Swamp area in the Rai Valley, Marlborough, with horses hauling a log over a tramway bridge. Photograph taken circa 14 December 1912, by James Raglan Akersten.

Swamp area in the Rai Valley, Marlborough, with horses hauling a log over a tramway bridge. Photograph taken circa 14 December 1912, by James Raglan Akersten. Not to be reproduced without permission of Alexander Turnbull Library, ref ID: 1/2-110328-F

We tend to think of battles for the preservation of indigenous nature in New Zealand as a phenomenon of the last few decades, particularly since Manapouri. However, these battles have been going on in New Zealand well beyond our lifetimes. One early example is the battle for the Rai Valley, located between the South Island towns of Nelson and Blenheim [click here to view location]. This was classic example of the tension between development versus preservation that continues to be a central to New Zealand’s environmental history to this day.

In the latest issue of Environment and Nature in New Zealand, Lynne Lochhead tells this compelling story. Ultimately, (spoiler alert!) the proponents for preservation of this magnificent valley forest lost their battle, but Lochhead suggests that the campaign for preservation achieved a moral victory, by proving that it could mobilise public opinion and carry through a sustained battle, which was taken as far as Parliament. In this way, the battle for the Rai paved the way for future campaigns for scenery preservation, and, Lochhead suggests, it was also likely to have played a role in the  subsequent passing of the Scenery Preservation Act 1903.

Lochhead also believes that this campaign was important in clearly articulating – often for the first time – a number of conservation principles, which would be accepted and promoted more widely by conservationists over subsequent decades, and are still highly relevant today. One of these was that, though upland forests might be scenically attractive and important for water and soil conservation values, it was the rich lowland forests which were of prime importance as a source of food for birds and that these needed to be of a reasonable size to maintain viable populations. Another related principle was that it was not sufficient to confine national parks to remote corners, which on account of their very inaccessibility, were under no immediate pressure for settlement or milling.

But for the full story, I recommend reading Lynne Lochhead’s cogently written article “Battle for the Rai”, accessible here.

Today, we can get some sense of the vast expanse of forest that once clothed this area by visiting the Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve, which was created in 1912.