Home' Greymouth Star : April 1st 2017 Contents Saturday AAfternoon
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Department of Conservation turns 30
A fire drill near Reefton, about four years ago.
The restoration of the Lake Mahinapua
paddle steamer began under the Forest
Service, and was taken up by DOC.
Before it was done up
— Donovan’s Store at
Okarito. DOC’s John
Bainbridge and Annabelle
Hasselman are in front.
DOC’s Shane Cross, Mike Slater (who
spent many years as West Coast conservator)
and Paul Banks in the Landsborough.
DOC has been at
the forefront of
Zealand. Overnight, familiar entities
the Post Office, State Coal, Forest
Service and Lands and Survey were
gone. Prime Minister David Lange said the
changes were “critical”.
Amidst the turmoil, a brand new government
department was born, entrusted with the control
of about 84% of the West Coast land mass. So
arrived the Department of Conservation.
The Coast did suffer from the change of ‘87.
At the Strongman coalmine, 100 of 177 miners
were made redundant. Jobs went in the railways,
in the Post Office and in the Forest Service. At
Hari Hari alone, 50 jobs went overnight that
“The Forest Service died this week, and
things will never be the same again,” the
Greymouth Evening Star mourned.
The forestry village in the town, set up in
1962 with a population of 100, was gutted.
The Forest Service left behind an office store,
four-bay work shed, nursery, carpentry shop and
fire depot. Everything else was gone and with
it $1 million in wages. People wore ‘RIP Forest
This was Rogernomics. In the cities the first
yuppies appeared, thanks to deregulation of the
financial markets, but on the Coast whole towns
Trevor Johnston retired from DOC last year
after almost two decades. He had a background
in native logging and farming, and went on to
become the respected face of the Greymouth
“I think the public perspective and support
for the department changed considerably in the
18 years I was there.”
When they used to gauge favourability
with the community, DOC would only poll
about 30% on the Coast. They no longer do that
polling, but he suspects DOC would come in a
lot more highly now.
These days, volunteers are often found side
by side with DOC, whether planting out the
whitebait habitat on Cobden Island or trapping
stoats to help save endangered birds.
Mr Johnston notes that with DOC, new
people moved to the West Coast and they were
sometimes more supportive than Coasters.
“And the West Coast has changed over the
past 20 years.”
The Coast is different now. Yet there are still
echoes of those rough years. In 1987, like now,
the Coast was bleeding jobs and the newspapers
were predicting that 2105 people would be
unemployed on the Coast within 12 months of
the big restructure — an unemployment rate of
The future looked bleak and it became a
catchphrase on the Coast: ‘would the last one to
leave, turn out the lights’.
Bruce Watson is best known in Hokitika
today as the proprietor of the town’s Take Note
bookshop. But in 1986, he was working in the
little-known environmental section of the Forest
He got the job of setting up DOC on the
West Coast — from scratch.
In the 1980s he was the principal
environmental forester with the Forest Service
and his small team did a variety of work,
including forming the Okarito Trig and Croesus
He was the very first appointment to the
new Department of Conservation, and became
regional manager. He started in late 1986 and set
about picking his deputies as the April deadline
The Forest Service employed 500 people
on the West Coast — DOC only needed 180.
Those left behind had few options, though
Timberlands was one.
“There was widespread sympathy, it was a
very disruptive time,” Bruce said.
Staff came from the former Department of
Lands and Survey, National Parks and Reserves
Board, Wildlife Service, New Zealand Forest
Service and Historic Places Trust. A few Forest
Service field work jobs rolled over; everyone else
had to apply.
They were taking on 16 staff a day at one
stage. A lot of the new breed came from off the
West Coast, along with those drawn from the
He said they made good appointments and
got off to a good start, despite the difficult time.
Inevitably, though, there were challenges. The
new Conservation Act had imperfections. One
flaw was it did not allow mining or prospecting
on conservation land.
As they waited for Parliament to iron it out,
machinery lay idle on West Coast gold claims
as the commodity price rose. Men desperate
for work could not chase gold. By the time the
legislation was changed, they had a backlog of
700 licences and had to use a special taskforce to
“You can imagine the tensions that caused.”
But DOC went on: “It was a generation ago,”
Jim Staton has 52 years under his belt
between the Forest Service and DOC.
He did heritage management under Bruce
Watson and his job simply rolled over to DOC,
where he continued working for Bruce but with
a new employer. He recalls the mass job losses.
“But for me, all we did was change the locks
and carry on doing my job.”
DOC has evolved in the three decades since.
It enjoys more sympathy these days, and in turn
DOC is clearly focused on certain causes.
A defining moment came in 1995 — the
Cave Creek disaster, when 14 young people
lost their lives when a shoddy viewing platform
above a chasm near Punakaiki collapsed under
“Cave Creek certainly changed not only
DOC but New Zealand’s way of looking at
safety,” Jim says.
Eugenie Sage, now a Green Party MP, also
worked for Bruce Watson in the environmental
section of the Forest Service in Hokitika in
1983-84. By 1987 she was working for the
Minister of Conservation.
She said things changed in 1995 with Cave
DOC was restructured to establish clearer
lines of accountability and reporting, and there
was a much greater focus on reducing physical
risk. The enthusiastic “can do” culture of DOC’s
early days disappeared.
On the other hand, the major restructuring
in 2014 “was completely flawed because of
confused reporting lines it created”.
Staff numbers were slashed, and DOC was
criticised for forgetting the lessons of Cave
“The effort and time needed to re-establish
normal working relationships was a drag on the
department for several years.”
DOC had a key statutory role as an advocate
for nature beyond the conservation estate, on
private and pastoral lease land.
“DOC was once proud of this work but in
recent years has become increasingly timid. T
he legal and scientific expertise DOC once
provided to councils in RMA decision making
processes helped protect the Mokihinui River
from a hydro dam, ensure marine farms in the
Marlborough Sounds are appropriately sited and
better protected West Coast wetlands on private
land,” Eugenie says
Today DOC is “struggling” to cope with
increasing visitor numbers and immense pest
and biodiversity challenges with a budget that is
declining in real terms. More than 2700 species,
many of them only found in New Zealand, are
threatened with extinction.
Despite this, she says DOC has done an
amazing job over the past 30 years to prioritise
its biodiversity work.
They have built well designed and significant
tourism facilities at popular sites such as Cape
Foulwind and Aoraki-Mount Cook’s Hooker
And of the future?
“The sea needs much more attention. A few
small marine reserves have been established on
the West Coast but hundreds of New Zealand
fur seals are still caught in hoki nets off the West
Coast each year.”
By April 1, 1987, people were already calling
this new department ‘DOC’.
Shane Hall — who has managed the
Greymouth office for many years — was in an
unusual position in 1987.
He was an environmental ranger with the
Forest Service, working in Hokitika and Hari
Hari. His team built and maintained huts and
tracks and structures, processed permits and did
“I was appointed to be the district
conservator for Hokitika when DOC started.
My job offer arrived by telegram, and I also
received a job offer to work at Forest Corp (later
Timberlands) for Dave Hilliard, but I liked the
sort of work that DOC would be doing so I
chose to work for DOC.”
Shane was one of the first employees in
September 1986, helping set up systems and
The 30th birthday today is a watershed
moment for conservation in New Zealand.
Many DOC offices are celebrating
with a birthday barbecue with friends, local
communities and former staff.
At the time of DOC’s formation, New
Zealand’s relationship with its environment was
There was a grassroots swell of activism
reflecting the public’s opposition to the ongoing
destruction of irreplaceable natural heritage in
the name of short-term development.
In 1987, the current director general of
conservation Lou Sanson was in Invercargill.
“Since its beginning, DOC has made
headlines for its world-leading efforts in
protecting natural values and providing
recreation opportunities. All the key conservation
milestones over the last 30 years in New Zealand
have been achieved with great teams of DOC
staff and their supportive communities,” Lou
“The social environment has changed and
the value of nature is more widely recognised.
DOC continues to work with its communities
of interest to provide access, make everyone
welcome and protect New Zealand’s wild places.”
He lists key milestones: solid relationship
with its treaty partners; the expansion of the
marine reserves network; establishment of the
‘great walks’; landscape scale predator control;
and bringing some species back from the brink
But he says DOC can’t face these
conservation challenges alone. Now it looks for
partnerships, from grassroots community groups
making a local difference, to partnerships with
some of New Zealand’s largest companies.
The growth in tourism is supporting regional
prosperity, and brings its fair share of challenges,
The bond between everyday New Zealanders
and the country’s natural heritage is now
stronger than ever, Lou says.
“The beauty and vitality of our nature drives
our national well-being and is what we’re famous
for on the world stage.”
Some of the first DOC managers on the
West Coast were: Doug Sowman (deputy
regional manager); Dave Bishop (conservator,
Inangahua); Kevan Wilde (conservator, Buller),
Shane Hall (conservator, Ahaura), Murray
Reedy (conservator, South Westland), Gideon
Anderson (senior conservation officer), Craig
Murdoch (senior conservation officer), Herb
Familton (senior conservation officer), Paul
McGahan (senior conservation officer).
The Department of Conservation was born in the Rogernomics era when government departments were dismantled,
dispatched or corporatised. DOC, as it quickly became known, rose from the ashes of the New Zealand Forest Service,
although they had very different purposes in life — one to exploit, the other to conserve. The loss of the Forest Service —
its place taken by a powerful new conservation-based entity with a lot of staff coming in from off the West Coast — was a
bitter pill for the Coast. Resentment simmered and people were suspicious. Thirty years on, DOC has finally found its place
in the community. For its birthday today, LAURA MILLS spoke to a few of those who were there at the start in 1987.
A conservancy work day at Waiuta in
the late 1990s. They are working at the
lodge, on the site of the old hospital.
The Ross jailhouse is moved. It is
now a popular tourist attraction.
Laying the rail
at the popular
Brunner Mine Site.
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