Why is understanding our environmental history so important?

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?

In fact, it matters a lot. Understanding what we have done to modify our landscape is essential to understanding the causes of many of the environmental problems we face today, and perhaps most importantly, what we can do to resolve these problems.

This is the issue that Catherine Knight explores in her article “The Paradox of Discourse concerning Deforestation in New Zealand” (see Publications page for details). Catherine questions why, despite our forebears’ recognition of the nexus between deforestation and flooding a century or more ago, and their warnings that we must work to reforest hill-country if we are to avoid flood disasters in the future, this recognition appears to be almost completely absent in the aftermath of recent flood events such as the 2004 Manawatu floods.

Instead, we talk about raising stop-banks, dredging rivers and improving warning systems – none of which tackle the root cause of increasingly serious and frequent flood events. More about what our wiser forebears said about the connection between deforestation and floods can be read in The Evils of Deforestation post.

Above left: a fairly typical rural landscape in Horowhenua with radiata pine forest in the background, photo: Paul Knight. Right: a home teetering on the edge of the engorged Kiwitea stream during the Manawatu floods of 2004, source: Manawatu District Council.

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