserves – are classified as ‘specially protected areas’. This extra level of protection may be given because of the area’s significance for biodiversity, wilderness recreation, cultural reasons, or its vulnerability to human impact.

There are seven types of specially protected areas:

  • national park specially protected areas
  • sanctuary areas
  • ecological areas
  • wilderness areas
  • wildlife refuges and sanctuaries
  • tōpuni
  • nohoanga.

Areas of high conservation value, such as national park specially protected areas, sanctuary areas and wildlife refuges, often have access restrictions and permit requirements. Similar conditions apply to nature and scientific reserves because they are the most important (and vulnerable) reserves.

National park specially protected areas

There are only a few specially protected areas within national parks. They include Slip Stream in Mount Aspiring National Park, a site of great cultural significance to the Ngāi Tahu tribe. The 51,800-hectare Special Takahē Area, covering the Murchison Mountains in Fiordland National Park, protects the endangered takahē.

Sanctuary areas

Sanctuary areas are also limited in number and distribution. Most were set aside by the former New Zealand Forest Service as a result of conservation activism in the 1970s and 1980s. They preserve important forest types, such as the magnificent kauri forest remnants in Northland. The 9,105-hectare Waipoua Forest Sanctuary, containing Tāne Mahuta and other giant kauri, was the first to be created, in 1952. One of the more recent is Whirinaki Sanctuary, created in the 1980s to protect the podocarp forests of Whirinaki Forest Park.

Ecological areas

Ecological areas are usually large (1,000–5,000 hectares) and are representative of all the main ecosystems in a defined ecological district. Like sanctuary areas, most were designated by the Forest Service as a result of forest conservation controversies in the 1970s and 1980s. Most are on the West Coast of the South Island, and in Southland and Bay of Plenty. The public can access them, but dogs are prohibited.

Wildlife refuges and sanctuaries

Wildlife refuges and sanctuaries protect particular species in an area. For example, the Moutohorā Island Wildlife Refuge in Bay of Plenty is notable for its breeding colony of grey-faced petrels. It is also home to many other bird species, including North Island saddlebacks (tīeke).

Wilderness areas

Wilderness areas are large areas (usually more than 40,000 hectares) of natural wild land. They are open to the public but do not have visitor facilities such as huts, tracks and bridges. To protect their natural quiet and solitude, vehicles and aircraft are prohibited.

Wilderness areas lie in the more remote, mountainous parts of the country, and offer opportunities for self-reliant recreation. Typical examples are Raukūmara Wilderness Area, around the Mōtū River and the Raukūmara Range inland from East Cape, and Tasman Wilderness Area in the Tasman Mountains of Kahurangi National Park.


Tōpuni are South Island areas specially protected by Ngāi Tahu because of their significance to the tribe. The word tōpuni means ‘to cover’ – referring to the custom where a person of high rank claimed authority over areas or people by laying a cloak over them. The best known tōpuni covers Aoraki/Mt Cook, in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.


Nohoanga are Māori seasonal occupation sites, usually on lake shores or river banks, where fish and other resources were traditionally harvested. They are usually no bigger than 1 hectare, and are located so as not to interfere with public access or use. As Treaty of Waitangi claims are settled, more nohoanga are likely to be created.

Making private land public

The Queen Elizabeth II National Trust was set up in 1977 to encourage landowners to protect features of great beauty or interest through legal covenants. Most covenanted areas are not open to the public, but a few owners have made them available for everyone to visit and enjoy. Examples are Aroha Island in the Bay of Islands, the Pouawa dune lands at Gisborne, the top of Tākaka Hill near Nelson, and Clay Cliffs in the Mackenzie basin.

Private protected areas

Over 100,000 hectares of private land has been protected through systems including management agreements and conservation covenants (usually for areas no larger than 100 hectares). A further 73,000 hectares of private land is voluntarily protected by owners through covenants or agreements with the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust.

A special fund, Ngā Whenua Rāhui, was set up in 1991 to encourage voluntary preservation of ecosystems on Māori land. The Māori owners retain tino rangatiratanga (ownership and control). The Minister of Conservation has approved over 95 proposals, covering 112,000 hectares.

Protected marine areas and inland waters

New Zealand’s rich seas

New Zealand is surrounded by biologically rich seas. The country’s EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) is 4 million square kilometres – more than 15 times larger than its land area. A high proportion of New Zealand’s marine species – 15,000 identified as of 2007 – are not found anywhere else.

Marine reserves

Marine reserves are areas of the sea and foreshore where all marine life is protected. People are allowed to use them for recreation, but fishing or removing marine life is prohibited.

By 2014, 44 marine reserves had been created around the New Zealand coastline, covering 1,726,007 hectares.

Marine reserves range widely in size, from the 16-hectare Tauparikākā Marine Reserve on the West Coast to the enormous 745,000-hectare Kermadec Marine Reserve around the Kermadec Islands. The large Auckland Islands Marine Reserve (484,000 hectares) extends 12 nautical miles out from the islands. It protects deep-sea ecosystems at depths of up to 3,000 metres, as well as the main breeding habitats of the New Zealand sea lion and the southern right whale.

Marine mammal sanctuaries

Marine mammal sanctuaries can be established within New Zealand territorial waters (up to 12 nautical miles offshore). They protect marine mammals like dolphins, whales, seals and sea lions from activities that may harm them, such as particular fishing methods. In 2014 there were six marine mammal sanctuaries in New Zealand waters. A sanctuary around Banks Peninsula, protecting the endangered Hector’s dolphin from being caught in set nets, was established in 1988, and in 2008 was extended to cover 413,000 hectares.

Mātaitai and taiapure

Mātaitai and taiapure are areas within traditional Māori fishing grounds, of special significance to local iwi (tribes) and hapū (sub-tribes). They are managed through customary fishing regulations.

Protected rivers and lakes

The spoiling of New Zealand’s wild and scenic rivers, through damming to produce hydroelectricity or removing water for irrigation, became a major conservation issue in the 1970s. The Manapōuri power scheme affected much of the lower Waiau River, in Otago. The Tongariro, Waitaki and Clutha power schemes significantly altered three of the country’s largest wild rivers. Although most major rivers belonged to the Crown, there was no legal way to protect them. Exceptions were the headwaters of rivers in national and conservation parks, or in other large protected areas.

Legislation was passed in 1981 to allow for water conservation orders, which protect rivers and lakes from development. In 1984 the middle reaches of the Mōtū River, on the edge of the Raukūmara Wilderness Area in Raukūmara Forest Park, became the first river protected in this way. The Mōtū was highly prized by rafters as the longest challenging wilderness river in the North Island – but there had been plans to use it for hydroelectricity.

The Rakaia River received a conservation order in 1988. Since then, another 10 major rivers – the Manganuioteao, Ahuriri, Grey, Rangitīkei, Kawarau, Mataura, Buller, Motueka, Mōhaka and Rangitātā – have been protected. Protection orders have also been placed on two lakes that are important wildlife habitats: Lake Ellesmere (Te Waihora) and Lake Wairarapa.

Internationally recognised areas

World heritage sites

World heritage sites are designated by UNESCO under the World Heritage Convention, which provides for the protection of places that are of outstanding universal value. New Zealand has three:

  • Te Wāhipounamu – South West New Zealand
  • Tongariro National Park
  • the Subantarctic Islands.

Te Wāhipounamu – South West New Zealand

This vast wilderness covers 2.6 million hectares of the south-west of the South Island (about 10% of New Zealand). Te Wāhipounamu was listed in 1990, and is considered one of the world’s foremost natural world heritage sites. It contains plants and animals that existed when New Zealand was part of the ancient Gondwana supercontinent, and has outstanding mountains, fiords and glaciers.

Tongariro National Park

Tongariro National Park is one of a very few places in the world to be listed as a world heritage site for both natural and cultural significance. It was listed in 1990 for its outstanding volcanic features, and again in 1993 as a cultural landscape of great importance to the Ngāti Tūwharetoa tribe.

Keeping a wetland wet

The Whangamarino wetland, in the Waikato, is the second largest bog and swamp complex in the North Island. During the 20th century its water levels were threatened by flood protection and hydroelectricity schemes on the Waikato River. In response, a rock rubble weir was built on the Whangamarino River in 1994. It helps re-create a seasonal cycle of water levels to maintain the wetland’s health.

Subantarctic Islands

New Zealand’s subantarctic islands consist of the Snares, Auckland, Antipodes, Bounty and Campbell Island groups, and have a total area of 76,480 hectares. These remote and largely untouched islands, with their significant seabird and marine mammal populations, were listed as a world heritage site in 1998 because of their international importance for biodiversity. The islands’ plants and animals evolved in the complete absence of land mammals and browsing land birds.

Wetlands of international importance

The Ramsar Convention recognises wetlands of international importance, and promotes their wise use. New Zealand has six wetlands of international importance, covering about 40,000 hectares:

  • Farewell Spit (upper South Island)
  • Firth of Thames (at the base of the Coromandel Peninsula)
  • Kopuatai Peat Dome (Waikato)
  • Waituna Lagoon (Southland)
  • Whangamarino Swamp (Waikato)
  • Manawatū River estuary.

Extending the protected areas network

Identifying gaps

During the conservation controversies of the 1970s, many experts felt that New Zealand’s protected area system was skewed towards mountains and mountain forests, excluding other types of ecosystem. Few marine, coastal, wetland, lowland forest and tussock grassland areas had been protected.

Small sacrifice

Some scientists have suggested that most earlier reserves were mainly chosen because they were on land that was unsuitable for farming or forestry. A 1980 study concluded: ‘Nationally, a very high proportion of our total park and reserve area is mountainland unsuited to any reasonable “developed” use at all … less than 0.5% of New Zealand’s area has been designated National Park or reserve in preference to a use foregone; there has been very little real sacrifice.’ 1

Ecological districts

The Reserves Act 1977 and a new National Parks Act in 1980 gave impetus to protecting representative ecosystems. A panel of experts divided New Zealand into 268 ecological districts, each with a distinct character. Then a Protected Natural Areas Programme began. It aimed to map each ecological district, make an inventory of its landforms, plants and animals, and recommend new areas for protection.

These developments were a co-ordinated attempt to expand the protected area system and make it truly representative of New Zealand’s biodiversity and geodiversity.

The Nature Heritage Fund

The Nature Heritage Fund was set up by the government in 1990 to try and fill the gaps in New Zealand’s protected area system. It ranks potential new protected areas, focusing on ecosystems that are under-represented. These include lowland podocarp forests, coastal forests, estuarine wetlands and dune lands, freshwater wetlands and riparian (riverbank) forests, and red tussock grasslands.

The fund has preserved ecosystems on private land by purchasing them directly or negotiating covenants on them. In 2007, around 700 projects had protected more than 237,000 hectares of land and freshwater ecosystems, at a cost of around $80 million. Significant purchases include back-country areas like 23,783-hectare Birchwood Station on the upper Ahuriri River, and Canaan Downs, near Abel Tasman National Park. Key coastal landscapes such as Waikawau Bay on the Coromandel Peninsula, and parts of the Karikari Peninsula in Northland, have also been protected.

Tenure review of pastoral lands

Since 1992 the government has been reviewing tenure of pastoral leases in the eastern South Island ranges. These 353 leases covered 2.4 million hectares – 9% of New Zealand. By mid-2017, 126 leases had been reviewed and 330,000 hectares had been protected, in an area that previously had few reserves.

Marine protected areas

The establishment of marine protected areas has been a long and difficult process. New Zealand, like most countries, was slow to extend legal protection to marine ecosystems. One reason was the lack of comprehensive ecological information on which to base decisions. The government’s approach to marine protection has been fragmented, and there has been widespread opposition from commercial and recreational fishers.

Marine reserve law currently has a rather narrow focus on ‘preservation for scientific study’. There is also a ‘no take’ emphasis: marine farming, mineral extraction from the seabed, and fishing are prohibited. Marine reserves can only extend 12 nautical miles from shore, so they cannot protect the outer seas of New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

In December 2005 the New Zealand government released a plan to develop a network of marine protected areas, with an emphasis on conserving biodiversity.

    • L. F. Molloy, Land alone endures: land use and the role of research. Wellington: Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, 1980, p. 67. › Back

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How to cite this page: Les Molloy, 'Protected areas', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Les Molloy, i tāngia i te 24 o Hepetema 2007, updated 1 o Hepetema 2015