envirohistory NZ‘s founder and primary contributor, Catherine Knight, has been awarded a New Zealand History Research Trust Fund Award in History to research the environmental history of the Manawatū. The project, tentatively entitled “Forested hinterland to pastoral province: the environmental transformation of the Manawatū”, will ultimately result in a book. The research will canvass the region’s history from its Māori settlement through to the present day, and will make use not only of historical, archaeological and archival records, but also the latest palaeoenvironmental research.

Described as “waste land of the Colony” in a government announcement in 1871,* the Manawatū was one of the last regions to be “opened up” for organised settlement. So daunting the prospect of clearing this densely forested hinterland, Scandinavian immigrants – known for their skills as woodsmen – were specially recruited as pioneer settlers. These and other early settlers demonstrated remarkable efficiency and resourcefulness in transforming the landscape: within 30 years of organised settlement beginning in 1871, most of the forest below 600 metres had been cleared, making way for sheep and dairy farms and a number of fledgling towns including Palmerston North, Ashhurst, Feilding and Halcombe. Though a relatively late starter in New Zealand’s colonisation process, the region’s transformation was both rapid and dramatic.

Not only will the project seek to make a valuable contribution to the body of literature exploring New Zealand’s environmental history,  it will also aim to throw light onto the historical causes of contemporary environmental issues, thereby providing for “real world” application of historical knowledge to environmental management and policy.

* This term was not used in the pejorative sense that it might be today; it was used to refer to any land, initially that which was still in Maori possession, which was not cultivated or any other kind of “productive use”.

Photo: A historical settlement near the bridge on the Woodville side of the Manawatū Gorge (which no longer exists), looking back towards Woodville. The photograph is taken after the construction of the telegraph line in 1879-1880. A coach and team of horses are travelling over the bridge to Palmerston North. Palmerston North City Library ref. ID 2007N_Go5_EPN_0268