by Bob Burton
WELLINGTON, New Zealand, April 1, 2002 (ENS) - Two hundred environmentalists from across New Zealand spent the Easter weekend celebrating a government decision to add 130,000 hectares of rainforests, previously slated for logging, to national parks and other conservation reserves.
For Westport resident, Pete Lusk, who has been campaigning on the issue for over 20 years, last week's decision is a dream come true. "It's a wonderful achievement by thousands of activists over a 30 year period," he said.
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark has announced that all 130,000 hectares (321,243 acres) of rainforests that were previously controlled by the government owned logging company, Timberlands West Coast, would be transferred to the Department of Conservation for protection.
Clark paid tribute to the activists who had endured attacks that were often vitriolic but never flagged in their advocacy. "I want to pay tribute to the dedicated conservationists who campaigned for many years for the protection of these forests. After 30 years of public debate, this land is secure from logging for all time," Clark said.
The catalyst for the campaign was a proposal in the mid-1970s for a major new logging scheme based on the extensive areas of cool temperate rainforests on the west coast.
A grassroots campaign against the proposal spawned protests across the country. One of the largest ever petitions - signed by over 340,000 of New Zealand's population of less than three million at the time - helped prompt the collapse of the proposal.
Despite the win, existing logging operations continued and swathes of ancient forests were logged, some for sawn timber and for export as woodchips - matchbox sized chips for use in papermaking.
With most of the original forests around the more populous parts of New Zealand long since cleared for agriculture, the rainforests that cloaked the coastal ranges of the West Coast became a national environmental focal point. While the clamor in the major cities for the protection of all the forests grew, there was an equally vociferous resistance by the sparsely settled and poorer communities of the west coast.
As the campaign continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s, harassment of outspoken local environmentalists became commonplace. "It was a dangerous occupation. At times I had to keep my head down for months after being threatened with beatings," Lusk said.
To counter the groundswell of opposition to the logging, Timberlands, advised by the New Zealand office of international public relations company Shandwick, stepped up its own campaign. The Timberlands and Shandwick campaign backfired badly when hundreds of pages of leaked documents revealed that even though Timberlands is a government owned agency it had run a covert lobbying campaign - even lobbying government ministers.
"The main thrust," stated one Shandwick strategy document for Timberlands "is to limit public support for environmentally based campaigns against Timberlands, thereby limiting public pressure on the political process." In another document Shandwick spelled out how Timberlands should deal with environmental opposition to the rainforest logging. "Neutralize likely opposition. Identify key figures. Monitor their program. Counter misconceptions."
Bowing to public pressure and angered by revelations that Timberlands had been seeking to influence its own policy, the opposition Labor Party pledged itself to end the logging of native forests if it won office. The National Party Government led by then Prime Minister Jenny Shipley had strongly backed Timberlands' logging proposals.
At the national election in November 1999, Shipley was defeated. Soon after gaining office the new Prime Minister, Helen Clark, announced the government would phase Timberlands logging out over a two-year period and transfer the forests into national parks and conservation reserves.
For many west coast residents, the long held antagonism towards environmentalists has softened with the growth in nature based tourism. "The mayor of Westport up until last year was predicting unemployment, doom and gloom for the region. But now with the surge in tourism, he gives very optimistic speeches. It is hard to credit, really," says Lusk.
Gerry McSweeney, himself a successful West Coast ecotourism operator and president of one of the country's largest environmental organizations, the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand, believes that with the resolution of debate over logging environmentalists now need to ensure good management of the new protected areas.
Last week Dr. McSweeney launched the Okarito Declaration, named after a spectacular Okarito lagoon now surrounded by protected forests. The document outlined the need for government and non-government programs to control introduced deer, possums and other pests in order to maintain the world heritage values of the forests. "Sound management of tourism on these new conservation lands poses big challenges," he said. Already, the growth of tourism based on the conservation reserves is causing major management challenges from traffic contol, planning for accommodation and managing noise from scenic flights.
For his part, Lusk is now working with other campaigners in South America and Australia pushing for the protection of the cool temperate rainforests that originated on the super-continent of the southern hemisphere, Gondwana. "Some of us activists are now involved with the Gondwana campaign to save forests in other nations through a sister park project. It's a great feeling to be able to stretch out like this," he said.