Wilderness: the wildest of the wild; remote places where humans have least presence.

Wilderness: mountains, wetlands, forests and glaciers where humans must approach in the time-honoured fashion – on foot, and carry with them all their needs, including shelter.

Wilderness: no roads, no huts, not even tracks. No access by vehicle, boat or aircraft.

Although debate has always raged about the exact criteria of a ‘wilderness area’, the need to preserve undeveloped areas in New Zealand has been advocated by Federated Mountain Clubs members for at least a half-century.

The campaign for establishing wilderness areas in New Zealand has arguably been the most successful in FMC’s 86-year history. And in many ways, it’s been our signature concept, one we can truly call our own, because wild recreation is at the core of the idea. In this article, we take a look at the origins of wilderness in New Zealand, the progress made to date, and the challenges ahead.

What is wilderness, precisely? The Oxford University Dictionary defines it as ‘an uncultivated, uninhabited and inhospitable region.’ It derives from the Old English ‘wildeornes’ ‘land inhabited only by wild animals’, from wild deor or ‘wild deer’. However, in New Zealand the word has come to mean different things to different people, with many using it synonymously with any natural area.

In the FMC context, it’s the possibility of wild, self-sufficient outdoor recreation that is the key defining concept of wilderness. It’s a recreational concept, not a conservation concept, and lies at one end of the recreational opportunity spectrum. A ‘wilderness area’ is essentially a legal overlay on an area that already has some other protective status, such as national park, conservation park or other conservation land.

Tim Marshall paddling the Motu River, Raukumara Wilderness, Photo: Shaun Barnett

An official wilderness area has defined boundaries, and becomes established after being listed in the New Zealand Gazette (a process known as ‘gazetting’, under the Reserves Act, National Parks Act, Conservation Act, and Te Urewera Act). It is managed according to a set of principles aimed at ensuring that the area remains a wild experience for those who venture into it. A wilderness often has a buffer area surrounding it, one with perhaps some huts and tracks, but generally the core wilderness remains without these facilities.

Access by air, boat or vehicle is prohibited, except in cases of strict management need, such as search and rescue, wild animal control, conservation work or rare circumstances such as documentary filming. Other criteria of a wilderness are: it must take a day or more to reach, at least two days to traverse by foot, and generally be greater than 20,000 hectares in size.

FMC’s wilderness conference in 1981 remains the most influential landmark in pushing the concept of wilderness into the political domain. By presenting reasoned proposals for ten wilderness areas, and identifying their qualities, the conference proceedings published in 1983 provided an ambitious but achievable ‘wish list’. Since then, all but four of those proposed wilderness areas have become established.

Trampers above Blockade stream, Olivine Wilderness, Photo: Shaun Barnett

New Zealand currently has 11 gazetted wilderness areas (four in the North Island and seven in the South island), ranging in size from the 6500-hectare Te Tatau Pounamu to the immense 124,800-hectare Glaisnock. FMC wants more.

The following timeline shows the significant events in the history of establishing wilderness in New Zealand.

Wilderness, a Timeline

1900 Explorer Charlie Douglas writes of keeping some areas in Westland ‘uncontaminated by the ordinary tourist … keep them free for those who care to risk there [sic] necks and enjoy scenery in a state of nature.’ Arguably the first plea for wilderness in New Zealand

1920 US Forester Aldo Leopold begins writing about the idea of wilderness. ‘Wilderness,’ he wrote, ‘is the raw material out of which man has hammered the artefact of civilisation’

1935 Wilderness society formed in USA by Bob Marshall and Aldo Leopold

1949 Olaus Murie, president of the American Wilderness Society, visits New Zealand

1949 NZAC member Christopher Johnson makes a plea for areas free of huts and tracks in the New Zealand Alpine Journal

1952 National Parks legislation allows for the possibility of wilderness areas

1954 Some Wellington clubs advocate against more hut building in remote catchments of the newly established Tararua Forest Park

1955 New Zealand’s first wilderness area, Otehake (12,000ha), established in Arthur’s Pass National Park (wilderness status removed in 1995 as the area considered too small and compromised by the presence of a hut and track)

1959 FMC Wilderness Committee established, with Priestley Thomson, Phil Gardner and Roland Rodda serving, with input from John Pascoe

1960 FMC Wilderness Committee presents first report, expressing ‘widespread desire’ for setting aside ‘some undeveloped areas’ where ‘trampers and climbers must be entirely dependent on their own resources, preferably for days on end.’ The report recommends establishing wildernesses for the Olivine, Adams and Landsborough areas

1962 Te Tatau Pounamu Wilderness Area (6500ha) established in Tongariro National Park

1966 Hauhangatahi Wilderness Area (8500ha) established in Tongariro National Park FMC makes a request to the Minister of Lands for more wilderness areas

1974 Pembroke (18,000ha) and Glaisnock Wilderness Areas (124,800ha) established by Lands and Survey in Fiordland National Park

1975 Protests by tramping clubs against mining in the Red Hills

1976 FMC Wilderness advocate Les Molloy wrote article ‘Wilderness Diminishing’ for the New Zealand Alpine Journal. In it he advocates for one wilderness in Northwest Nelson, four in the Southern Alps, more in Fiordland and one on Stewart Island

1976 Influential Lands and Survey Director General Bing Lucas signals a need for less development in national parks, and more wilderness.

1977 FMC delegation of Les Molloy, Arnold Heine and Jane Forsyth meets with Forest Service officers to promote wilderness in State Forests, specifically a Tasman Wilderness in Northwest Nelson

1979–80. Dave Henson convenes FMC Wilderness subcommittee, and drafts a wilderness policy and strategy. Henson writes about wilderness for Forest and Bird magazine; Molloy contributes to the New Zealand Journal of Forestry.

1980. The government produces its own poster on wilderness. FMC decides to mark its 50th anniversary with conference on wilderness.

1981 FMC’s Wilderness conference held at Rotoiti Lodge, Nelson Lakes National Park

1983 Wilderness Advisory Group established, with Molloy as chair

1983 FMC’s conference proceedings, Wilderness Recreation in New Zealand published, edited by Les Molloy

1985 Government wilderness policy developed, guided by advisory group

1988 Tasman Wilderness Area (86,950ha) in Northwest Nelson Forest Park established (now Kahurangi National Park).

1988. Raukumara Wilderness Area (39,650ha) in Raukumara Forest Park established

1990 Hooker–Landsborough Wilderness Area (41,000ha) established

1990 Red Hills added to Mt Aspiring National Park

1997 Olivine Wilderness Area (83,000ha) established in Mt Aspiring National Park, including Red Hills

2001 The State of Wilderness in New Zealand, edited by Gordon Cessford, published by DOC

2003 Adams Wilderness Area (46,590ha) established in the central Southern Alps

2004 Paparoa Wilderness Area (30,790ha) established on the Paparoa Range, West Coast

2006 Ruakituri Wilderness Area (23,550ha) established in Te Urewera National Park (first DOC-initiated wilderness)

2008 FMC launches a campaign to include Lake Poteriteri in the proposed Poteriteri Wilderness, Fiordland, which includes a poster and major Bulletin article

2011 Wild Heart, The Possibility of Wilderness in New Zealand edited by Mick Abbot and Richard Reeve, published by Otago University Press

(this article first appeared in the 200th edition of the FMC Bulletin)