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Speech

Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society

Issue date: 
Saturday, 20 June 1998
Speaker: 
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Where to now?

I once read of a small boy who saw his first skylark. "Look at that bird, Mum" he said. "It can't go up and it can't go down, and it's bawling its head off."

I sometimes wonder whether that illustrates our attitude to our environment; indeed, it could even be a comment about our environment itself. We can't afford to do less, we can't afford to do more, we can only shout - or lament.

Lament our carelessness, our indifference, our ambivalence. We promote a clean and green image, yet our forests are being ravaged, our surviving wildlife on land, in the air and in the sea, is under increasing threat; our stream water has become undrinkable, our roadsides and beaches and reserves are littered by the ton; and the provision of resources to deal with these and the many other threats to our environment is not high in the order of our priorities.

And so it gives me great pleasure to spend this evening with an organisation that cares, passionately, about these things; and to congratulate it, and all its members, for their dedication and their achievements. I know that like so many national organisations, much of the real work is done, without fuss or publicity or expectation of reward, by a great many voluntary workers, members of local branches, the people who go out into the field and plant and clear and fence, who inspire the young and help the older ones see things a little differently. To all these people, as well as to administrators and office bearers, both present and past, my warmest thanks and congratulations.

The attainment of three score years and fifteen is an important occasion for any person or organisation.

Individuals who reach this milestone will usually feel considerable satisfaction that they've managed to exceed the traditional span by a full five years. Sometimes, a seventy-fifth birthday will even be the occasion to acknowledge that we indeed live in a fortunate age, in a fortunate country. Never before in history has the world had so many elders: one can only hope that their value to those younger than themselves is fully appreciated.

For an organisation, three quarters of a century is also a significant anniversary. It marks several achievements. First, it has managed to survive the high-mortality early years. Secondly, it has managed to recruit new members for several working generations. And, thirdly, by surviving for seven and a half decades, it will inevitably have acquired both an interesting history and an institutional memory. It will have a sense of its own worth. It will have developed its own unique culture. Its members will share much knowledge of the organisation's purpose, and will be proud of its record and of their contribution to it.

Of course, even at seventy five years of age, an organisation is still relatively young as institutions go. Some go back centuries, although they are the very rare few. But what sets all reasonably long-lived institutions apart, is that their members have something "extra" to sustain them. In any organisation that outlasts its founders, there will always be a set of key beliefs; a sense of mission; a coherent philosophy upheld not only by those first few, but by hundreds or even thousands of successors.

So it is with the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand. The object, the mission, the philosophy, have been and remain the same: the need "to preserve and protect the indigenous plants and animals and natural features of New Zealand, for the benefit of the public including future generations."

That New Zealand flora and fauna should be preserved and protected, has not always been such a widely accepted proposition as it is these days. It was, after all, only in the last two decades that we have, more or less, ceased to subsidise the removal of tracts of natural forest and bush: I'm sure that all of you remember - probably with shudders - the land "development" subsidies of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

For centuries after the arrival of the first mammalian predators - humans - in this country, the idea that the newly-dominant species should place some environmental limits on itself was often resisted; sometimes adamantly. As a result, the course of this country's natural history was irretrievably altered. But more recently it has become accepted, fairly generally I think, that there is a need to conserve; a realisation that this country's unique plants and animals are an important feature of our national life, and must be protected. And so, little by little, and in different ways at different times, the future course of our natural history is being altered yet again; but this overdue change cannot be so dramatic and far reaching as those initial ones, and the big question is how far reaching can it be.

The time at which Forest and Bird was founded was itself at a turning point in New Zealand history. The First World War, that enormous upheaval in the life of our nation, was just five years in the past. As was noted in a recent article in the Society's magazine, the Great War had "profoundly affected New Zealanders in many ways"; thus Captain EV (Ernest Valentine) Sanderson, "for one, had come back from service overseas a changed man, with a stronger appreciation for the hills of home in New Zealand."

Recently, I saw for myself some of the battlefields of the First World War, in Turkey and in France, so I am not surprised that New Zealanders returning home from them would appreciate what was particularly valuable in their native surroundings and what "life as normal," back in New Zealand, should henceforth be like. Many of the men who returned, the records of the time suggest, had discovered something overseas, something of which they had been unaware prior to their leaving for the battlefields of the Middle East and the Western Front - that their homeland was unique and that its green-ness was a treasure, even that it was sacred to them, after the experience of the barrens and the flies of Gallipoli, or the sucking mud and the vermin of Flanders.

Val Sanderson and, I dare say, many other returning soldiers, had, as a result of their time overseas, finally come to see their country with a native eye. Paradoxically really, they had had to leave New Zealand to truly discover it: perhaps, echoing the words of a popular song from a few years ago, it is always the case that you "don't know what you've got 'til it's gone."

Their absence had revealed to many young New Zealand soldiers a fact they had not previously realised, that, for all that they had thought they were from Otago or Auckland or Canterbury or Wellington, or that they were provincial representatives of the British Empire, they had actually become New Zealanders.

For the soldiers, part of their new sense of New Zealand identity was based on their own ways of doing things and of working along with others - New Zealand, it was obvious, was a much less hidebound or hierarchical sort of a place, compared with the Old Country, yet different too from Australia.

But another part of that identity that all those New Zealand soldiers discovered in themselves, centred upon shared memories of home; what it was about New Zealand that they most wanted to see again, if they could, if the mortal lottery of war would let them. And the Pakeha members of those First World War Expeditionary Forces also began to understand that their ideal of natural beauty, handed down to them from their settler parents and grandparents, was not so true in all respects as they had always believed. Once, the common impulse of European settlers had been to establish a copy of a (usually) English countryside in the South East Pacific. Think, for instance, how comparatively early botanical gardens and arboretums - featuring, essentially, exotic plants - were established here. Consider too, how the European settlers imported entire foreign eco-systems - animals, pasture species, birds, insects, earthworms, pests and counter-pests - in pursuing their goal of re-creating old-world human habitat in new-world surroundings.

After the First World War, however, what began to make better sense was to value not just what was best of the colour and variety that had been introduced, but more importantly, to value New Zealand's natural environment as their forebears had discovered it, with its own distinct and unique natural systems, systems that were fitted to the New Zealand environment after millions of years of separate evolution.

Both waves of human immigration to New Zealand have taken, we can see very clearly in hindsight, a near-catastrophic toll. Maori, simply in order to survive, and before the consequences became apparent, precipitated the extinction of several species, large birds in particular. Then came the European settlers, trying to re-create the appearance of "home," with deciduous trees, with roses and daffodils and chrysanthemums, with blackberry, gorse and broom, with sparrows, blackbirds and pheasants. For years, the natural beauty of rimu, totara and kahikatea, and of kereru, kea and kiwi, remained unappreciated by them, overlooked, invisible; our European forebears seem often to have looked at these indigenous wonders without really seeing them, or to have regarded them as strange, foreign to them, that they were "alien" in some peculiar way.

How blinkered, how restricted, that view seems nowadays. It is a mark of just how much attitudes have changed in the past 75 years, that it is now a view that seems curious, certainly unappreciative, perhaps even wilfully ignorant. Forest and Bird can take credit for a significant share of that change in outlook, and it is one of the Society's greatest overall achievements.

But as well as this overall philosophical shift, the Society has also achieved much else. Any detailed enumeration would take most of this evening. Yet without going into exhaustive detail, some successes of the past can be acknowledged simply by way of example: Waipoua; Manapouri; Tiritiri Matangi; even Kapiti, really; these are just a few of the names on the Society's environmental honour roll. Another great and continuing success, even though many might overlook it, is the establishment and the fostering of the Kiwi Conservation Corps, the Society's "school" for future conservationists.

So, New Zealand attitudes have changed greatly during the Society's 75-year lifetime. Yet we are always likely to mislead ourselves, whenever we attempt to judge the actions of yesteryear by strictly contemporary standards. As was acknowledged in "The State of New Zealand's Environment," a comprehensive and well-researched report published by the Ministry for the Environment last year:

"In the short time that humans have been in New Zealand, we have dramatically changed the environment through such activities as harvesting, deforestation, wetland drainage, the introduction of pests and weeds[, and the generation of pollution.] "

But, the report continues:

"It has to be said at the outset that much of this had to happen. Humans simply could not have survived here without making changes. Most of the indigenous plants were of limited use for food or fibre and most of the large edible animals were too slow breeding to be sustainably harvested. It is a tribute to the ingenuity and tenacity of classical Maori society that people survived here at all, and it is a tribute to the European settlers who came later that a prosperous and stable economy was built in such an apparently hostile environment. Today's New Zealand stands largely on the achievements of those vanished generations."

I believe that these sentences contain what are sometimes referred to as "reality checks"; statements that force any reader to examine his or her contemporary perspective on things, so as to avoid the assumption that what is considered right and/or wrong these days, has always and in all ways, been so. I believe we can judge the past only by the knowledge and perceptions of the past.

Later in the State of the Environment report, however, there are other passages that are particularly significant in any consideration of the topic of native flora and fauna:

"By the time Europeans arrived, the forests had been reduced from about 85 percent of the land area to 53 percent, and the tussock grassland had expanded from about 5 percent to almost 30 percent. The new settlers triggered a new wave of deforestation. Within barely 100 years, the forests had been further reduced to 23 percent of the land area while the grassland had expanded to just over 50 percent. Today, New Zealand has ten times more grassland than it once had, and only a quarter of its original forests."

Less than 10 percent [of surviving indigenous forest] is in low-lying areas Kauri forests were reduced from a pre-European area of around 1.5 million hectares to just 7,000 hectares of mature forest (a 99.5 percent reduction) The lowland podocarp forests were reduced by about 85 percent."

This, I believe, is a proportionally-greater clearance of pre-human habitation vegetation than has occurred anywhere else in the world.

Yet just enumerating the brutal changes cannot convey the true scale of the alterations here: to really understand how profoundly this land has been changed, it might, perhaps, be useful to visualise, even in the barest of outlines, New Zealand as once it was, about a thousand years ago. Were any of us able to walk around, to experience once more, this land as it was at the turn of the last millennium, what a novel place, surely, it would seem. Apart from such prominent features as lakes, harbours, mountains and rivers, it's probable that we would find ourselves in surroundings that we simply did not recognise - the sights would be different, the sounds would be different, the smells would be different: with the extra forest cover, in some areas even the weather would be unfamiliar.

Standing in that ancient landscape, we would be surrounded by dense, dense forest, so thick that distant views would be rare; we would be surrounded by growth so prolific that our movement would very often be obstructed or even prevented; we would be inside a forest so primeval that we might not even like the experience particularly much.

However, at each dawn, we'd be nearly deafened by massed choirs of waking birds. From time to time, we would see a few or many of that most elephantine of birds, the moa, or other species, like harpogornis, this country's ancient giant eagle. (Actually, for harpogornis, with its three metre wingspan and its lethal talons, an intermittent view would surely be preferable to constant acquaintance.)

At night, we'd find ourselves listening to nocturnal recitals from ruru - moreporks - the now-extinct laughing owls, and the usually very large local populations of kiwi. And we'd see that the coasts, season by season, teemed with nesting sea birds, penguins, petrels, shearwaters, albatross, gulls, terns, gannets; marine mammals like sea lions, seals and several species of whale; and flourishing populations of many, many different kinds of sea life - fish, molluscs, crustaceans. Offshore, underwater, in the clear unpolluted sea, there were near-impenetrable glades of marine plants to feed and shelter them.

The sheer scope of the differences might make that vanished country seem and feel bewildering to a modern day New Zealander. Surely though, it would impress itself upon us as being a blessed place; a land of extraordinary natural magic; a wonderful, southern Eden.

So regrets about what our forebears, both Maori and Pakeha, did here, are understandable.

As "The State of New Zealand's Environment" puts it, more prosaically:

"We may legitimately ask whether it was necessary to destroy quite so much forest, drain quite so many wetlands, introduce quite so many alien species, create quite so much pasture, and extinguish quite so many species "

Indeed.

"But we cannot undo history. We can only learn from it and try to do better."

I hope so. Because otherwise, we will continue to occupy this land without, ever, properly inhabiting it. And it will become less and less the place of beauty we still believe it to be; and that, relative to much of the rest of the world, it indeed is.

It is in the Conclusions section of the Report that we find some of the more depressing statements about the future of our country's natural environment. Let me quote parts of it:

"The reasons for the continuing pressure on our threatened species are partly perceptual and partly historical. The perceptual problem is shared by most New Zealanders. It rests on the belief that the remaining area of natural habitat, in the mountains and isolated reserves, is sufficient to support our surviving indigenous species, provided it is protected or properly managed. In fact, the remaining area is not sufficient. For many of our threatened species, the existing habitat is in the wrong location or in reserves which are too small.

"The historical problem is a dual legacy: habitat loss and introduced species. The massive habitat change wrought by previous generations has incurred an 'extinction debt' which is still being paid by our indigenous species. With each generation, the vulnerable populations shrink further. If the damage is to be undone, native forests will need to be restored to at least 10 - 20 percent of the lowlands and foothills, particularly along streams and rivers. Other native habitats, such as wetlands, will also have to be expanded. Because of the slow regrowth of native forest, some of the habitat-deprived species will need intensive conservation programmes for several generations while this restoration is occurring.

"Our second historical legacy is the army of predatory and browsing animals and aggressive weeds which were introduced by previous generations and which now threaten our remaining natural habitats. They have turned many reserve areas into war zones where ceasefires are temporary and the pressure is constant. Costly though it is, pest and weed control is now a necessary component of the modified New Zealand ecosystem."

In other words, natural New Zealand can no longer be, nor can ever be again, left to fend for itself: we are no longer simply stewards of our natural environment, but, if as many of its species as possible are to survive, we must be gardeners in it; cultivators and pest exterminators.

The truly daunting assertion, however, and it's one made responsibly by responsible people, is that our native forests need to be restored to at least 10 to 20 percent of lowlands and foothills, especially along streams and rivers; daunting because the likelihood of attaining that goal is, under present and immediately-foreseeable economic conditions, slim at best and arguably, miserably beyond our reach. This is because of the single, but central, fact that New Zealand's lowlands and foothills are now largely given over to primary production and to urban and rural settlement. With the premium built into the price of all land of that kind, merely to acquire such large tracts for publicly owned conservation use - let alone to replant, fence and manage them - would run into millions, no billions, of dollars.

And being realistic, how can the public acquisition of so much land, such a huge addition to the existing conservation estate, be afforded without either a near-total, and hence improbable, re-ordering of our national priorities, or an equally-unlikely massive surge in national wealth. To be even blunter, I cannot, under current and foreseeable conditions, see any sort of public sector-only initiative achieving even a truly significant percentage of that target. Nor will non-governmental conservation organisations, no matter how committed, now matter how effective, be able to extend the reach of public programmes to the necessary extent.

And yet, and yet, as the report says, without much extra lowland and foothills forest, we will continue to lose species to on-going processes of extinction. So what is to be done? What are, or what will be, the country's alternatives for preventing such a disastrous state of affairs?

If our traditional mechanisms for preserving and protecting "the indigenous plants and animals and natural features of New Zealand for the benefit of the public including future generations," are indeed going to fall short, the logical step must surely be to think about what combination of measures, what pooling of economic resources, what alignment of interests, will make the re-afforestation of such a huge area feasible.

But before thinking about the possible nature of such alliances and the way they might be managed, perhaps it would first be sensible to think about the policy and economic framework that is likely to assist in the launching of such a great and necessarily co-operative effort.

For effective and extremely broad-based environmental coalitions to come into being, surely it will first have to be recognised that not all New Zealanders will ever make the conservation of our environment their absolute priority - a high, even a very high priority maybe, but not one that will, at all times, override all other preferences. This means that we must be alert to the danger that those most intensely committed to preserving and protecting our flora and fauna, may alienate others whose support will be vital, at some stage, for eventually achieving the level of environmental restoration that is so necessary.

For example, there is the apparent view that what is needed to truly restore Eden, here and elsewhere in the world, is to allow very, very few, or no, people into the garden. One of the better known thinkers along these lines visited New Zealand in 1991: the American biologist, Paul Ehrlich. During his visit, he said that the birth of a baby here "is 10 to 20 times the disaster for the life support systems of the planet as the birth of a baby in Bangladesh or Colombia."

It is interesting to compare that statement with the Maori proverbial question: He aha te mea nui o te ao? - He tangata; he tangata; he tangata : What is the most important thing in the world? - It is the people; the people; the people.

Believing that is not to hold that people can never precipitate or preside over environmental disasters. Historically and even recently, they can and do; so often, let it be said, as a result of poverty or war. But surely people are not intrinsically an environmental blight, as Dr Ehrlich implies. People may certainly be destructive, but once alert to the environmental consequences of their actions, we are also capable of changing our behaviour, or creating the conditions necessary for a change. Yet the buried assumption in any statements to the effect that all that's needed to make the world a "better" place somehow, is in some manner to reduce human populations, is a backdoor way of saying that humans are simply and only creatures of nature, without any spiritual dimension to them, unable to follow any principled course of action in the long-term, particularly a course of action that might frustrate immediate or intermediate material gain.

But most people, perhaps even a great majority, will, if they can, deliberately and voluntarily change their behaviour, at and to their personal cost, whenever they come to believe that a particular course of action is wrong - no matter that the change might be inconvenient, or difficult, or expensive. Perhaps this, all on its own, demonstrates that ours is not, at a fundamental level, a wholly material world: for humanity, it must also be a meaningful world - a world where all responsible people want to know, and then to act upon, their honestly-held beliefs about what it is ethical to do, and what is not. Despoiling the natural environment, both for our contemporaries and for all those who are to come after us, must surely be abhorrent to any conscientious adult who gives him- or herself the time to ponder the environmental consequences of clearly irresponsible actions.

Then there is the view that would elevate the good of the natural environment to be society's highest aspiration, even an ethical absolute, requiring that society be organised solely for environmental ends, and that comprehensive, centralised planning and regulation are the price that must be paid to restore environmental utopia. The absolutism of course, is why this view can sound so very fundamentalist, like the doctrine of an environmental faith.

But there are always going to be grave problems with such an absolutist, but simultaneously earthly, philosophy. One is that many faiths have, throughout history, been riven by internal conflicts. Were "sectarian" conflict to become vigorous in New Zealand conservation circles, I would expect that much effort that could be devoted to environmental restoration, will instead be fruitlessly diverted to struggle with apostates, heretics and other doctrinal rivals.

Another grave danger of an absolutist environmental approach would be that it too-readily lent itself to being a creed that identified "barbarians" to unite against, rather than being the source of a unifying vision within which all may co-operate in their pursuit of the common good. In other words, rather than attempting to educate and win others over to a common cause, the absolutist temptation is to strive, first, for control, often by demonising "outsiders" as enemies, and thereby precipitating a struggle between the forces of "good" and "evil."

Surely though, any such black and white view of our green, green world is almost certainly going to be extremely divisive, very possibly highly diversionary, and, in the end, plain dangerous.

Then there is what I am told is called "blue" green-ness, the blending of environmental sensibilities with those of the free market. This can be a very sensible and realistic approach, but only so long as it avoids the extreme view that economic man is the measure of all things. That tenet, taken too far, leads to hopelessly mixed motives and conflicts of interest, in which economic goals can soon outweigh even the most substantial environmental considerations. The risk is always that of a loss of balance; the proper, the all too-often ignored balance, between economic development and environmental sustainability.

The needful aim of restoring between 10 and 20 percent of New Zealand's original lowland and foothills forests is most likely to be achieved, not by any single means or approach, but through a mixture of measures. We will most likely succeed in restoring habitat and biodiversity, by a broad consensus, and via a diversity of activities. We cannot expect the solution to be provided by the state alone. It must come from a combination of state, commercial, civic and private initiatives.

So what might future members of Forest and Bird hope to help accomplish? To witness? And how might they help achieve some measure of net environmental restoration, so that our 'extinction debt' is no longer owed, or that, at the very least, we make a down payment on it?

The possibilities surely include some continuing public acquisition of land of extremely high conservation value (the negative factor here being the high level of public expenditure this would entail); the continuing accumulation of land for conservation purposes through such mechanisms as land use covenants and even outright gifting; additional purchases of land for conservation purposes by non-governmental agencies; perhaps even some judicious - and I emphasise the "judicious" - swapping of land of lower conservation value for areas of much higher conservation value. And underlying all this must be a constant programme of education - to jolt us out of complacency, to impress on us the urgency of the situation and to motivate a rethink of our priorities.

And then there is the role of science. It will be crucial, but its future importance is often overlooked. I hope, I expect, that the members of the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of seventy five years hence will be able to look back on three quarters of a century of scientific progress both in the area of pest management and control, and endangered species protection and breeding. The promise of the bio-sciences for environmental restoration in New Zealand is surely very great - think, for instance, of the potential benefit of measures such as, just to name one, species-specific immuno-contraception for our worst environmental pests - possums, the mustelids, or rats. Of course, this is being worked on already, particularly with regard to possums. I have seen two of the projects, and was impressed both by the dedication of the scientists, and also by the inadequacy of the resources at their disposal. On present projections, a solution is still at least 15 years away. How much damage is going to be done in that time?

And could it not be both effective and ethical to selectively breed or to bio-engineer varieties of our native forest species so that rimu, for instance, could profitably be grown in place of Tasmanian blackwood, or kahikatea instead of radiata pine, or kauri instead of Douglas fir.

The State of New Zealand's Environment report noted:

" on fertile and wet sites where trees are older than 25 years and are well spaced out pine forests often have a dense, varied, understorey, sometimes including rare native plants and animals. A number of native birds have colonised pine plantations. Grey warblers, fantails and silvereyes are common. Robins, whiteheads, wekas, harrier hawks , kingfishers and shining cuckoos can also be found."

So even monocultured, exotic trees can provide a habitat for native species, in time, under certain circumstances. But how much better would it be if land currently devoted to growing radiata only, could eventually be re-planted in a mix of native species?

I must confess to some alarm at the extent to which radiata is being planted on former farmland - much of it the very kind of land that the State of the Environment report asserts should be returned to native species - not with any expectation of its restoring natural habitat, but solely as an economic resource. These plantations are likely, in three decades or so, and quite soon after they have just become reasonably friendly to native birds, to be clearfelled. No sooner would we have taken a half step forward, in other words, than we can expect to take a full step back. Yet if we could develop quick growing native timber substitutes for radiata, and selectively log them, so that there is a contribution towards the cost of setting aside the land, would we not be far better off environmentally without too great an economic cost?

While none of these currently-available measures and possible future developments is, on its own, likely to be sufficient to restore as much lowland forest as The State of New Zealand's Environment report finds is necessary, in conjunction with perpetual pest management and continuous work to sustain endangered species, perhaps, just perhaps, in combination, and in time, they may approach that prudent target.

We, the descendants of this country's two main waves of immigrants, are among the first New Zealanders to value our environmental heritage for that heritage's own sake. Our forebears had different goals - to survive first of all, and then to achieve a measure of prosperity. They succeeded, and like all humanity, at all times and in all places, made mistakes, even grievous ones, in doing so. But they also left us, their privileged descendants, in a position to correct some of their environmental errors, greatly destructive though some of them were, and to restore a greater fraction of this land to something at least resembling its original state; to restore to this natural wonderland that we have inherited, at least some of the health, wealth and happiness it has provided for us.

That is one of the great challenges facing this country in the next century. It is a challenge to all New Zealanders to unite behind the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society's 75 year-old vision and commitment, of preserving and forever protecting the indigenous plants and animals and natural features of New Zealand, for our own benefit and for the sake of future generations, both of New Zealanders and of all peoples.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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