The Myth of Reserves
the Future of Nature Conservation in New Zealand

David A. Norton
Conservation Research Group
School of Forestry, University of Canterbury

Although we have made great progress with indigenous biodiversity conservation in New Zealand in recent years we are still stumbling when it comes to dealing with the realities of modern New Zealand and especially the ways we will need to deal with conservation in the 21st century. In particular many people, including some professional ecologists, are still failing to realise that conservation and production no longer need to be mutually exclusive land use options. As Harry Recher elegantly put it in the June 1997 editorial in Pacific Conservation Biology, "For too long Western nations have pursued the myth of nature conservation through reserves." This is very true in New Zealand where the "myth of reserves" still appears to be a dominant paradigm in our conservation thinking.

I am not arguing that we should abandon protected lands and protected species. Rather, for the two thirds of New Zealand that is not protected land and that has suffered most since the arrival of humans in New Zealand, we need to look for different approaches to nature conservation. To truly address nature conservation in New Zealand our goals and visions for the future must focus on all of New Zealand not just on formally protected areas and species. To develop realistic goals and visions for doing this we need to address three key issues:

Unless we can deal with these issues, and change the current paradigms, I do not believe we will achieve the successes in nature conservation we would like to.

The conservation-production distinction: Both the Resource Management Act and the Forests Act specifically talk about production and conservation as equal partners. The Resource Management Act seeks to promote sustainable resource management that allows for the social, economic and cultural well-being of human communities WHILE sustaining the resources, safeguarding the integrity of ecosystems, and avoiding, remedying or mitigating adverse effects. The Forests Act, as amended in 1993, states that management of an area of indigenous forest land must be done in a way that maintains the ability of the forest to continue to provide a full range of products and amenities WHILE retaining the forest's natural value. Both pieces of legislation see conservation and production occurring together, not as two mutually exclusive land use options (cf. Reserves, National Parks and Conservation Acts). Yet much of our conservation thinking in New Zealand still focuses on reservation as the only option for nature conservation (high country tenure review and the Timberlands debate are good examples).

The them and us distinction: We also need to be realistic about our modern biota which includes elements that were here before people arrived, although some of them were relatively recent immigrants (e.g., pukeko), elements that arrived with Polynesian and European settlers, and elements that continue to arrive unaided (e.g., swallows). We need to stop drawing the us-them distinction between indigenous and exotic species and instead focus on working with exotic species as our ecosystems continue to change and develop into the future. This is not to say that exotic species are all good, clearly some present very real threats to our indigenous species and ecosystems and their control must be a priority. But we also need to recognise that exotic species are part of the New Zealand biota and that some at least can perform positive roles (e.g., gorse as a nurse crop and blackbirds as seed dispersers).

Unachievable goals: My third point is the constant referral back to the past — "we will restore this area to its pre-human pristine condition" — a naive call at best and a recipe for loss of conservation values at worst. We must accept that New Zealand today is different to the past (because of extinctions, invasions and global climate change), and we need to accept that future ecosystems will be different to those present previously. Trying to force areas back to some former condition can only soak up our limited resources and be doomed to eventual failure. This is not saying that "mainland islands" are a wasted effort — they are a very exciting part of modern nature conservation so long as their goals are realistic. Arguing that we cannot turn the clock back is also not an excuse to do nothing about possums or stoats, but is simply suggesting that we need realistic goals for the future that accept the reality of New Zealand today; goals that focus on ensuring that indigenous species and ecosystems flourish, but that also accept that exotic species can and do play important roles in achieving these goals. It is a concern that many of the current debates over land management in New Zealand have totally missed these points and still seem firmly rooted in the "myth of reserves." But perhaps of even greater concern is that the focus on the "myth of reserves" distracts us from the much more urgent task of seeking new approaches to land management in our production forests (native and exotic), our agricultural and horticultural systems, and in our urban areas; new approaches that facilitate both production and conservation in the same landscape, that allow for an economic return from the land, but that also allow for our indigenous biota to flourish. A pipe dream perhaps, but if we don't deal with these issues then I believe that we might as well forget about nature conservation in the majority of New Zealand and as a result forget about gaining the support of the 99% of the New Zealand population who are not privileged enough to live or work in or close to protected areas.

From: Ecological Society Newsletter, No. 89, October 1998, pp. 8-9
New Zealand Ecological Society, Christchurch NZ
(with permission)