Nature’s watchdog for 90 years

 Forest & Bird has played a huge role in shaping the Kiwi view of nature and conservation. Marina Skinner looks at Forest & Bird’s early years from 1923 and  whether there’s still a place for us.

Success is attending the movement for the greater protection of native birds,” Wellington’s Evening Post reported on March 31, 1923. At a public meeting  three days earlier the New Zealand Native Bird Protection Society was launched, and a former prime minister, Sir Thomas Mackenzie, elected president of a group of august men.

The driving force behind the new organisation was Captain Val Sanderson, who called the meeting to spur New Zealanders into action to save native birds. He  despaired at the loss of birds such as the huia and was angered by offi cials passing the buck instead of protecting wildlife and forests. He was also concerned that children didn’t care about or know their native birds. 

The fledgling  group aims were: “To advocate and obtain the efficient  protection and preservation of our native birds, a bird day  for our schools, and unity of control of all wildlife.” It cost five shillings (50 cents) for adults to join for a year, and one shilling for children.

Today mainstream New Zealand has a wide appreciation of native plants and wildlife so it’s hard to grasp how radical the new society was in 1923. For more than a century entire forests had been hacked and burned for farmland and towns; settlers had drained wetlands; acclimatisation societies had introduced possums, rabbits, deer and trout for fur and sport; and stoats, weasels and ferrets had joined the menagerie in a failed attempt to control rabbits. 

European birds and trees were imported to re-create a Britain of the south.  Populations of native birds plummeted as habitats were destroyed, introduced mammals ate them and people shot them as pests or for food. Some noticed the dramatic loss of birds and collected specimens of the rarest as stuffed reminders of soon to be extinct species.

Many believed that, like Mäori, native birds would be displaced by superior Old World genes. 

By the late 19th century a tentative sense of identity had begun to emerge. Illustrations of native birds became symbols of a new and distinctive nation, and national parks and island sanctuaries were created to preserve pockets of biodiversity.

Kapiti Island was designated a bird sanctuary in 1897 and later became the symbol for Captain Sanderson’s frustration at the government’s half-hearted conservation efforts. The retired businessman and war veteran visited 

Kapiti Island in 1914 and returned in 1921 to fi nd it overrun with possums, goats and the sheep that should have been fenced on the private land at the northern tip of the island.

“We have robbed the birds of tremendous areas of bush on the mainland. Are we not patriotic enough to give them a last secure resting place on this small island, seven miles by one mile in area, in order that our children and children’s children may see and learn what New Zealand was really like when their daring fore-fathers first set foot in this land of ours?” he wrote in Forest magazine in 1922.

Captain Sanderson was Forest & Bird’s fi rst advocate and first communications manager. He was a master of spin and adept at capturing media attention. If he couldn’t achieve change by direct lobbying at Parliament, he could get onside with newspaper reporters, whose stories would influence their readers and persuade reluctant politicians. 

He educated members on conservation issues through letters, information sheets and reprints of newspaper articles. The first magazine for members appeared in 1924, a 14-page A5 edition called Birds and labelled Bulletin No 6. The articles could easily feature in this edition of Forest & Bird – the perils of introduced pests, the urgent need to protect native forests and wildlife, the beauty of wild places and praise for a Hokianga conservationist looking after native pigeons.

Early Forest & Bird members exploited new technology. In 1934 they began broadcasting news about nature on the radio and by 1930 an early vice-president of the Society, Lance McCaskill, was using a projector to show slides. By 1934 films were part of the publicity arsenal.

Children were a key audience from the start. A children’s page began in Bulletin No 9 of Birds and continued until the first Kiwi Conservation Club magazine in 1988.

The Society began principally as a national advocacy organisation, with the first branches formed in 1930 in Otago and Southland. These branches folded during the Depression and it was not until 1946 that the next branch (known as a “section”) was established in Christchurch. 

Almost all of today’s branches were created between 1954 and 1978, due to a growing membership and a heightened interest in local conservation issues.

The Society recognised native birds wouldn’t exist without their habitat, and in 1948 changed its name to the Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand. After 90 years it’s worth reflecting on whether Forest & Bird has achieved its original goals, and whether there is still a place for our Society. 

We can’t claim to have ticked off a bird day in schools but we have made great progress in obtaining “effi cient protection and preservation of our native birds” and “unity of control of all wildlife”. Captain Sanderson could only have dreamed of the Department of Conservation, created in 1987, which was achieved through significant Forest & Bird advocacy.

Forest & Bird was instrumental in saving Lake Manapöuri from being raised for a hydro dam. The Society worked to create the Abel Tasman, Paparoa and Kahurangi national parks and several high country parks and marine reserves, extend Westland Tai Poutini 

National Park and have Te Wähipounamu in the South Island recognised as a World Heritage site. We stopped native forests being logged, supported greater pest control, contributed to the recovery of endangered species, protected important areas from mining and improved the state of our freshwater. The tally is long and impressive. We have never been politically partisan. We are a watchdog over everyone.

Forest & Bird volunteers have contributed probably millions of hours to restoration projects, animal and plant pest control and local advocacy for wildlife and wild places. 

Several projects started by Forest & Bird have been taken over by new organisations and are thriving. Does Forest & Bird have a role in the 21st century when we have myriad government, independent and community  organisations looking out for the health of our wider environment and “effi cient protection and preservation of our native birds” and other wildlife?

It is difficult to imagine a time when Forest & Bird won’t be needed. Threats to nature arise in the most unexpected places, as we saw in 2010 when some cabinet ministers thought mining in national parks was a good idea. We have species such as Mäui’s dolphins and fairy terns on the cusp of extinction, and perils such as climate change. We’re helping New Zealand make great gains for conservation, too, such as a Kermadec ocean sanctuary and a predatorfree country.

Forest & Bird’s strength is in the breadth of our organisation – our 80,000 members and supporters, 48 branches and committee members, our staff and Executive, all of whom are dedicated to protecting the health and wealth of our environment. People join Forest & Bird for different reasons – to support national conservation and advocacy campaigns, to volunteer for community projects, to learn about conservation through local activities, our publications and online material, and to pass on to our children a love of nature. 

Forest & Bird has a new vision for the 21st century: “The unique natural environment and physical grandeur of New Zealand are maintained and restored to protect their intrinsic value and ability to sustain our people, native fl ora and fauna.” A gargantuan effort is needed to realise this aspiration. Thank you, Captain Sanderson, for making a bold start.