European New Zealanders have always been unsure how to deal with the western side of South Island, most of which is remote, mountainous and forested. It has never seen much sustained human settlement, though there was a flurry of activity on the West Coast during its gold rush, which in 1867 attracted about 29,000 people. The largest town in the region, Greymouth, now has a population around 14,000. All the easily extractable gold has long since gone; timber and coal remain as exploitable resources, whenever world demand, market prices, and public approval encourage their removal.
In June 2014, despite strenuous opposition from environmentalists, the Minister of Conservation approved an extension of coal-mining on the Denniston Plateau above Westport, though the current slump in coal prices has caused Bathurst Resources Ltd. to defer its proposed activities. At present, and for the foreseeable future, the ‘useful’ indigenous trees (native beech and, in some areas, rimu and other podocarps) are protected, and are mostly on conservation land. Fiordland National Park and other, smaller parks lie within the Southwest New Zealand World Heritage Area (declared in December 1990), which encompasses 2.6 million hectares, or about 10% of New Zealand’s land mass. There are other notable protected areas further up the Coast. This suggests to many that the most promising long-term income that can be derived from the west of South Island relates to ecotourism, which relies on a careful balance between improved facilities on the one hand and the retention of beautiful landscapes and a unique flora and fauna on the other.
This was not evident a hundred years ago. From 1916 to 1930 the Marlborough Timber Company was heavily committed to the exploitation of the rimu forest at the southern edge of what is now Fiordland National Park. This is the subject of the lead article in this issue of Environment and Nature in New Zealand. Yet even with these comparatively accessible forests (which grew beside Port Craig, enabling timber to be shipped out), the expenses associated with remoteness reduced the possibility of profit. In an effort to gain a different financial return from isolated bush areas, Australian brushtail possums had, by this time, already been introduced into the forests of the West Coast in the hope of stimulating a fur industry.
In 1904 – as described on page 153 of Making a New Land (reviewed in this issue) – T.E. Donne, the head of New Zealand’s Tourist Department, tried a different tack by releasing wapiti at George Sound (within Fiordland) and white-tailed deer at Lake Wakatipu (close by it). He reasoned that, to tempt rich tourists into the wilds of New Zealand, you needed not only mountains to admire but game to shoot. Donne also enthusiastically recorded the progress of another introduced ungulate, the fallow deer, which soon became populous in the forests west of Wakatipu. The significance and spread of this European species, with particular reference to its introduction down under, is the subject of ENNZ’s second article. Between them, possums and deer have become the principal agents in the destruction through browsing of New Zealand’s native forests, while introduced rats and stoats kill native birds.
The survival of many of the indigenous birds so attractive to tourists depends upon the retention of extensive and healthy native forest cover. This is the kind of birdlife that the Ecosanctuaries, discussed in the book of that name, are designed to restore. The review of this publication in ENNZ refers along the way to an island off the Fiordland coast which, in the 1890s, became the focus of an early attempt to save these birds. The most extensive campaign of pest control through aerial drops of 1080 poison ever undertaken is in full swing this season (late 2014), particularly on the western side of South Island. It represents an all-out effort by the Department of Conservation to gain some degree of control over exotic animal populations, whose impact on New Zealand’s forest ecosystems is so dramatic.
A review of David Young’s book on Rivers is a reminder that freshwater environments have also been knocked about. In June 2014 the ecologist Mike Joy, observing that they are ‘like miners’ canaries measuring the health of rivers’, noted that three quarters of indigenous freshwater fish species are listed as threatened. The extraordinary growth of the dairy industry in New Zealand in recent years, which has become such a significant contributer to the country’s export earnings, has been accompanied by a rapid growth in river pollution. All of which perhaps increases the appeal not just of natural heritage areas and ecosanctuaries, but also, for some, of different kinds of spiritual havens, such as the Garden of Distant Longing which is the subject of this issue’s final review.