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On Saturday 29 July 2023, Nicola Toki delivered her State of the Nation address to a room full of delegates at Forest & Bird's Centennial Conference.

Korihi te manu 
Taikiri mai I te Ata 
Ka ao, ka ao 
Ka awatea 
Tihei Mauri Ora 

E nga maunga whakahi 
E nga pou korero 
Te Atiawa, ki Taranaki Whanui 
Tēnā koutou 

E nga manu o te wao nui o tane 
E nga uri hoki o te moana nui 
Tēnā koutou katoa,  
Ko Nicola Toki ahau. 

No reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa. 

The year is 2123. You walk outside the door of the building you live in – maybe it’s a multi-storey apartment block cloaked with native vegetation and featuring a rooftop rain garden. It’s forecast to rain today so you’ve left your e-bike in the shed and are opting for public transport. It’s easy to catch a bus or a train, powered by renewable energy, with a fast and reliable service.

The dawn chorus this morning is deafening. Abundant tūī, kākā, pīwakawaka, korimako and more live alongside you in this urban centre. Outside of the city, the piercing call of kiwi is a common sound in most native forest, and kākāpō are even making a proper comeback on the mainland. Seabirds are returning to some parts of the mainland too, fertilising the ngahere with nutrients from the moana. The boom in wildlife is partly thanks to ridding New Zealand of possums, mustelids, and rats a few decades ago. Feral cats have gone now too, after being added to the Predator Free strategy 95 years ago.

Extreme weather has increased, as climate scientists predicted, but a remarkable reduction in carbon emissions across the 2020s and 2030s has meant that impacts are not severe as they could have been.  

Investment in nature-based climate solutions decades ago mean that wetlands – now quadrupled across the motu – soak up water, while rivers have room to flow and flood when they need to, without inundating communities and infrastructure.

Previous generations had to make difficult decisions about retreating from coastlines and floodplains, and changing the way they'd always done things on the land. But New Zealanders rose to the occasion. Steep hillsides were retired from farming and forestry and converted back to native forest, supported by carbon and biodiversity credits. The newest Great Walk runs through some of this regenerated forest in Tairāwhiti. 

You can now swim in many rivers and whitebait have come off the threatened species list. Farmers nurture native habitats alongside sustainable food production. Kelp forests are flourishing where kina barrens once covered the seafloor, and scallops and other shellfish have returned to seabeds once plundered to the edge of extinction.  

Marine protection legislation passed in the late 2020s meant that New Zealand’s marine protected areas now speckle the coastlines and wider moana, with the vast Kermadec Rangitāhua Ocean Sanctuary rounding out 40% protection of Aotearoa’s ocean realm. 

In 2123, New Zealanders love and appreciate wildlife and wild places – and not just for their scenic qualities. All Kiwis understand the importance of protecting, restoring and investing in nature and the value it returns to their lives. 

This is one vision for the future, 100 years from now. You might think it sounds fanciful or overly optimistic. But imagining something better than what we have now is key to charting a course out of the current storm. 

This is one vision for the future, 100 years from now. You might think it sounds fanciful or overly optimistic. But imagining something better than what we have now is key to charting a course out of the current storm. 

In my career, I cheerfully celebrate our wonderful wildlife, expound the virtues of less-than-charismatic critters, and get people excited about “the nature”. I walk a tightrope of hope with apathy on one side and doom and gloom on the other. After a bit more than a year in my role as chief Twig and Tweeter, I’m still tiptoeing that line of hope. But I’m also fed up. I’m cross.  

Because if you look to our leaders, look at the kōrero and actions of those in power on all sides, you’d never guess that we’re barrelling headlong into a double crisis of climate change and biodiversity loss. 

Forestry slash on Gisborne foreshore, in 2023. Image Barry Foster

Forestry slash on Gisborne foreshore, in 2023. Image Barry Foster 

We’re seeing climate-fuelled extreme weather wreak havoc in our communities firsthand, with devastating effect. More than 4,000 native species are slipping towards extinction. We continue to let commercial interests pillage our oceans and conservation land at the expense of our unique biodiversity. Almost half of our river length is unswimmable due to contamination and habitat destruction continues apace – between 2012 and 2018, the net loss of native vegetation was equivalent to more than half of Abel Tasman National Park.  

Our house is on fire and decision makers are sleepwalking through the smoke-choked hallway while flames lick doorways and the fire alarm blares. No one’s grabbing the fire extinguisher or calling 111. It’s crickets on all sides of the fence, even as we emerge from a summer marred by cyclones and floods and drought. As we approach an era-defining election, where is the action? The urgency? The price on agricultural emissions?

Politicians have been kicking the climate action can down the road for three decades. It’s wildly irresponsible and deeply unfair, not just for people, but also for the wildlife we share Aotearoa with, who don’t have a voice nor a vote.

It’s bloody appalling that at this critical juncture, a tipping point, no one vying for our votes is mentioning climate or biodiversity. What could be more of a ‘bread-and-butter' issue than the very foundation of the system that gives us bread and butter – nature.

It’s time for decision makers to take their bread and butter and eat a reality sandwich. We can’t just saunter through a planet on fire like it’s business-as-usual. And it’s no longer enough to just say "the house is on fire”. An emergency doesn’t call for empty declarations. It calls for action. Someone has to grab the fire extinguisher and start putting out the damn fire. 

Many of the most effective solutions for reducing emissions and adapting to a climate changed world come from the ingenuity of our greatest teacher: Nature.  

Now more than ever, we need to recognise the value of nature's solutions and invest for a sustainable return. We know that nature will protect us, keep us safe and help us thrive – but only if we protect and restore nature first.  

Think back to Cyclone Bola in 1988 – another devastating natural disaster. An inquiry from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment following this event found that catchments with native forest produced less silt and debris. We had put too much faith in hard infrastructure like stopbanks. And we needed better land-use planning to get infrastructure, investment and people out of vulnerable floodplains.

Going even further back, Forest & Bird’s founder Captain Val Sanderson wrote to all election candidates about deer, erosion and floods. Just three years later, in 1938, devastating floods hit the Esk Valley.  

And so history repeats itself with Cyclone Gabrielle. The lessons of Cyclone Bola, of historic floods, went unheeded.  

But Cyclone Gabrielle has not just changed the landscape physically, but also emotionally, catapulting climate change into the top 5 issues for New Zealanders. The mandate for action is obvious. We must work with nature instead of trying to constrain natural forces much more powerful than us and our stopbanks. 

Lake Mahināpua wetlands near Hokitika. Image Caroline Wood

Lake Mahināpua wetlands near Hokitika. Image Caroline Wood

Luckily, the opportunities to build back better and smarter are clear. We’ve compiled ten of them in a handy plan for action called Climate Shift alongside 30 other organisations representing thousands of Kiwis. Solutions include making room for rivers, so our awa have the space to flow and flood when they need to, without inundating homes and infrastructure. Restoring wetlands, which slow rainwater down, protect communities from storm surges and sequester carbon. Today, only an estimated 10% of our original wetland extent remains. But there’s so much opportunity to right this wrong: our mapping analysis indicates that 125,000ha of river and stream margins, farmland, conservation land, parks, and other areas in public ownership are ripe for wetland restoration. That’s an area almost the size of Wellington city. 

Native forests, too, lock up carbon. They stabilise the soil and help prevent erosion – reducing the mountains of silt sent avalanching down valleys during intense downpours. To reduce the risk of silt torrents and slash, we should retire marginal and steep land and convert it back to native forest, and prioritise native forest over pines in our emissions trading scheme. However, this must go hand-in-hand with proper pest control – like Sanderson advocated for 90-odd years ago. Forests can only deliver carbon and anti-erosion benefits when they’re not being munched to oblivion by browsing pests like deer, goats, and possums, whose populations have exploded all over the country, to the point that NZ scientists have recently published a paper saying that deer and other hoofed browsers have been mostly ignored, and this is just one problem in how we manage national biodiversity. They think our current conservation approach is unbalanced and we’ve taken our eye off the ball.

These are win-win-wins, with benefits for the climate, for people, and for wildlife. Instead of giving nature-based solutions peanuts, we should be investing properly in them like the powerful assets they are, so we can start seeing sustainable returns.

But if we’re going to confront the climate crisis properly, authentic leadership demands real emissions reductions across all sectors - and yes, that absolutely includes farming. It’s not fair on farmers to continue delaying and delaying what absolutely must happen: a price on agricultural methane emissions.  

It’s not fair on all other New Zealanders and sectors of business who have to take action. Everyone has to play their part.

It also includes leaving fossil fuels in the ground. It seems unthinkable to open new coal mines, or undertake exploratory drilling for oil, as we stare down the barrel of climate change. It is even more absurd that decision makers still seem to consider that conservation land is a suitable setting for mining. Conservation land is for nature, for our shared rich natural heritage. It’s not for lining the pockets of Australian mining billionaires or stacking gold in the bank vaults of the world’s wealthiest. The Government committed to ending new mines six years ago, and we'll continue to hold them to this promise until it’s honoured.

Our national identity as New Zealanders is founded on our unique lands and oceans, and our proud history of protecting them.  

We love to be world leaders – whether it’s the Black Ferns winning the Rugby World Cup or our revolutionary no-take marine reserve – one of world’s first – established at Goat Island in 1971.

But we’re increasingly slipping down the leaderboard. Our progress on marine protection has stalled at a pitiful half a percent of our exclusive economic zone. Our failure to tackle agricultural emissions is embarrassing – not to mention our general dragging of feet on meaningful emissions reduction, despite having among the highest per capita emissions in the developed world.

Is this really who we want to be? A global laggard, inflicting death by a thousand cuts on the environment that we say means so much to us? It feels like the path we’re walking down, led by our decision makers, is not just threatening our ongoing prosperity, but tearing at the fabric of our very national identity. New Zealanders have to choose one way or another, we have to embrace who we are. In my heart, I know we’re not careless exploiters of the earth.

Ultimately, the keystone in our ecosystem of building back better and tackling climate change is people. It’s us. This is why Forest & Bird is collaborating with more than 30 organisations on the Climate Shift campaign – to collectively spur effective climate action. Because it’s all of us, banding together, that make change possible. 

In the conservation movement, we often think of big personalities like David Attenborough, or Jane Goodall, maybe even Pax Assadi. But these individuals alone can’t make change – they spark something, inspiring people to come together, create or find a like-minded community.

Our founder, Captain Val Sanderson, sparked a movement here in Aotearoa New Zealand that has endured. It’s lasted through huge social and economic change, including the Great Depression, World War II, four global recessions and the COVID-19 pandemic. The movement started as the Native Bird Protection Society and is now Forest & Bird, but despite the name change and significant societal transformation, many things about the Society remain the same. As part of our centennial celebrations, we’ve been embodying the whakataukī, Ka mua ka muri. Walking backwards into the future. And we’ve been finding values that resonate today: the passion for nature, hope, and action demonstrated by our founders remain a core part of our kaupapa.  

We’ve also been finding messages that are relevant 100 years on - like calling for deer control in our forests. Or discussing what Pākehā could learn from te ao Māori, as illustrated by the heartfelt message translated into te reo Māori on this poster.

Forest & Bird's Panui poster. Forest & Bird archives Alexander Turnbull Library. Image supplied.

Forest & Bird's Panui poster. Forest & Bird archives Alexander Turnbull Library. Image supplied.

“Notice to the Māori people and the Pakeha of the nation.  

My friends, you should know that the descendants of Tane of the flight, and Tane of the trees are becoming smaller in number. 

From the accidents and the loss of forest habitat and the biting of the gun. Therefore, the thought has come about that we should look after what remains and care for the survivors. We should grow our awareness to take care of the descendants of  Punaweko, the mother of all land birds, and Hurumanu, the creator of all sea birds so they aren’t lost like the moa.  

There are a lot of benefits that come from the tribe of birds. If there are no birds, men will die, food will disappear as well as the trees, because they will be overcome by insects and disease. Birds provide benefit to us by spreading the seeds around the forest, and protect flowers, by keeping down insects that would otherwise impact them.  

Therefore everyone, we should be considerate of the trees and love the birds that fly. Stop killing them, so that the descendants of Punaweko, will live to see the world of light.  I implore you to share this message and be a part of this group to help our birds."

(As an aside, that PO Box at the bottom of the poster is still our PO Box today, in case you’d like to send us some snail mail.) 

The power of Forest & Bird comes not from a visionary founder or a chief executive, but from the collective. From hundreds of thousands of people who have contributed to nature over a century, raising our voices to call for the things that science and evidence tell us, the things that will create a better world for our rangatahi, tamariki and mokopuna, the things that truly matter. 

Think of the campaign to save Lake Manapouri in the 1960s, which garnered New Zealand’s biggest ever petition of 265,000 signatures. Or the Fight for our Forests in the 1980s, which successfully ended native logging. Or more recently, our efforts to save Te Kuha on the West Coast of the South Island, from becoming an open-cast coal mine, made possible by thousands of everyday New Zealanders. 

Our Forest & Bird logo might have featured a tūī for many decades, but it’s people that make up the heart of the Society. 

So I must thank the Forest & Bird whānau for coming together to make change for wildlife and wild places: our board, our staff, our branches, our donors, our volunteers of all ages and from all walks of life, our Kiwi Conservation Club and our Youth Network.  

And I thank the speakers and thought leaders here today for their courage to face challenging questions and have bold conversations at a time when nature needs us the most. 

I’d like to end on a happy note. Because when the mahi gets tough, we can always look to nature for a moment of joy and inspiration. Eighteen years ago, in 2005, the very first Bird of the Year took place. It was a poll, included in Forest & Bird’s first ever email newsletter. The tūī won. In the intervening years, a simple poll has grown to become a national institution and a beloved celebration of Aotearoa’s native birds.  

We’ve had some crazy moments: a competition favourite, the kākāpō, kicked out for being too popular. A bat taking out the title. This year, you’re not just voting for your Bird of the Year. This year, you’re voting for your Bird of the Century.

BOTY 2023 Logo
Whēkau laughing owl, South Canterbury, 1909, about five years before it became extinct. Image Cuthbert & Oliver Parr

Whēkau laughing owl, South Canterbury, 1909, about five years before it became extinct. Image Cuthbert & Oliver Parr 

To celebrate our 100th birthday, we’re searching for the bird that has captured New Zealanders’ hearts over the last century. We are adding five extinct birds to the running this year, all of which have possible sightings recorded within the last 100 years. They are: the piopio, the bush wren, the laughing owl, the South Island snipe and the huia. Voting opens a little bit later this year – due to the other, equally important election – on Monday 30 October, and runs for two weeks. We hope you’ll get involved in the fun - and cast votes for nature, for the climate and for our future in both of this year’s big elections. 

No reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa. 

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