November 2009


In light of recent media coverage concerning the polluted state of the Manawatu River [click here to view TV news coverage], it is insightful to look back at the river’s history. Even a casual perusal of Papers Past indicates that the vexed issue of pollution of the Manawatu is certainly not a new one.

An article in the Manawatu Herald of 30 May 1890 reports on a meeting held by representatives of local bodies alarmed about Palmerston North Borough Council’s decision to let a contract to discharge the town’s sewerage  into the river. The following are two excerpts:

“[Foxton Mayor] Mr Gower said : The business for this meeting to discuss is the fact that the Borough Council of Palmerston N. have let a contract to convey the sewage of that town into the Manawatu river. It will be for us to consider what steps shall be taken to stop such action… (more…)

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Grass is integral to our agricultural sector, and therefore to our economy. Pasture grasses are exotic species introduced from Europe, and not always suited to our soils or environment. So how is it that pasture-farming has been so successful in New Zealand, despite the relative lack of fertile soils? The answer is phospate-based fertiliser. But another fragile island environment has paid a high price for the artificial fertility of our soils.

As Brooking, Hodge and Wood outline in “The grasslands revolution reconsidered” (Chapter 11, Environmental Histories of New Zealand), the term “grasslands revolution” was coined to celebrate the phenomenal increase in farming productivity which occurred, despite only a small increase in land. (more…)

Prior to human colonisation, it is thought that the New Zealand landmass was almost entirely covered in forest, apart from alpine areas. Between the beginning of Polynesian settlement in New Zealand around the fourteenth century and the beginning of organised European colonisation in the nineteenth century, it is estimated that forest cover was reduced by about half, largely through fire. When the European settlement of New Zealand began in earnest in the 1840s, it is estimated that forest, or ‘bush’ in the vernacular, covered about two thirds of the North Island and about 25 to 30 per cent of the South Island. In the decades that followed, bush was destroyed through milling and fire to make way for settlements and farms. By 1900, forest cover had been reduced by half again, to about 25 per cent.

Figure (below): Forest cover AD 1000, 1840, 2001 (Source: Kiwi Conservation Club)

“Evil” is a strong word – but when he wrote “The Evils of Deforestation” in 1909, J.P. Grossmann obviously felt strongly about the issue. He wrote: “Foremost among the inevitable effects of deforestation we must, therefore, rank floods and landslips.” He was not the first – nor the last – to express his concerns about deforestation in New Zealand. In 1877, Campbell Walker, the Conservator of State Forests had warned:

“I should view with very greatest anxiety any clearing of the hills which form the dividing range or back-bone of the island, and am convinced that it would be followed sooner or later, by the most disastrous results, both in the shape of deterioration of the climate, dangerous floods and drying up of sprints and sources of rivers.”

And in his book “New Zealand in Evolution” (1909), Scholefield states:

“In this period the denudation of the forest already had some detrimental effect on the climate here and there, and the severity of floods in the rivers was marked. With the hillsides and the upper reaches bare to the elements, the snow or rain-water passed off rapidly. The streams rose without the slightest warning, tearing down through gorges, eroding the banks, overflowing farms, and devastating the lower alluvial flats with silt and boulders. It was a very disastrous retribution for the recklessness of white man.

In this age of heightened environmental awareness, we tend to assume that our understanding of our impact on the environment has increased. These statements by our forebears a century or more ago show this is not the case – we would do well to take heed of their long-forgotten warnings…

[Photo: A late 19 century forest burn-off in Manawatu; Source: Palmerston North City Library]

When we travel through New Zealand’s countryside, very few of us recognise that much – if not most – of the “nature” we see around us is not “natural” to this land. The grass pastures of our farms, the ubiquitous stands of macracarpa or poplars, the willows along our river banks, and the vast expanses of radiata pine forest – all of these landscapes have been created by our forebears using introduced exotic species. But, irrespective of whether the trees and plants that make up the landscape are indigenous or exotic, many people find our rural landscapes attractive and a source of pleasure – so why should it matter? (more…)

This nature reserve, established in 1974, demonstrates the cyclical nature of our environmental history. It started with a small remnant of swamp forest that had escaped the fate of wholesale clearance suffered by all other swamp forest in the Kapiti region (and beyond).

The founders of the reserve* approached the farmer who owned the land – which was part of a sheep and beef farm at the time – about leasing the 13 hectare block which included the remnant forest. The farmer, Moss Smith, was somewhat bemused by their fervent interest in this boggy, “unproductive” piece of land, but in the end agreed to their request.

The original objective of the founders was to establish a bird sanctuary (hense the name Nga Manu – “the birds” in Maori)  – it was only later that they realised the immense significance of the area and opportunity it provided to protect the largest remnant of coastal lowland swamp forest on the Kapiti Coast. To this end, the Trust later purchased the land outright. (more…)

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