On the Front Line

Ann Graeme remembers some of Forest & Bird’s moments of courage and strength as a conservation leader.

When I was a child in the 1950s conservation hadn’t been invented – or not in small-town Tauranga. 

Every summer the mushroom clouds would billow from the hills as the Mamaku forests burned. It was the peak of native forest destruction, greater than any decade before or since. 

At the time it seemed inevitable. My mother mourned as the forest-fringed margins along the road to Rotorua were burned and replaced with pine trees. It was progress. The pioneer ethic was strong. What use was native forest? Once the timber was logged the forest could make way for cows or sheep or pine trees. It was unpatriotic to deny it. 

Forest & Bird voices were lost in the din of chainsaws. Members planted a tree here or had a picnic in a token remnant of native forest left by the all-powerful Forest Service. It wasn’t until the 70s that a radical and youthful movement arose and challenged the current ethos. This was BFAC, the unlovely acronym of the Beech Forest Action Council, and it came into being to oppose the clearance of South Island beech forests for the paper mills. Soon the tawa forests of the central North Island were also being fed into the hungry maws of the Japanese mills and BFAC became NFAC, the Native Forest Action Council.

They were young and fiery and eloquent. They climbed trees and blocked logging roads, held stormy meetings in logging towns and petitioned Parliament. Forest & Bird was at first wary of these brash newcomers but then, like a matriarch aroused from her sleep, the older organisation awoke, joined in and led the charge. 

Among those early Forest & Bird/NFAC members there were great conservationists – Guy Salmon, Gwenny Davis, Gerry McSweeney, Kevin Smith, Sir Alan Mark, Professor John Morton and more. From the ranks of NFAC protesters came many of the staff of Forest & Bird.

Looking back, the conservation movement was part of the social changes sweeping the Western World, changes that would eventually recognise the rights of women, children and people of all ethnic groups and sexual orientations. The growing conservation ethic challenged the Western, Christian philosophy of man’s dominion over nature and recognised that the natural world had value in itself. It was not just ours to exploit but ours to use wisely and to cherish. 

The Save Manapöuri petition sparked a sea change in attitudes to conservation, and Forest & Bird forged ahead, working for the protection of all publicly owned native forests and the establishment of new national parks. But native forest on private land continued to be destroyed with impunity, usually to make way for pine trees. In 1989 Forest & Bird took up the challenge. With protests and persistence, we negotiated the Tasman Accord. Tasman Forestry agreed to stop destroying native vegetation to plant pine trees and its reward was the promise that conservationists would support Tasman’s timber as sustainable. 

Then we extended the negotiations to the other major forestry companies and it became the NZ Forest Accord. That accord paved the way for the companies to obtain Forest Stewardship Certification, the international standard for sustainable timber and a valuable asset in a more environmentally conscious world. 

Other agreements between conservationists and forest owners followed: the New Zealand Climate Change Accord in 2007 and the accord Eliminating Illegal Forest products in New Zealand in 2008. In 1993 a campaign germinated in the Auckland Forest & Bird office. “Germinated” is the appropriate word here. Increasing numbers of introduced plants were escaping from gardens, becoming naturalised, weedy and invading native ecosystems, and nowhere was the problem more acute than in Auckland. Many of these plants were favoured in gardens and being sold in plant shops.

So the Forest Friendly campaign was born. A list was made of the worst pest plants and people were asked not to grow them, plant shops not to stock them and councils to ban their sale and distribution. Plant shops that complied were presented with a Forest Friendly Award.

That unleashed a storm. Hell hath no fury like a gardener protecting her plants. It is hard now, when every council has its biosecurity staff and its list of pest plants, to visualise the outrage that such a campaign would engender. 

Forest & Bird was expanding its role. Not only forests and birds needed protection but all our native ecosystems including the sea, the beaches and the dunes that shelter the land behind. Twenty-five years ago little thought was given to the plants that bind the dunes or the birds that dotterel tried in vain to rear its chicks as people trampled its nests, vehicles crushed its eggs and dogs chased its chicks. Forest & Bird members in Northland, Coromandel and the Bay of Plenty started little dotterel-minding groups, handing out leaflets, putting flimsy fences around dotterel nesting sites and asking people to leave the birds in peace. Again, there was outrage. Who did these Forest & Birders think they were?

“I’ve always gone fishing/walked the dog/ridden my horse across these dunes! It’s my right to do so!” 

But with goodwill and education people began to accept the little birds on the beach and in time became interested in them and proud to be their custodians. Most beach-goers now understand and comply willingly with the modest restrictions. Few would deliberately drive through a dotterel fence as used to happen. Both dotterels and variable oystercatchers now have greater nesting success. Their numbers are stable and even on the increase, a far cry from the perpetual decline of earlier years. 

There is a theme that runs through these stories. Forest & Bird has always been ahead of accepted behaviour. We were seen as radical and unreasonable, even called “communist” in an era when “reds under the bed” was still an issue. But with time, education and understanding the community espoused the new ideas and they were taken over and administered by regulatory bodies like councils and the Department of Conservation. Conservation measures that seemed over the top a decade ago are now the order of the day. 

Change only comes from radical ideas, not from middle of-the-road conformists. This is Forest & Bird’s role: to be provocative, to be leaders of the voice for nature. It is not always comfortable. It can be unpleasant. But this is how we change the world, step by step. 

From 1988 to 1992 Ann Graeme shared the role of Forest & Bird’s Central North Island Field Officer with her husband Basil.