Skip to main content

Scenery preservation 1903-1953

Page 2 – Scientific origins


European settlers in New Zealand struggled to rework the indigenous landscape. They wanted the trappings of civilised society they had left behind, not the wild and savage landscape of the new country. For many, the land and its bounty was a resource to be exploited. The forest was a source of timber for houses and fences; its removal was a constructive process of turning 'wasteland' into 'farm land'. Rocky peaks and swamps were of little value, useful at best for compensating Maori for the loss of more profitable lands.

The first dissenting voices came in the 1860s. Some people argued that burning, felling and draining were not always in the country's best interests. A number of scientists drew a link between forest clearing, hillside erosion and the loss of fresh water supplies. Naturalist Thomas Potts and politician/naturalist William Thomas Travers were inspired by George Perkins Marsh's landmark publication, Man and nature. They called for an end to the 'barbarous improvidence' of forest destruction, which they blamed for increased river flooding.

Premier Julius Vogel introduced a New Zealand Forests Bill in 1874. This recognised forests as finite resources and sought their managed exploitation. Most settlers rejected it as alarmist, unnecessary and harmful to progress.

By the end of the 1880s scientists were concerned about the loss of native plants and animals and the impact of introduced predators and pests. Taking their lead from Potts, who in 1878 suggested the creation of 'national domains' as refuges for native birds, scientific societies helped create offshore islands as flora and fauna reserves. These included Resolution Island (1891), Secretary Island (1893), Little Barrier Island (1895) and Kāpiti Island (1897). The societies were led by notable figures such as botanist Leonard Cockayne and politician Harry Ell.

The ecological argument grew from the Victorian belief that indigenous flora and fauna were fragile and needed protection. This argument also tapped into nationalistic ideas that the indigenous was uniquely beautiful and merited preservation. With this in mind, Ell called for 'representative' preservation rather than the more indiscriminate 'scenic' preservation that later took place.

How to cite this page

Scientific origins, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated