NZ Conservation

Where's Your Special Place?

Our fireplace is working daily now, and the big winter jersey is out of the closet for the first time this season: the front side of winter, time to settle in for the weeks ahead. Outside time has to be tempered with the right clothes. Have you noticed that the stars seem more sparkly on the cool nights?

This week's article is a continuation of the theme of conservation. I found the gentle wander through history fantastic as a backgrounder, especially since NZ is my adopted home. Do all of you already know Harry Ell?

I love Shelley's call to get involved by choosing a place that is special to you. You cannot do everything, protect everything, conserve everything. But you can choose one special place to look after. I'd love to hear what things you are already involved in doing. Tell us about the local efforts to take care of your beautiful space, to teach your kids, to work in your community.

Winter time is a time for telling stories. Do you have a story you'd like to tell? Send an article in an e-mail. We love highlighting your efforts here and on Instagram @naturalgoodbye.

In Joy, Becky

NZ Conservation: The balance of protection and promotion

by Shelley Guy

Shelley Guy

"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 Act 1987

When Pakeha first settled in New Zealand, conservation was the furthest thing from their minds. As with Maori, survival, and therefore food was paramount. It took only 100-200 years for Moa to be hunted to extinction and for fur seals to become scarce. A lot of bush was cleared, Maori burned much of the forest of the South Islands east coast (partly to hunt out the Moa, but also as the regenerating bracken fern was an important food source); Pakeha cleared much of the land to provide fields for crops and grazing land for stock. The mammals that humans introduced to this isolated and unique environment wreaked havoc on New Zealand's flora and fauna. Within a mere few hundred years, this pristine and delicately balanced landscape was changed forever.

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 the best way of using the land was to get it under grass as speedily as possible and to get the population on it.

Yet during the second half of the 1800's a few progressive people were beginning to recognise the need to preserve New Zealand's flora and fauna. In part, because it was becoming noticeable how quickly and destructively the land was being cleared (over 20% of the bush had been cleared between 1830 and 1868), but also because people were beginning to recognise the uniqueness of New Zealands native flora and fauna.

In 1887 Te Heuheu Tukino IV (Horonuku), paramount chief of the Ngati Tuwharetoa, gifted the Crown the mountains Tongariro, Ruapehu, and Ngauruhoe in order to protect these sacred peaks of the central North Island. Thus New Zealand's first national park was created – the fourth, and one of the earliest, to be established in the world.

In 1868 Canterbury MP Thomas Potts's speech to parliament attempted to promote conservation with regard to our forests. In the 1870s and 1880s, Julius Vogel (then Premier) tried to use legislation to curb deforestation and set up forest reserves. Unfortunately, economics saw these initiatives scrapped within a few years. Early legislation such as the Thermal Springs Districts Act 1881, the Land Amendment Act 1884, and the Land Act 1892 was more concerned with ways to attract tourists (and make money) rather than preserving New Zealand's fragile flora and fauna.

Were it not for Christchurch born Henry George Ell (known as Harry) becoming involved in politics in the 1880s conservation may have taken a back seat for even longer. He held many strong beliefs with regard to social issues and was known for his strong interest in New Zealand's natural heritage and endangered species. Among other things, he was critical of the race policies of the 1880s when he served with the Armed Constabulary in Taranaki. He supported prohibition and was against gambling. He lobbied for mental health reform, for the introduction of old age pensions, for school dental services, for physical education in schools, and for the provision of teaching materials about native flora and fauna.

Ell is perhaps best known to Cantabrians for his passion in creating the Summit Road in the Port Hills, which he pursued in full once his political life slowed. He helped create various scenic reserves in the Port Hills, including the first at Kennedys Bush in 1906; and several rest houses, including the Sign of the Takahe, now a restaurant. The extent to which the Port Hills is used recreationally today would not have been possible without Harry Ell.

Ell was concerned with both preserving our natural landscape and promoting healthy recreation, and was incredibly ecologically aware for his time. He pushed for sustainable timber milling, and for the preservation of forests near river headwaters, as a way of preventing flooding in farming areas. Most notably Ell was instrumental in introducing the Scenery Preservation Bill in 1903, New Zealand's first legislation specifically aimed at protecting areas of scenic and historic value.

The Scenery Preservation Act was passed in 1903 but conservation in practice was still a foreign concept at that time and progress was slow. By 1906 only 61 reserves had been established by the Scenery Preservation Commission. Many people, especially within the Department of Lands, were unhappy with land being set aside as reserve rather than being used for agricultural purposes. Maori also were unhappy with the way land was being confiscated for scenic reserves.

In 1906 the Scenery Preservation Board replaced the commission. The board was fairly ineffective, only seeking scenic reserves with easy access to the main travel routes. During the 1910s the State Forest Service pushed for forestry rather than the preservation of scenery. It wasn't really until the 1920s that conservation started to improve. Pest control began with deer, then possum. Honorary reserve rangers were enlisted. Still, attitudes were slow to change from those of the early frontier days, and it wasn't until the 1950s that our legislation began to reflect that. The Scenery Preservation Act was repealed with the introduction of the Reserves and Domains Act in 1953, the National Parks Act was introduced in1950, and the Historic Places Act in 1954.

Although Harry Ell managed to successfully push through the Scenery Preservation Bill in 1903, he was unable to convince Richard Seddon (then Premier) of the need to preserve the land for ecological and environmental reasons. The Scenery Preservation Act itself was more concerned with protecting and promoting tourism than protecting the environment for its intrinsic worth.

Now, just over a century later, some of us find ourselves fighting the same battle. There is a company that has put forward a business proposal to build an 11 km long tunnel through the Routeburn valley to the Hollyford valley, in order to decrease the time tourists will take to drive from Queenstown into Milford Sound (to which there is already a road). Shockingly, the Department of Conservation has notified the public of its intention to grant a concession for this project, which would see a tunnel going through two of our most stunning National Parks. It seems that even now, tourism takes precedence over the preservation of our incredibly unique and somewhat endangered wilderness.

As with most things, there are always two sides to a story. Conservation in this country has been slow to gain traction. We have much to preserve yet there are many agendas that challenge our country's ecological survival. The legislation that originated in 1903 with the Scenery Preservation Act aims to protect and manage our natural environment for our future generations. Without people like Harry Ell, who recognised early on the value of conservation and who are not afraid to go against public opinion, our natural heritage would be even worse off.

Many of us are aware of New Zealand's outstanding beauty and open spaces: of how unique and fragile this environment is. We know we're lucky to live in such a country. And yes, tourism is a huge part of our economy, one we would struggle without. But which came first the wilderness or the tourists? And which will survive? The conservationists of this country, from Harry Ell to Lucy Lawless have taught me that it is worth getting involved because once those special places you care about are gone, they will be gone forever.

History of Scenery Preservation

More on Harry Ell


"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
~Margaret Mead

About the author

Shelley Guy

Born and bred in Northland, Shelley grew up surrounded by beaches, with the bush never far away. It was a great place to be a kid (she loved walking to school in gumboots!) but as soon as she left school the itchy feet came along. After playing around at university long enough to learn it just wasn't her thing, Shelley found herself sucked into the wonderful world of rivers and rafting. Rafting led to travel overseas as she followed the seasons, eluding the winters and sticking close to the summers. She worked mostly in Nepal, the States, and Norway; sometimes rafting, sometimes whatever work she could find to get to the next spot. Eventually, she'd had enough of constantly moving and arrived back in New Zealand feeling a bit like a stranger in a strange land. Shelley has been back almost 15 years now; after a few years living near Rotorua she currently lives in the mountains of the South Island, where the seasons are distinct, only real men eat quiche, and she can wear gumboots just about everywhere! Shelley still works on rivers and does whatever else she can to keep herself outside. As a lover of the outdoors, she can't think of a better place to be.