New Zealand has thirteen National Parks. It was fourteen, until Te Urewera National Park became ‘Te Urewera’, its own legal entity. National Park status is commonly understood as the gold standard for environmental protection. This is true, although Nature Reserve status – covered in a future article – could be considered as diamond standard.

National Parks are created with the goal of: “preserving in perpetuity as national parks, for their intrinsic worth and for the benefit, use, and enjoyment of the public, areas of New Zealand that contain scenery of such distinctive quality, ecological systems, or natural features so beautiful, unique, or scientifically important that their preservation is in the national interest”  (National Parks Act 1980, section 4).

The public has “freedom of entry and access to the parks, so that they may receive in full measure the inspiration, enjoyment, recreation, and other benefits that may be derived from mountains, forests, sounds, seacoasts, lakes, rivers, and other natural features” .

Amen! Once land is designated as a National Park, nothing short of an Act of Parliament can change its designation. National Parks also cannot be mined, as they are listed in Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act 1991.

New Zealand’s first National Park – and the world’s fourth – was Tongariro National Park. The enduring narrative has been that in 1887 Te Heuheu Tukino, paramount chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa, gifted the sacred peaks of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and part of Ruapehu, to the people of New Zealand. This prevented the land being divided up and preserved the mana (prestige) of the Tuwharetoa people. The 2640ha area covered the summits of the 3 main peaks. That version has been challenged in recent times, with the Waitangi Tribunal stating in 2012 that Te Heuheu’s ‘tuku’ was not a gift in the English sense but an offer for the Queen to be partner or co-trustee of the mountains.

For almost a century, creation of National Parks focussed on grand scenery, places like Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, with its stunning mountains and icefalls, or Westland National Park, with its glaciers.  It was only in the late 20th century, that an  emergent environmental worldview identified the beauty and merits in less spectacular, but perhaps even more unique, ecological systems and landforms in our lower country. The push to protect the fulll range of  our biodiversity and geodiversity led to the creation of  Kahurangi National Park, Whanganui National Park, Paparoa National Park and others. Federated Mountain Clubs ‘The Remarkables National Park’ proposal would add to this representativeness, becoming the  first National Park centred on dry tussock country east of the main divide.

Future articles will look at land status under the Reserves Act and Conservation Act, including land with public access rights which makes-up, at least partly, the mythical Queens Chain.  

David Barnes is a long serving member of the FMC executive. He is FMC’s nominee to the NZ Conservation Authority, the public representative board which provides advice to DOC and the Minister of Conservation.