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.
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
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.