As elsewhere in the world, agencies of local and central government in New Zealand have renewed pressure on high-country pastoral farmers to ensure that their land use is sustainable. However, government policy innovations for conservation have often cut across the path along which farmers were innovating toward sustainable development (Figure 1). Sustained consultation in some parts of the world has revealed that highland people were not short of practical wisdom or ideals of conservation and sustainability. Such deep sharing of understanding and values affected an earlier New Zealand high-country crisis over soil erosion, but it is not yet evident in a current crisis over new policy for conservation of indigenous biodiversity and recreational access. As a result, progress toward sustainable development is retarded, with polarized public debate between stereotypes of public conservation and private economic development. New Zealand needs to find new ways out of this impasse.
Historical background: unsustainability of earlier traditional pastoralism
In the mid-19th century, pastoralism for wool production was introduced to the lowlands and high country of South Island, New Zealand, to tussock grassland and scrub vegetation where the only previous grazing had been by birds and invertebrates. Both lowland and upland grasslands were reduced in density and stature by fire and grazing. Selective grazing quickly depleted them of the most favored forage components. In the lowlands, such depleted grasslands were converted to farming and were replaced with cultivated crops and sown pastures. For a variety of reasons—climatic, topographic, politico-economic—high-country sheep runs (properties) remained as Crown leases for pastoralism. Pastoralists made use of residual and volunteer vegetation and were totally dependent for income on an erratic wool market.
Sheep numbers on high-country runs grew for the first 20 years and then became static or declined for some 80 years. The European rabbit, introduced for misguided social purposes, periodically increased in numbers toward plague proportions despite vigorous control measures by individual runholders (pastoralists), ensuring that the grasslands never recovered for long from their earlier depletion. By 1950, high-country pastoralism was in economic and ecologic doldrums.
Consultative process of “Soil Conservation” initiates continuing innovation
Several factors interacted to promote a new climate for practical innovation. A new “Soil Conservation” arm of the government, having threatened to dispossess recalcitrant pastoralists, was quick to look for ways to help them farm their land to avert soil erosion, at the same time minimizing any appearance of threat to security of lease of land just granted under a new 1948 Land Act. New community structures empowered both farmers and pastoralists to control rabbits and to take responsibility for the development and enactment of regional land use policies. From the 1960s, pasture improvement by aerial top-dressing with sulfur and phosphate fertilizer, oversowing of legumes and grasses, and fencing for grazing control became the chief practical measures for revegetating depleted and deteriorated grasslands (Figure 2). Bulldozing of hillside tracks made almost all terrains accessible to 4-wheel-drive vehicles for fire control and pastoral management.
Runholders' investments in these innovations became possible from a short-lived boom in international wool prices. They were supplemented by financial grants from the government for “soil conservation.” Regional agencies set up to implement this policy provided consultative planning services, and plans frequently included provision for the development of forage resources on “safe,” productively reliable terrain, to reduce livestock use on more “vulnerable” terrain, generally at higher altitude, or even to withdraw such land from grazing.
Under the name of a “soil conservation program,” mind-sharing, practical consultation between the lowland government and high-country people flourished for more than 30 years after a slow start. The resulting “grassland development transition” from unimproved grasslands to improved pastures had dramatic effects. Livestock numbers and production rose substantially—to almost 3 million sheep in the high country—with an ever-increasing proportion of total livestock feeding coming from improved grasslands. Pastoral farming was replacing pastoralism, ahead of any law change to sanction it. Although regular central government assistance ended in 1984 and government scientific research diminished in volume, innovations continued to emerge (Box and Figure 3). Farmers have varied greatly in their speed of adopting or devising innovations. Several innovations failed, especially in drier sectors, including some attempted with government development incentives in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
New policy for separation of conservation from production
At a policy level, the consultative process between farmers and government agencies culminated in a new Government High Mountains Policy in 1979, an outcome of an international workshop held in New Zealand with its proceedings published there in 1978 for what is now the World Conservation Union (IUCN), as policy goals and objectives for the high mountains of the world. As Simon Swaffield and Ken Hughey (Mountain Research and Development 21(4): 320–326) recently observed, this consultative approach to the integration of resource-suitable multiple uses was soon overtaken by the new government policy in the opposite direction, public administration taking the form of single-objective agencies, and privatization. For the high country, this policy has meant separating privatized land for production from public land for conservation.
For high-country pastoral farmers generally, such division appears an artifice. Clearly, some lands are not grazed but dedicated to conservation. At the other end of the spectrum are fields of alfalfa or clovers and exotic grasses used intensively as pasture or hay meadows. It is difficult, however, to recognize a sharp division between production and conservation on land under pastoral leasehold where for some 50 years continuing threads of practical innovation in productive use and conservation have been worked adaptively into an integrated landscape fabric of managed grasslands, both improved and unimproved.
Serving or subverting the purpose of the Resource Management Act?
New Zealand high-country progress toward sustainable development seemed to be promoted through the passing of the Resource Management Act (RMA) in 1991. Its single purpose was defined as promoting “sustainable management,” integrating ecological, social, and economic objectives. For the first time in New Zealand, decision makers became responsible in law explicitly for “safeguarding the life-supporting capacity of air, water, soil and ecosystems” at the same time as they “enabled people and communities to provide for their social, economic and cultural well being and for their health and safety.” Furthermore, protecting outstanding natural features and