A snapshot of New Zealand conservation history

The sanctity of any conserved area, be it national park, scenic reserve, or historic reserve, can be violated at will by the State acting under Sections 7, 32 and 39 of the National Parks Act, under Sections 16, 34 and 97 of the Scenic Reserves and Domains Act or, if either of these avenues by any mischance should fail, under Sections 13(a), 311 and 312 of the Public Works Act. Neither Parliament, nor, least of all, the public at large, need be informed of what is proposed to be done. The first they know is, all to often, heralded by works activity or accomplished fact.

— Dr J. T. Salmon, Senior Lecturer in Biology, Victoria University of Wellington. Heritage Destroyed — The Crisis in Scenery Preservation in New Zealand. 1960. Page 11.

I remember growing up in the 1980s with the devoted belief that New Zealand was a clean and green, environmentally sound country. We had a wonderful conservation estate that was open for exploration and fantastic scenery, though it took me a while to discover it properly. New Zealand was completely anti-nuclear, unlike the French who were exploding test nukes nearby, and in related actions committed acts of terrorism in New Zealand, and it was terrorism according to France’s own condemnation before French agents were caught and its government was forced to admit guilt. France threatened wide-spread European Economic Embargoes against New Zealand until we gave back their secret agents, or something like that. This entire event was a major boost to sentiments against nuclear power, which New Zealand didn’t have and therefore New Zealand was clean and green. There was even a movie about the valiant New Zealand neighbourhood watch group catching two bumbling French secret agents (or something like that), starring well known New Zealanders such as Sam Neill and Xena Warrior Princess!

My friends and I knew that New Zealand was clean and green because the French government was exploding nuclear bombs in our back yard, and we weren’t. And we also had earthquake drills in school during which we screamed and dived under tables, and mohawks were the new rage of fashion. If it were today, I imagine we’d be clean and green because we don’t like the way Japanese vessels hunt intelligent friendly whales in the southern ocean. Fallacies are a wonderful thing for self-assurance.

By a nifty follow-on logic, all our clean and green energy was generated from environmentally sound renewable sources, unlike all those ugly nuclear waste cesspool generating machines in places like the USA. New Zealand’s self-propagated reputation being clean and green assured me that our own sources had no side effects beyond the tasty electricity that we all consumed. Hydro dams were brilliant, because they do nothing more than move water from one side to the other, and slow it down a little in exchange for some energy on the side. They certainly didn’t pump masses of black polluting smoke into the air. Best of all, it was all free! Water renewed itself, and if you think about it really hard, it’s just another manifestation of solar power. (Don’t think too hard about solar power, though, or you might realise that it’s just another manifestation of nuclear power!) In hindsight I realise this belief about where all our energy came from wasn’t quite correct, but it was the gist that mattered. (Side note: New Zealand generates its energy from many different sources, and there’s a very cool representation of the break-down of power usage and generation sources in real time.)

I remember a family holiday driving around the South Island which must have been in the late 1980s, walking through the old town centre of Cromwell, with part of the attraction being that these very streets were intended to be completely submerged shortly afterwards as part of the Clyde Dam project — one of the most recent major hydro dam projects in New Zealand, and now the third largest hydro dam in New Zealand. The entire idea of an engineering feat that would do this sounded very impressive to me. Growing up helped me to notice that renewable hydro energy comes at a cost. After a while I realised that the entire “clean and green” attitude that New Zealand tells itself about is also a myth in some respects (but not all). Through actually meeting people, I also found that most French people aren’t mean and evil unfair nuclear polluting terrorist economic embargo seeking bullies, certainly not in the same way as their government was in the mid-1980s. I’m therefore profoundly sorry if my 1980s sentiments that I expressed earlier offended anyone. But that’s going off on a tangent.

50 years ago: Regarding hydro dams and conservation, I was trying to research material for another post, and references led me to the book titled Heritage Destroyed — The Crisis in Scenery Preservation in New Zealand, by Dr John Tenison Salmon, from which I pulled the quote at the top of this post. Dr Salmon’s 1960 book is recognised as one of the very influential and possibly pivotal publications that changed the thinking that many New Zealanders had about conservation, and how it applies to New Zealand. I tracked down a copy at the Wellington Central Library. It should be available through most New Zealand libraries, through the inter-loan system if not directly.

Having now read all 100 pages of the book, I’d rate it as essential reading for anyone interested in conservation in New Zealand. Regardless of whether one agrees with Dr Salmon’s arguments or not, it’s a fantastic snapshot of how things were 50 years ago, through the eyes of a well qualified author whose work became very influential for others.

The book was published out of frustration during a time when “conservation” was barely defined, let alone having any significant place in the New Zealand Government’s agenda. Assets such as “scenery”, “wildlife” and “recreation” had little or no defined tangible value in the minds of a majority of people, making it very difficult to compare their loss with obvious economic gains of something like additional electricity generation. Nine national parks had been declared by 1960 with the general intent of preserving them, but the designations didn’t mean much in the face of a state that effectively had un-checked god-like powers to over-ride amenities such as scenic values, even when areas had been set aside specifically for that purpose. The picture painted of 1960 by Dr Salmon is one in which the New Zealand Government Bureaucracy was systematically working its way through destroying nearly every scenic asset the country had if there was any chance of exchanging it for some kind of useful infrastructure, and frequently there was. Officially scenery and nature had no economically defined value compared with infrastructure for things like power generation.

The author spends a lot of time describing the “horrors” of the Ministry of Works’ unnecessarily destructive road-building practices, and especially the Electricity Department’s severe adjustments of lake levels in what had previously been some of New Zealand’s greatest scenic attractions. He noted something of an insane indifference to environmental values by government engineers and management in charge of the projects, who refused to make even minimal and supposedly quite easy compromises to preserve the scenic assets that were being affected. Examples that he gives include the leaving of half-submerged buildings poking out of a raised Lake Tekapo, and not bothering to clear the trees before raising the level of lakes Pukaki and Lake Monowai, which resulted in corpses of dead trees surrounding the shore-line that would persist for up to 200 years. Dr Salmon also describes the 1958 scenery “conference” which had been promoted on behalf of New Zealand’s Prime Minister (Walter Nash) as an occasion where interested parties could discuss the management of New Zealand’s scenic values, but which actually turned out to be a government-dictated farce whereby everyone except the Electricity Department and the Ministry of Works were severely restricted in what they could present and for how long, and anybody who expressed views contrary to what these departments had already decided was completely ignored anyway.

He pointed out that in 1958 New Zealand spent a grand total of £50,000 for all nine national parks put together (about NZ$3.1 million in 2009 terms after inflation according to the NZ CPI Inflation Calculator). This meant about $1.30 per person in today’s terms, which for me personally will buy about a third of a day’s lunch if I’m being a cheapskate. The author noted that on a per-person basis, the USA was spending nine times as much on its own national parks.

On page 89, he comments on the state of Tongariro National Park, noting that:

Mount Ruapehu in the vicinity of the Chateau skiing grounds is developing into one vast rubbish heap. Not only do we find there the litter of holiday-makers, but also the junk from broken-down chair-lifts tossed into ravines by people who should know better and who should be setting an example to the general public. […] My impressions of Ruapehu behind the Chateau were that it is rapidly becoming the National Rubbish Dump instead of a National Park.

Most of Dr Salmon’s discussion is about preservation of scenic values, and he only slides past other conservation topics such as preservation of species and of the native environment as a whole. (Interesting for a biologist’s perspective, I thought.) This may simply be because there was still a lot of research to be done about what was actually happening to the environment, and to what extent beyond anecdotal evidence and the obvious scenic damage. At one point, however, he suggests a team of up to 100 fully trained field biologists are needed to survey the situation properly. Towards the latter part of the book, the author describes the severe effects that introduced predators have had on the New Zealand bush, noting that its disappearance will certainly result in accelerated erosion, flooding and impending natural disasters. He advocates the dramatic reduction or annihilation of all introduced pests (deer rabbits, possums, etc) if at all possible. I also found it interesting to notice on page 86 a mention of 1080 poison, which New Zealand is now the largest user of world-wide albeit with some protests. He suspected might be a magic bullet for this purpose but for which there was also insufficient information 50 years ago. I hadn’t realised 1080 had been around for so long, but I suppose now I know better.

We’ve definitely changed since 1960. For one thing, New Zealand’s $3.1 million spent maintaining National Parks in 1958 (expressed as 2009 money) could be approximately compared with the 2008/2009 Budget, in which the Conservation Vote was allocated roughly $403 million, or well over 100 times that amount. It’s not a completely fair comparison given that the Department of Conservation does other things besides maintaining national parks, just as the 1958 National Parks Board wasn’t responsible for everything that DOC does today. Still, the difference of a couple of orders of magnitude is quite telling. If you want to see details of where the 2008/09 money was budgeted, click through the above link to Treasury’s website and read the section titled “Vote Conservation”.

Changes in attitude:

The snapshot of conservation problems in 1960 is interesting by itself, but I think by far the most valuable aspect of this book today is how it demonstrates the attitudes and government of the time, compared with today. The author frequently complains about the frustrations of government bureaucracies that go to great lengths to hide information for their own operational convenience even though (and perhaps because) many parties are likely be affected, ignore concerns that are expressed by people who are demonstrably qualified, generally work behind closed doors, and in some cases would outright lie when questioned and simply get away with it. Some people would claim that this is exactly what happens with the New Zealand government today, but I think things have changed a lot.

The OIA. For one thing, we have the Official Information Act, which Dr Salmon would have greatly benefited from. The OIA essentially says that one can ask any question of a government department (as long as it’s reasonably specific), and that department is required to provide the requested information within a set time-frame unless there’s a very good reason not to do so. My favourite summary of New Zealand’s OIA is from Rick Snell, an Australian Journalist blogging for the Sydney Morning Herald who compared it with Australia’s Freedom of Information Act. More recently however, Russell Brown presented an episode of Media 7 in which his panel of journalists and other stakeholders discussed New Zealand’s OIA, also noting a few down-sides and things that aren’t working perfectly under the Act. The entire episode can be streamed via YouTube through his blog post at the link above.

The RMA. Another revolutionary change since 1960 is New Zealand’s Resource Management Act of 1991, which defines a structured process of consent through which an organisation must go with the relevant local authories before large and potentially destructive projects such as gigantic hydro dams can go ahead. The 1991 RMA grew out of concerns about the conduct of a previous government in pushing its Think Big projects in the 1980s without adequate consultation. One of the Think Big projects (interestingly enough) was the Clyde Dam that I mentioned near the top of this post, which submerged the old town centre of Cromwell.

The RMA itself has been at the centre of controversy in recent years. Although it has allowed for objections to be heard from virtually anyone, and then considered out in the open, it has also resulted in many infrastructure developments being delayed to painful extents, or otherwise canceled, thanks to the problems of getting consent. The RMA gives a lot of power to local authorities and residents to decide what happens in their back yard, and typically there’s not much incentive for people to want big and potentially destructive things happening for a variety of reasons, even if they collectively help the nation as a whole. The recently elected government has pledged to review the act, and it’ll be interesting to see what it comes up with. In some ways it’s curious that our new Minister of Conservation is already signing away parts of the conservation estate, however. Hopefully the changes won’t approach the scenarios described in Dr Salmon’s book.

DOC. The third huge difference since Dr Salmon’s 1960 book is the existence of the Department of Conservation, which was formed by an Act of Parliament in 1987. Government lands had previously been divided between a variety of government departments and various authorities, but the Department of Conservation combined much of the management into a single entity, with a primary goal “to conserve New Zealand’s natural heritage for all to enjoy now and in the future”. The very existence of such a department is in stark contrast to New Zealand in the 1960’s, where for the most part enjoyment was just a side benefit to be had from the environment once any economic benefit had been extracted.

Ultimately Dr Salmon called for an authority independent of the government to be given power as a kind of arbitrator on conservation issues. From his 1960 viewpoint, he claimed (on page 58) that “New Zealand, compared with much of the rest of the world, is extremely backward in the conservation of her natural resouces, the preservation of her scenery, and in the implementation of a sound policy for the preservation and development of her National Parks and scenic reserves. A conservancy with adequate legislative powers could do a great deal to alleviate the present unsatisfactory situation in New Zealand.” It’s a shame that he died in 1999 (according to the library catalogue), because I’d be interested to know what he thought of the current structure.

Combined changes

I find it fascinating to see how these three aspects of the government system interact with each other, particularly DOC and the RMA. Several months ago, I spent a horrible time working through a collection of submissions towards the Tararua District Council’s upcoming District Plan. It was horrible because it was so excessively boring, and I had a headache for three consecutive evenings. Lately the Tararua District has become a target for energy companies wanting to build wind farms. The RMA makes it much easier to get streamlined consent if a proposal can be shown to be in line with a District Plan, so naturally several large power generation companies all wanted to get their hands in on the authoring of the new plan for the Tararua District.

I merely chose to read through the submissions, and at the time I really felt sorry for the poor people of the Tararua District Council, who presumably have few resources to draw on and suddenly have to cope with a massive influx of large businesses from out of town, all trying to fight their way into the district to support their infrastructure plans for the rest of New Zealand. Some submissions even read as if they were a patronising pat on the head for the Tararua District Council. Translated, they might have said something like: “Your proposed plan is such a cute effort, but it has typing mistakes and some of the references are inconsistent. Why not just replace this entire section with a large block of text we’ve written for you? We already write so many plans for other councils and we clearly have far more experience in these things than you do.” In a few cases it appeared as if the submissions had been made so overwhelmingly detailed so as to disguise the important parts of the detail.

I can fully appreciate why power generation companies do this and I don’t have a problem with their actions, as long as it happens out in the open where everyone can see it, and is considered fairly on its merits. And this is where the Department of Conservation comes in, because it was especially notable that DOC also made a submission to the district plan, offering advice from people who have a lot of expertise in conservation management and who are less likely to be biased towards specific commercial interests over other issues. Effectively, power companies that are owned by the state are making submissions to a local government that might well contradict submissions made by another part of the national government.

On one hand this sounds extremely bureaucratic and wasteful, such that all these government entities should just save money and overheads by talking to each other behind government doors. Personally I think that this particular consequence of the RMA is awesome, though, because it puts all the debate between experts out into the open where everyone who chooses can read and analyse it. When it was revealed in February that DOC had made a compromise behind closed doors with Meridian Energy over a wind farm, it was strongly criticised.

So far, I think the main problems with the RMA are in its tendency to result in certain kinds of infrastructure, and in its tendency (especially right now) to pile hugely important and detailed submissions for major infrastructure onto local bodies that are unlikely to have all the necessary resources to consider them properly. I should stress that I’m hardly an expert on it though, and I know there are additional problems that people have. I don’t know if the new National Government’s reforms of the RMA are likely to make it any better, and I guess time will tell. Having just finished Dr Salmon’s book, however, I guess I’m simply really happy at the moment that we’ve advanced past the conservation management of 1960!

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