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Reflecting on tramping and the transformation of New Zealand

For a while now, the third floor at Te Papa [1] has hosted an exhibition titled “Blood Earth Fire — The Transformation of Aotearoa New Zealand [2]“. The exhibition looks at the effects that human settlement has had on New Zealand over time, and I think it’s one of the most insightful exhibitions I’ve seen. The whole thing is fascinating, but the small part I find most telling every time I visit is a display which shows three maps of New Zealand, side by side.

The first map shows native forest cover throughout New Zealand before humans arrived, which is effectively everywhere except for certain alpine locations where trees won’t grow. The second map displays native forest after Maori settlement, but before Europeans arrived, at which point several large areas of native forest had been cleared. The third map shows the cover of native forest as it is today, by which time the vast majority of the country had been cleared, leaving behind a few delicate islands of native forest. Most of what’s left surrounds mountain ranges, and wasn’t cleared due to the difficulty of farming there anyway. The display very effectively expresses just how much of New Zealand’s original environment has been destroyed to make way for human settlement. It wasn’t only when Europeans arrived in the 19th century, although the European settlement had a major impact.

The rest of this post documents a collection of thoughts that I’ve had over the last few years about the state of conservation in New Zealand. It’s a fairly wide topic and I’m not really sure where it’s going, but I’ll see how things go in writing it down.

If you find the following few paragraphs interesting, you might really enjoy Chris MacLean’s book titled Kapiti, which is probably the most definitive history of Kapiti Island currently in existence. It’s the source of much of the detail of what I’ve written below if it’s not sourced from elsewhere. (There are at least a couple of new copies still available in Wellington bookstores as I write this, retailing for about $50.) Much of this is my opinion obviously, so if you read it you should keep in mind that you’re reading the opinion of some random guy on the Internet rather than an acknowledged expert. My opinion is subject to change, and often does.

A very brief and opinionated history of destruction: Most New Zealanders today — whether in New Zealand or overseas — tend to identify with New Zealand as their home, but it hasn’t been that way until relatively recently. When mostly-European settlers migrated to New Zealand from the 19th century, leaving behind the only home they’d ever known, they brought with them the natural intention of making their new home like their old home, and building the land into something that matched their idea of success. As the New Zealand Company [3] transported more and more immigrants from the far side of the world, with its goal of creating a new “model English society in the Southern Hemisphere”, it became an economic certainty that what was here would soon be gone. It was perfectly natural to wipe out massive regions of native bush so the new arrivals would have access to the land they needed. After all, native bush was everywhere and wasn’t in danger. It served no purpose other than getting in the way of what could be rolling hills that would be useful as productive farmland to help the newcomers survive and prosper, and as a reminder of “home”. In short, New Zealand’s early economy was built on destroying its existing natural resources.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was also a trendy topic around the turn of the century. Within New Zealand it may have been more often used to justify what was about to happen than to explain what had already occurred. The fact that native New Zealand species were quickly becoming rare or extinct was well known, but this often wasn’t treated as a serious problem by anyone with influence, because the strange and exotic New Zealand species’ of plants and animals didn’t play a part in the future visions of most newly-arrived immigrants. Old New Zealand was dead in the water, and would soon be built into something much better, and more resembling of the British Empire. Pre-existing species would either evolve to live in the new setting, or they would die and be replaced by the “superior” British species of birds and roaming ground mammals.

In the framework of today’s standards it makes me cringe to think about all of this, but it’s also important to realise that it was a different time. People found themselves in situations where survival was critical. It wasn’t New Zealanders, it was (mostly) British people who had migrated to New Zealand and were still tied strongly to their roots. Priorities weren’t always with figuring out how to be sustainable in a new land they knew and cared little about the history of.

Several of the country’s largest species had already become extinct soon after early Maori settlement, probably for similar reasons of the new arrivals not having immediately reached an equilibrium with the surrounding land. All ten species of Moa [4] were hunted to extinction well before European settlers even arrived, which very likely contributed to the extinction of Haast’s Eagle [5] around the 1400s, which wasa a massive beast that would be the world’s largest Eagle if it had survived until today. The most substantial damage definitely came after European settlement, however, when wave after wave of immigrants arrived looking for a place to make a new start.

Emerging thoughts of conservation: Conservation in New Zealand began as an afterthought, and it often meant something very different from what it means today. Early New Zealand ornithologists such as Andreas Reischek [6] and Walter Buller [7] were very interested in preserving New Zealand species of plants and animals, but for a long time they saw more value in killing the last remaining survivors of rare species while they could still be found, so they could be catalogued as specimens. The birds would soon be extinct, after all, so it was important to preserve their corpses as records of scientific interest in what used to be before the chance was lost. The final refuge of the Huia [8] (now extinct), which used to flourish throughout the lower North Island, was in the Tararua Range. When Buller was given a breeding pair in the 1890s, he had a reasonable chance of saving the species, which by then was known to be critically close to extinction. Instead he took them to England as specimens to add to a collection.

The first official conservation efforts in the changed New Zealand were disorganised and unmotivated in a country whose government and people had other things to worry about at the time. They were mostly restricted to setting aside several “reserves” where there may have been restrictions on certain activities such as felling native trees, but without designing any structured way of ensuring those reserves were effective, such as by keeping them free of pests. Thomas Potts [9] was one of very few people during the mid to late 1800s to make a serious attempt at challenging the wide acceptance of diminishing native forests and birds. Despite his efforts, not much was done quickly. In response to his requests, there are records of New Zealand parliamentarians commenting that native birds might be a nice thing to save, but were certainly not as important as promoting the economic value of farming, which should be given priority.

Introduction of pests: Badly thought-out attempts to promote New Zealand’s economy and recreation value have also had long-lasting severe effects on New Zealand’s ecology. Children in the 1920s were given the day off school to watch the release of the Australian Brushtail Possum in the Wairarapa, which was introduced to promote the fur industry [10]. Today, possums (which eat the eggs and chicks of native birds) are one of the most widespread and destructive pests in New Zealand’s bush. Possums look cute but from a conservation perspective, throwing a rock at one is a good thing, as is aiming the front tyre at any possum to stray onto the road [11]. Stoats are another menace, in this case having been introduced to New Zealand during the late 1800s to control rabbits (also introduced), but they’re particularly vicious, and now known to kill “up to 60% of kiwi chicks and wreak havoc on other native bird populations [12]“.

The introduction of Deer into New Zealand’s native bush also caused unanticipated problems. It was supported by the government of the early 1900s to promote the tourist hunting industry, but Deer have since had a devastating effect on New Zealand’s bush. DOC’s official stance today on Deer in the back-country [13] is basically that they’re still a menace to the eco-system, although the recreational hunting community [14] that has grown since the 1930s argues that it’s better to control the population than try to eliminate it, and attempts to eliminate deer in the past haven’t worked anyway. Ironically, it’s largely because of the Deer problem that New Zealand has such an extensive network of back-country huts and shelters that have become interwoven with the back-country recreational experience. Most of the roughly 1000 huts were originally placed for use by hunters in an attempt to control the deer population during the mid-20th century.

Thoughts about forests: During the recent trip in the Ruahines [15], Alistair and I were discussing the area of land around the Kashmir road-end. An unusual thing about the Kashmir entrance to the park is that there aren’t actually any trees to walk through on the way to the tops — it’s exposed the entire way up to Longview Hut. This isn’t because trees have never been there, but until relatively recently the area was grazed as farmland. With much of the soil eroded, native bush isn’t easily coming back. According to a chap we met at Longview, the pine forests planted near the Kashmir road-end were put there to help reduce soil erosion, although it has the feeling of putting a problem off until later. Pine trees are a pet gripe of mine because as nice as they are to walk through at times, I’ve generally felt that they don’t really belong in New Zealand… except for the purpose for which they’re here which is to be factories for paper or timber. On the Abel Tasman Coast Track a couple of years ago, we met some French-Canadian tourists who’d been driving along State Highway 1 and were horrified to see vast forests of pine trees being chopped in a country they had probably been told was supposed to be a paradise for forests. As much as I thought it was a shame they’d seen plantation forests of Pinus Radiata instead of next to New Zealand’s main state highway, I couldn’t share their sympathies for the fact that the forest was being chainsawed. The truth is that plantation pine trees grow quickly and they’ll be back again within 30 years, unless the land gets used for something else.

New Zealand’s native bush regenerates slowly. Most of what’s left in New Zealand remains because it surrounds mountainous areas that weren’t valuable for productive use when the country was first colonised. For a very long time, even into the 21st century, logging of New Zealand native timber has been a controversial topic. Massive trees can take hundreds of years to properly mature, but have been completely cleared from some areas because the immediate needs (or wants) of New Zealanders took precedence. For as long as a century there have been efforts to log native forests sustainably [16], most visibly through the NZ Forestry Service which existed until 1987. On the other hand, there has also been confusion about how to be sustainable, and how to design legislation and systems so as to most usefully balance whatever needs exist in the economy with the regeneration of the native forests. An entry on Rimu in the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand [17] proudly proclaims that Rimu is the “main native timber” in use and “likely to remain indefinitely in this position”, but then confusingly seems to contradict itself in the next sentence by stating that “the quantities available will fall rapidly in the next one or two decades as resources become exhausted”.

Tramping outside mountains: Personally, I’ve sometimes wondered what things might be like for recreation if New Zealand had more low-land areas for tramping in. In other words, what would it be like if so much land hadn’t been cleared for farming? Most New Zealand tramping takes place within or near some kind of mountain range, simply because the vast majority of low-land areas have been cleared for farmland and other use for which native bush would get in the way. The longer I think about it, the more I wonder if the actual walking would be anywhere near as interesting as what we have at the moment, although this might be a reflection of what I’m already used to. What I really enjoy about walking around mountains is that the landscape is constantly changing. There’s always another corner just up ahead or another hill to climb, and it’s often a great surprise to find out what’s on the other side. It might just be another clump of trees, or it might be a whole new spectacular vista of mountains in the distance. Walking through low-land plains surrounded by trees and with less variation in the shape of the land, I don’t think I’d find the walking to be quite as interesting.

There are plenty of other reasons why it could be enjoyable besides walking, and lots of good reasons to restore it. When visiting the Peruvian side of the Amazon Basin last year, we spent a lot of time walking through flat, seemingly identical tracks that would have been completely overgrown within a week if someone hadn’t regularly gone through them with a machete. (Okay, if I’d been more attuned to it, they might not have looked identical.) The walking or lack of variation in landscape wasn’t the highlight, though — it was the incredible array of life that’s absolutely everywhere. New Zealand used to be like this, at least in a sense. It was so densely packed with bird-life, with few if any natural predators, that the noise on any given day would usually be difficult to ignore. This isn’t true any more because bird life is much more sparse, thanks largely to de-forestation of native bush and introduced predators. It’s really only reproduced in island sanctuaries, such as Kapiti Island (which I hope to visit soon), which have been freed of possums and rats and goats and stoats and any other introduced predators, to finally allow the bird life to flourish.

Conclusions: I’m not sure what my conclusion should be to this post, or if there even is one. After re-reading everything that I’ve just written, it seems to sound a lot worse than I thought it would. The truth is that I think it’s really cool that we still have everything we do for recreation, and all in our back-yard. At the same time, it’s a little disturbing how easy it is to lose it all, and the delicate state of flux that things are in right now thanks to the intervention of people and an international economy. If active efforts to control introduced pests stopped for a few years, the whole place would once again be over-run and native wildlife would once again be in critical trouble.

On the other hand, people will come and go. No doubt a million years from now there will probably be few signs that we were even here. The land will have re-claimed itself one way or another.

In any case, I’ve decided that this weekend I’m going out tramping to see a little more of what’s left.