New Zealand has a “clean green” image – clear blue skies, vivid green hills dotted with white wooly bundles, lush forest clinging to steep mountains rising from the sea, endless perfect and untouched beaches, and beautiful snow capped alpine peaks. The current Tourism NZ pitch is that this is “the youngest country on earth.” As far as we know this is true; the first explorers from Polynesia discovered it less than 1000 years ago.
The “clean and green” reputation has been a great boon to this little island country; it was recently estimated that that image may contribute up to a billion dollars a year to tourism earnings, not to mention the benefit this reputation adds to its agricultural exports.
The land does have some right to its reputation. Much of the country is unspoiled and is surrealistically beautiful. However, other large portions of it have been heavily scarred by people, and these scars are recent; this is what I want to talk about here.
New Zealand has an interesting natural history. It was once mostly covered by native bush (forest) including one of the world’s largest trees, the kauri. The Maori arrived and found use for many of the forest’s products, and may have also burned some areas, but their ability to destroy large areas was limited by their lack of machines and tools. When the Europeans arrived, the clearing of the forest was top priority, and having the experience and tools, they accomplished it at an astonishing rate. As they settled, they logged the trees they thought were useful, and burned off everything else, laying waste to vast areas particularly in the north island. The skies were filled with smoke from continuous burning. Many other countries have been settled this way, but what is unique about New Zealand’s forest clearance was that it happened very quickly, and was recent enough to be photographically recorded.
Grass seed was spread amongst the stumps, and this was the start of the well-known green pastures that cover more than half of New Zealand’s land area. They are not natural pastures, as I used to think.
The settlers had to sustain themselves somehow. The forest had few edible products, and there were no mammals to hunt to provide meat. Since many of them came from northern Europe, they were used to raising domestic animals, and pasture was required for this. So I can understand why forest clearance would have seemed necessary at the time, and I may have done the same if in the settlers’ shoes.
What the settlers overlooked or didn’t understand was that the trees they removed had a really important role. Much of the land that is now pasture is steeply hilled and subject to erosion. The trees held the soil back, filtered runoff water, and eliminated damaging flooding. For example, in a 1938 storm near Gisborne, incredible flooding occurred. Thousands of acres slipped, streams rose by 18 metres, and one creek peaked at 1500 times its normal flow rate. The flooding would have been minimal if the trees were there. In addition to the physical obstruction to water runoff that the forest presents, it also shades and cools the ground, which makes conditions better for the rain to be absorbed (which also renews the water table) rather than running off.
Wetlands are important not only for the habitat they provide for wildlife, but also for their role in storing and filtering water. Large areas of wetlands in New Zealand have been drained to make more pasture or crop land. This also increases runoff and accelerated flooding and erosion.
So the settlers got what they wanted, but the land bit them back.
The New Zealand countryside is surprisingly scarred. I have been surprised that evidence of the violent taming of the land is still so visible. Most of it happened less than a hundred and fifty years ago and the land has not stabilized yet. Some pastures still show the remains of huge old stumps, which are nearly rotted away. Most hillsides are scarred by grazing animal tracks, gullies, slumps, and washouts.
The occasional tree stands on a lonely ridge as a reminder of what once was, surrounded by the ubiquitous grass. If it wasn’t for the vivid green grass, this would be a moonscape.
Yet even the green grass is not a given. The grass can’t adequately hold the rain, and soil nutrients erode away. Nutrients are trucked away in the form of milk, meat, and wool. In many areas sheep and cattle farmers find themselves under pressure to maintain the grass cover by fertilizer topdressed by airplane, yet this doesn’t replenish the so-important soil quality and biodiversity that is being lost. The streams leaving forested areas are clear, beautiful, and cheerful, but those draining pasture land are yellowy-brown, flow between wide slumping banks, and often host dense algae growth feeding on the nutrients that are being washed away.
Native New Zealand trees grow very slowly; those suited for timber may take 200-300 years to mature. As the native forests were cut down, people began to realize that their source of timber was disappearing, and wouldn’t return any time soon. So the government began a series of trials to determine the best tree for commercial growth (plantations). The winner
was the Monterey pine (pinus radiata), or Radiata pine as it is called here. This tree grows quickly, taking only 20 years to reach full height, and when planted densely grows straight and tall with few knots. Much of New Zealand is now covered by Radiata pine plantations. The mature plantations look remarkably like dense northern North American evergreen forest, except they are disconcertingly uniform; all the trees are the same age and species, and they are planted in rows and columns. Driving through the north island, you will see plantations in all stages, from recent harvest where the reject wood scraps have been bulldozed into piles, to barren hillsides uniformly dotted with tiny green seedlings, to mature groves.
The massive harvests from tree plantations are only made possible by the fertility of the soil in which the trees grow. When the wood is trucked away, the minerals that make up its structure will never be returned to the topsoil to maintain and increase its fertility. Thus, tree plantations are the equivalent of mineral “mines.” The tremendous growth rate and commercial value of Radiata pine is seen in New Zealand as a great success, but I wonder how long it will be before the mines are exhausted? And history tells us that when a mine is exhausted, it is abandoned, usually in a sorry state, and the next best resource is then exploited. Over centuries, this is how desert wastelands are formed, folks.
The most striking thing to me about the North Island landscape is the way the land has been chopped up, and the constrast between the parcels. A dense uniform tree plantation that looks like it belongs in the Arctic, neighbors land covered in native bush and tree ferns, which neighbors steep pasture, which neighbors a dense corn field; all with razor-sharp property boundaries in between. I find it a bit disconcerting, really.
I know similar things have been done to North America’s forests, but the wounds have healed over or blended together and tend to be less visible. I find being depressed when I see this destruction of New Zealand paradise. It is so visible here, so recent and raw. It shouts “greed.”
Sadly, New Zealand also is a world leader in the use of chemicals, sprays and poisons. For example, “Compound 1080” is one of the most lethal poisons known to man; a teaspoonful of the tasteless colorless water-soluble liquid is enough to kill 100 people in long agonizing death, and there is no
known antidote. New Zealand uses almost all of the world’s production of this poison. It is spread aerially to control the possum, which is a pest from Australia that is happily eating up our forests. It also kills innumerable other animals. Weed sprays are commonly used for roadside weed control, and arsenic treats millions of fence posts that surround our many pastures. All these poisons will accumulate in the environment and affect our water supplies, and chances are they will come back to harm us.
So is New Zealand clean and green? What do you think? Certainly the most spectacular scenery in the national parks and and untouched wilderness areas is beautiful. And the native bush is lush and very unique. Walking in the reserve near our home in Wellington is like bathing in green; most everything is covered with moss and lichen and the light filters through the native bush canopy. It is a wonderful peaceful place. Most parts of this country do have a great climate for growth and are vibrantly pure. New Zealand is an amazing place definitely worth experiencing. But it is in the “working” land – the pastures, farms, and tree plantations – where the ugly effect of people is apparent. We have been like animals defiling our beds – not a pretty picture.
I get pretty angry about this stuff. People are so stupid. Why can’t we just work with this land instead of forcing our way with it? There are so many other good solutions out there that don’t involve raping the land and spreading toxins. They are not as dramatic and make less short-term gain, but they are better in the long term. I feel bad about the future generations that will have to deal with all the damage. We’ve got enough to deal with now, and it will only get worse. Man. At least we can be grateful that nature is resilient enough to bounce back from our insults.
But being angry about it isn’t doing any good. Eilidh pointed that out to me the other day. I think I am going to tame it down and try not to worry about the things that I can’t change. There is no easy solution; the damage has happened quickly and we can’t change that. It will take a long time to restore balance. I just hope that we are willing to change our lifestyles before we are forced to do so after we’ve extracted all we can and the land is exhausted. I believe the most effective changes can be made in our lifestyle and buying choices (“vote with your money”); government intervention has its part, but will not do for us what we are not willing to do ourselves.