Fighting the good fight, Philip Simpson

Fight for the Forests
Paul Bensemann
Potton and Burton, $70.00,
ISBN 9780947503130

This book is a marvellous chronicle of the people, the campaigns, the sorrows and sacrifices and, ultimately, the achievement to protect New Zealand’s unique publicly owned native forests. Set within the context of a brilliant overview by one of the fighters, Craig Potton, Paul Bensemann takes us through each campaign, in astonishing detail. The endnotes themselves are a valuable historical resource. It is a book that should have been written years ago, because it lays a platform for the next phase – to actually secure the health of the forests. This is alluded to in the author’s epilogue, which describes the inspiring army of restoration volunteers and the many small ecological successes. But he is sceptical, too, and the whole movement could slip away as social pressures build and money for pest control tightens. His book, however, is a peg in the ground that encourages success.

The author’s prologue ends with an image of the telegram, dated 26 January, 1978, from Prime Minister Robert Muldoon “announcing that logging would stop in the Pureora State Forest block occupied by the tree-top protestors.” He rightly highlights this, because it was a turning-point in New Zealand history and it eventually led to the disestablishment of government departments with internally conflicting roles, the establishment of the Department of Conservation, and an end to logging in publicly owned native forest. 

But the journey was long and hard. In chapter two, the book describes how the Manapouri campaign established a platform for quality protest – petitions, science, and genuine commitment by thousands of people. The book details the West Coast Beech Scheme, resulting in the formation of sophisticated protest organisations and eventually, in the Maruia declaration, a blueprint for a conservation-minded culture. The Pureora campaign is, to my mind, the centrepiece of this book, because it not only features the daring world-first tree-top protest and honed public education about flagship species (tōtara and kōkako), but it made government step backward and unified Pākehā and Māori aspirations. The campaign for Whirinaki, described in chapter eight, pretty much sealed the fate of development-oriented government departments. Chapter 11 outlines the campaign that led to the formation of Paparoa National Park and highlights the role of scientists and writers. Further chapters reveal the masterly process by which campaigners convinced officials of the importance of nature conservation to New Zealand, especially on the West Coast. And, in the final part of the book, a new generation of more militant protesters carried the process to its logical conclusion: “More than ever before, the movement had power, and the fight for the forests was over.”

The campaigns are one story, and readers will naturally focus on “their” campaign. But the most amazing stories are about the people involved: volunteers, poorly paid professional activists, scientists, politicians, bureaucrats. The author maintains a very strong focus on the people in the stories, because the fight is a totally human story, and the book ends with touching accounts of what the key players are doing now. Success depended not only on commitment, but public education about the issues, high-quality communication and, above all, compassion towards the people directly affected by changes in government policy. Bensemann highlights the interaction of campaigners with other conservation groups, especially Forest and Bird, and with iwi. He is sympathetic to the fact that many forestry workers were Māori, and whole towns would close when the mills shut down. 

Surprising revelations in the book concern the campaigns that followed the creation of the Department of Conservation in 1987, involving Timberlands, a State-owned Enterprise, essentially a revamped Forest Service. Large areas of forest were still being logged on the West Coast and protesters once again took to the trees, braving both local hostility and dangerous weather. Protests continued into the 21st century and, as Bensemann’s final chapter outlines, the campaign that had spanned two generations finally became part of the fabric of government. It was Helen Clark’s government that finally ended logging on publicly owned land. It is fitting that the former prime minister wrote the foreword to this book.

Bensemann’s writing style is engaging. He not only has a journalistic sense of the narrative and captures the drama of events, he also introduces or concludes a narrative with personal stories or somewhat poetic descriptions of a situation. This tends to dilute the sometimes daunting sequence of events, and also reminds us of the values that all the details are reflecting. If I have one small concern, it is with the structure of the book: the overview, prologue and introduction all come before the first chapter, though they possibly could have been combined. This aside, the book is a rich compilation of a struggle to end exploitative governing, a thrilling read for both the players of the day and the new generation of conservationists, and an historical record that will help shine light on the future.

Philip Simpson is a botanist living in Golden Bay/Mohua.

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