Review: Standing My Ground: A Voice for Nature Conservation

Review: Alan F. Mark, Standing My Ground: A Voice for Nature Conservation (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2015). 312 pp. ISBN 978-1-927322-04-8.  NZ$45.00 paperback.

Paul Star

A few years ago, when he and I both attended committee meetings of Forest and Bird’s Dunedin branch, Alan Mark told me he was writing this book and said (with a chuckle) that he might call it Mark My Words.  Its eventual title, Standing My Ground, still emphasises the personal nature of the volume, yet the text is often anything but autobiographical.  For the most part, it is not nearly so much about Mark as about the cause to which he has devoted his life: his words about ‘his’ ground, rather than about himself.

Mark’s ground is the natural environment of Otago, of South Island, of New Zealand, and his mission, as the book’s subtitle indicates, has been to promote its conservation.  In the epilogue, Mark acknowledges ‘the unwavering support of my own family members throughout all my ecopolitical activities, though some have commented on the price in terms of discretionary time able to be spent with the family’ (pp 258-9).  At its launch, one speaker observed that this book ‘looks at what it truly means to [be] the critic and conscience of society’ (Otago Daily Times 29 October 2015).  In Alan Mark’s life it has meant the single-minded pursuit of a perceived social ‘good’ – the retention of indigenous environments – not an emphasis on himself, except insofar as his career has reflected his greater purpose.  This, in turn, has determined the subject matter of his book, which details what Geoffrey Palmer, in the foreword, calls ‘a life in science for the public interest’.

Chapter 1 is unlike the rest, since it describes Mark’s ‘formative years’, born into a low-income Dunedin family’ and before his direction in life was clear.  Financial constraint and opportunity, rather than initial inclination, meant that he studied science subjects at Otago University rather than agriculture at Lincoln, then concentrated on plants rather than animals.  The encouragement and support of Professor Geoff Baylis of Otago’s botany department held a particular significance.  He describes his time as a Fulbright fellow at Duke University in North Carolina, then his return to Dunedin in 1968 as an Otago Catchment Board employee researching high country tussocklands.

When it became clear that the Board was more interested in surveys of these ecosystems assessing their capability than in his advice on their responsible management, Mark was relieved to move on to a three year fellowship with the Hellaby Indigenous Grasslands Research Trust (the subject of Chapter 2).  This meant he could continue with the same field of research but within an organisation specifically emphasising ecological sustainability.  At the same time, Mark was assured of a secure future, since Baylis had arranged for his appointment as lecturer in his department, teaching to commence when the Hellaby Trust fellowship ended.

It is striking that, once this much is recorded, Mark neglects to state that he remained  a member of Otago’s botany department for the rest of his professional life and beyond, retiring in 1998 (and he has continued active ever since, as professor emeritus).  The blurb on the back of the book gives us this information, but not the book itself.  Only in Chapter 8, entitled ‘Other Research Activities’, does Mark specifically describe some of the academic work he has undertaken in concert with his students, notably on the forest ecology of Southland and the West Coast, and only in the three-paragraph epilogue does he have anything to say about his private life during the last half century or so.  The other chapters (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9) are all exclusively about environmental campaigns and organisations, in most of which he has played a major part.

Chapter 3, on ‘The South Island High Country’, demonstrates how Mark’s research led directly into his activism.  ‘It became obvious …’, he writes, ‘when working for the Otago Catchment Board and the Hellaby Research Trust – that the lack of any tussock grassland reserves in the entire South Island high country meant a serious absence of any baseline reference areas … I took it upon myself to attempt to correct this serious situation’ (p 63).  Chapter 2 detailed his controversial findings that tall snow tussock increased water yield, with the implication that persistent burning, shorter tussock and greater stocking, often meant environmental degradation.  This led Mark to call for a scientific reserve at Maungatua (established in 1967), further scientific reserves in the Otago tussocklands in the 1970s, and finally a series of conservation parks in Otago and other South Island conservancies in the early 2000s.

Chapter 4 focusses on ‘The Nardoo Tussock Grassland Debate’ of the 1970s and 80s, when Mark and other concerned ecologists failed to stem the destruction of part of this catchment (though Te Papanui Conservation Park was eventually established, in 2003).  Mark indicates that this failure made him aware of ‘the political impotence of a small group of scientists’ when unassisted by ‘the political clout that such an organisation  [as the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand] clearly had’ (p 93).  His subsequent and increasingly close involvement with ‘Forest and Bird’ is discussed later in the book.

Given the need for some sort of chronological unfolding of events, Mark deals first (in Chapter 5) with his contribution to the ‘Save Manapouri’ campaign, which successfully opposed the raising of the water level of Lake Manapouri, beyond its natural range, for hydroelectric power generation.  The boundaries of acceptable development were effectively defined by over a quarter of a million signatures against the National government plan, gathered in a Forest and Bird petition in 1970, and the subsequent election of a more conservation-oriented Labour government in 1972.

The background to the Manapouri campaign has received considerable analysis, ranging from Neville Peat’s Manapouri Saved! New Zealand’s First Great Conservation Success Story (1994), to Aaron Fox’s 2001 PhD thesis, ‘The Power Game: The Development of the Manapouri-Tiwai Point Electro-Industrial Complex’. Mark now chronicles his own role, which began with supervision of a 1969 assessment of the environmental impact of raising the lake and his submission (as an expert on lakeshore ecology) to the Manapouri Commission of Enquiry.  His decision to record, as a participant, his perspective on events such as this campaign, will be of great value to future researchers.  He also highlights, in his account, the subsequent appointment by the Labour government of a group of Guardians of Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau, whose meetings he chaired for 26 years and who continue to oversee the sustainable management of these lakes.

Collectively, the Guardians constitute a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation or ‘quango’.  Chapter 6, entitled ‘Quangos I Have Known’, discusses his involvement with several more.  These include the National Parks and Reserves Authority (1981-90), the Environment Council’s Taskforce on Wetlands (1982-3), the Otago Conservation Board (1990-2001), Fiordland Marine Guardians (2001-13), and the New Zealand Conservation Authority (since 2001).  Even this incomplete list, without further comment, is suggestive of the extent and diversity of Alan Mark’s contribution to environmental management.

At last, in Chapter 7, we are treated to a full account of Mark’s role in Forest and Bird, the oldest and largest independent environmental association in New Zealand.  Aware of both Forest and Bird’s worth and his own, he ‘considered that the society might benefit from scientifically credible inputs to its conservation proposals’ (p 171), such as it had in 1930 when the pioneer plant ecologist, Leonard Cockayne, was its president.  He was also influenced by the more immediate precedent provided by the ornithologist and geologist Charles Fleming, who similarly served on the Forest and Bird executive and was Mark’s ‘most important peer and mentor’ (p 131) as a scientist voicing opposition to the raising of Lake Manapouri.  Since coming to prominence over the Manapouri debate, it is perhaps Mark’s active commitment to Forest and Bird (serving on its national executive in 1979-97 and as president for 1986-91) that has kept him most influentially in the public eye.

Some future scholarly history of Forest and Bird should clarify exactly what influences led the society, from the late 1970s onwards, to extend well beyond its earlier and continuing focus on the conservation of native forests and native birds.  Mark identifies ‘a concerted effort [within Forest and Bird] to diversify its activities into a range of non-forest indigenous ecosystems, particularly wetlands, shrublands and tussock grasslands’ (p 173) – which are also the areas to which he has directed much of his research.  He notes that his ‘first presidential duty was to become a signatory to the West Coast Forest Accord’ (p 178) and refers to the creation, within his time, of Paparoa National Park (1987) and the South West New Zealand World Heritage Area (1991).  More recently, while one of three Forest and Bird ‘ambassadors’, he played a prominent part in the unsuccessful bid (2011-13) to prevent extended coal-mining on the Denniston Plateau.  All these campaigns have attracted intense interest nation-wide.  Less attention has been paid to the more parochial concerns of the Dunedin branch of the Society, to which Mark has also devoted time and energy.  He writes in particular of the branch’s wilding tree control programme, which has significantly restrained the invasion of Otago landscapes by exotic pine species.

Unlike a quango, an environmental non-governmental organisation or ‘ENGO’ functions without direct government involvement.  Forest and Bird is one such ENGO; Chapter 9 discusses others that Alan Mark has known.  Here we get his take on the Native Forest Action Council and in particular on its Maruia Declaration of 1975.  He also discusses, among his other involvements, the Save Aramoana Campaign (1974-84), which he assisted by stressing the ecological values of the saltmarsh beside Otago Harbour.  This lies right next to where the proposed aluminium smelter was to have been built, and since 1994 has been designated the Aramoana Ecological Area.

Viewed as an account of the author’s involvement in many environmental battles over a fifty year period – and, often, as a summary of the battles themselves – this book is excellent.  It is also an astonishing and inspiring example of just how much one person, given energy and dedication, can contribute.  I have several times heard Alan Mark say that ‘one does what one can’, and certainly in his case this is very true.  He concludes rather bleakly, however, that, ‘For all my efforts, major deteriorations continued before my eyes.  Despite significant progress in recent decades, conservation and sustainable resource management continue to push against this prevailing wind of decline.  It seems that nature conservation is mostly about reducing the rate of loss: there are very few real gains to be made’ (p 227).  Not that this has ever stopped Mark trying.  The final pages of the book deal with his co-founding, when aged around eighty, of Wise Response Inc., a group which has recently (and, so far, unsuccessfully) lobbied parliament to undertake a national risk assessment of economic, energy and climate security in the light of climate change.

Standing My Ground  has been well-produced by the University of Otago Press, which in recent years has published an increasing number of books on themes of interest to conservationists, environmental historians and nature-lovers.  I also note their publication this year of a new edition of Stewart Island: Rakiura National Park by Neville Peat.  This is an attractive and useful introduction to New Zealand’s third island, which still displays a range of those distinctly indigenous environments treasured by Mark, Peat, and so many other New Zealanders.