From adversity comes opportunity: the unlikely origins of QEII Trust

Having recently read Beyond the Scene: landscape and identity in Aotearoa New Zealand one particular anecdote stood out for me (see also: Landscape and identity in NZ). This anecdote is important for two reasons: one, it provides a salutary reminder that destruction of our indigenous forest cannot simply be relegated to a long-passed and unenlightened chapter of our history – in fact, it has continued into recent decades. But the anecdote also has a more uplifting lesson, reminding us of the old adage that out of adversity arises opportunity: that the most devastating circumstances, can, with the right mix of leadership, commitment and persistence, give rise to an outcome that brings benefits that in time outweigh the initial loss.

The story I refer to can be found in the beginning pages of “On Rocks and Recollections: Our home in the South Waikato”, in which Gordon Stephenson, semi-retired farmer (though he will suggest that there is no such thing as “semi-retirement”!) and long-time conservation advocate writes about his farm in Waotu, which is located roughly halfway between Hamilton and Taupo, in Waikato [click here to view location]

Gordon and his wife Celia bought the Waotu farm in 1964, on which they primarily farmed dairy cows, and raised their two sons and two daughters. They were attracted to the farm by the remnant stands of bush on the land. The name “Waotu” is apparently derived from the Maori phrase “he waotu tahi nga rakau” which roughly translates as “the place of tall trees that stand isolated”, referring to a solitary and ancient stand of bush about 10 km long and 1 km wide that stood along the ridge on which the farm is located. Totara, rimu, matai, kahikatea and pukatea were the dominant canopy species of this forest.

Prior to European settlement of the area in the 1880s, the Waotu area encompassed a number of Maori (Raukawa Iwi) settlements – including three marae – and the bush was a valuable source of food, shelter and other resources, including numerous spring-fed streams. With European settlement, Waotu was destined to be on the route of “civilization” – the main coach road from Cambridge to Taupo passed through Waotu, as did the telegraph line. Two hotels for coach passengers and a post office were also established in the township. However, with “progress” also came destruction. Beginning in 1896, the Waotu bush was milled, and by 1929, the 10 square kms of bush had largely been felled. Only about 10 per cent remained, and even within the remnant, the larger trees had been selectively logged.

This remnant survived for four decades, becoming an important feature in the local landscape – in which the locals took great pride – and providing valuable habitat for indigenous birds. Gordon recalled how, when he got up before dawn to milk the cows, the chorus was loud and strong. However, this rare and valuable survivor of settler milling was not to be preserved intact.

In 1971, four businessmen from nearby Putaruru bought the forty-acre block encompassing a large portion of the remnant bush and to the horror of the locals, proceeded to fell it for the timber. Once all the valuable timber had been extracted, they put the block back on the market.

Gordon and Celia bought the devastated block, and added it to their farm. However, this was not the end of this story – this incident was to plant the seed of an idea that was to have enduring consequences for the conservation of our natural heritage in New Zealand.

The experience – and the fact that there was absolutely nothing he could do to stop this kind of destruction of indigenous nature – had deeply alarmed Gordon. He began to think of way in which land such as this could be protected for perpetuity – a system of covenanting land. Over the next seven years, Gordon, who was at the time the chair of the dairy section of the Federated Farmers, “socialised” the idea of a “Heritage Trust” with his peers, and with politicians and government officials in Wellington. His persistence and persuasiveness ultimately won out and, Venn Young, the then Minister of Land in Muldoon’s National government, came to fully embrace the idea, becoming its champion within government spheres. In 1977, the Queen Elizabeth the Second National Trust Act was passed and the QEII Trust was established in November of that year; its aim “to encourage and promote, for the benefit and enjoyment of the present and future generations of the people of New Zealand, the provision, protection, preservation, and enhancement of open space”.

Today, just over three decades later, about 110 thousand hectares of land has been protected under 3,189 covenants, many of these for types of indigenous nature – such as wetlands and lowland forest remnants – that are under-represented in our conservation estate. This is a legacy that a “semi-retired” dairy farmer from Waikato, who saw opportunity in adversity, can be very proud of.

Source: Gordon Stephenson (personal communication); “Beyond the Scene: Landscape and Identity in Aotearoa New Zealand” (2010), edited by Janet Stephenson, Jacinta Ruru and Mick Abbott. Published by Otago University Press.

Photo top: One of the stumps of a rimu tree milled in 1971. Demonstrating the regenerative capacity of nature, an astelia has made a home in its hollowed-out top. Above right: Gordon and Celia on their farm today. Centre: The Stephenson’s farm today, showing the bush remnants (all photos provided by Gordon Stephenson). Bottom right: Minister of Lands Venn Young, with Eva Rickard in 1978.

See also: Landscape and identity in NZ

2 thoughts on “From adversity comes opportunity: the unlikely origins of QEII Trust

  1. That is a beautiful contribution to Enviro History NZ. But I am rendered speechless with disgust and shame at the behaviour of those 4 business minds. If only it could be said with confidence that the same thing would not happen now.

  2. What I really like about this story is that it challenges us to set aside our preconceptions about people and their attitudes towards land and nature. The public and media discourse on topical environmental issues such as dairy farming and fresh water has a tendency to become both polarised and binary, based on preconceptions and stereotypes about certain sectors of society.
    But here, one of the most significant developments in recent conservation history was brought about by a farmer – from what is now one of the most vilified “industries” in society – dairy farming; and supported (and made possible) by a politician from one of the most notoriously pro-development national governments of recent history!

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