Monday, October 26, 2015

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“STANDING MY GROUND – A voice for nature conservation” by Alan F. Mark (Otago University Press, $NZ45); “STEWART ISLAND – RAKIURA NATIONAL PARK” by Neville Peat (Otago University Press, $NZ29:95)

Sometimes Introductions contributed to books by Eminent People read as little more than polite and formal praise for the author. But the introduction Sir Geoffrey Palmer provides for the autobiography of Professor Emeritus (of Botany) Sir Alan F. Mark does at once set out clearly the man we are dealing with. Alan F Mark, says Palmer, “has often been attacked by those who favour economic gain above all things” (p.9) and has devoted his adult life to the cause of ecology in his struggle to wed economic development with real sustainability. And this is what the book is all about.
Autobiographies come in many varieties. There’s the boastful type about all the prominent people the author has met; the psychological type, where the author delves into childhood and upbringing to explain how he / she has become the person he / she is; and then there is the type Professor Mark has written – an orderly account of his working life, with very little detail on his private life and feelings. For Mark, the autobiography is part of a long campaign, publicising necessary good fights for a healthier environment and the preservation of New Zealand wilderness.
Save for a brief two-page catch-up at the end, all the personal and family stuff is in the first chapter. Born in 1932, the son of a Dunedin electrician sometimes in straitened circumstances, young Alan Mark excelled in the sciences at school, majored in botany and zoology at the University of Otago, won a Fulbright Scholarship which took him to Duke University in the USA, and rejoiced in the American system, which began with two years of orderly coursework before he proceeded to fieldwork towards his Ph.D on “grass balds” in the Appalachians. It was in America that he married his New Zealand wife Patricia, who has often been his comrade and supporter in various ecological campaigns. They were to have four children.
And that’s it for the private man as we proceed to the career.
We soon learn what Mark was often up against. As he pursued his academic duties in the University of Otago’s Department of Botany, he worked for a High Country Research Team doing “long-term fundamental research into the tussock grasslands of the Otago high country.” (p.33) Later he worked for the Hellaby Trust in “applied ecological research into New Zealand’s native grasslands, as the basis for their sustainable management.” (p.39) This involved a careful survey of snow-tussock, in which the young academic proved that snow-tussock, by trapping water droplets from fog, was essential to a healthy run-off of water from the high country. This was news that graziers and run-holders didn’t want to hear. They wanted to be able to burn off snow-tussock as if it were a noxious weed. Using the ambiguity of another scientist’s report for the DSIR, some run-holders proceeded to attack the credibility of Mark’s work and tried to discredit him with academic superiors.
Later there were to be clashes with Federated Farmers, and sometimes with the Department of Lands and Survey (which Mark believed to be too often favouring farming interests) about how much land should be set aside for the conservation of red [copper] tussock. Though they managed to get an area set aside for the protection of takahe, Mark and others failed to get a large Conservation Park established in Central Otago. But he was gratified that at least some farmers supported his drive for scientific reserves in the high country, especially as:
“… the lack of any tussock grassland reserves in the entire South Island high country meant a serious absence of any baseline reference areas. Because all of the high country had been allocated for pastoral farming, it was impossible without any representative, non-farmed areas to assess objectively the impacts of the various aspects of pastoral farming, particularly stock grazing at different intensities and/or seasons, combined with burning at different intensities, frequencies and times, and particularly the post-burn management.” (Chapter 3, p.63)
There was a debate over establishing a conservation park in Nardoo Tussock Grassland. 40% of the area, which Mark and others wanted set aside, was in dispute. The conservationists took their case to the Ombudsman, but even before he had made his ruling (which did not support their case), the disputed land was ploughed up and converted to agricultural use. In this, Mark again criticises the role of the Department of Lands and Survey, noting:
The outcome of the Nardoo issue had major implications for the department’s image, particularly its handling of the dual responsibilities for land development and nature conservation. When difficult and contentious decisions had to be made between development and conservation, they almost invariably favoured development. This was also the public image the Forest Service had increasingly developed in relation to submissions on publicly notified forest-management plans, something the Land Settlement Board had managed to avoid. The concerned public eventually had their day soon after the Labour government was elected in 1984. Following an ‘Environmental Summit’ at parliament, the new government announced that the two departments were to be disestablished and replaced by two SOEs, Forestcorp and Landcorp, with the ‘green dots’ collectively to form a new Department of Conservation.” (Chapter 4, p.93)
So far, the non-specialist reader may be a little lost in Mark’s specialist preoccupations, apart from having the general sense that high country grasslands are essential to a healthy ecological cycle. But Chapter 5 will probably resonate much more with non-specialist readers. Here Mark gives a detailed account of the 13-year campaign (1959-72) to save Lake Manapouri from being raised for hydro-electrical use in accordance with the government’s contract with Comalco. It is alarming to be reminded that the original plan had been to flood both Lake Manapouri and Lake Te Anau to turn them into one huge lake – but this scheme proved impracticable even before the protests began. Professor Mark makes it clear that the campaign against raising the lake was won only when an incoming Labour government agreed to a policy of having “guardians” of the lakes, to monitor water levels, report on the damage done to inundated shorelines etc. Mark notes that since the campaign of protest was won, he and others have had generally friendly dealings with NZEC, the agency concerned with generating electricity; and all political parties have reached a consensus on how the lakes should be managed. Yet he does say:
On reflection, there were times during the Save Manapouri Campaign when I wondered whether my career as a scientist would be wrecked by political ill-will or the manipulation of officialdom. In his history of the campaign, Manapouri Saved, Neville Peat quotes me as saying, ‘as a young scientist I felt vulnerable – at times out on a limb on an issue that was highly political. Many government scientists, unable or unwilling in terms of job security to speak out themselves, urged me to take a stand’ ”. (Chapter 5, p.131)
In a chapter called “Quangos I Have Known”, Mark lauds the fact that Quangos [Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisations] allowed specialist input into government planning, especially in an era when the Official Secrets Act was re-framed to allow some access to documents concerning such planning. As a member of the National Parks and Reserves Authority for nine years, Mark saw the value of such input, although there was always the possibility that recommendations could be over-ridden. When one national park was agreed upon:
            “Although the entire area was eventually declared a national park, Westland commissioner Julian Rodda undermined it by allowing a grazing concession in the flooded area soon afterwards. Unsurprisingly, later ecological surveys revealed serious weed invasion and degradation associated with the grazing, a problem that probably continues to this day. You win some, you lose some, despite best efforts.” (Chapter 6, p.139)
There could also be personal slanging against the conservationist causes Mark espoused. When discussing the Otago Conservation Board’s initiatives to set up a Little Valley tussock conservation scheme, he reports:
Among the wide range of submissions received on the issue, Lincoln University agricultural economist Alastair McArthur’s was particularly provocative. Referring to tussock grassland research generally, he claimed that most scientists associated with it were so ‘green’ as to be incapable of making judgments without bias. They were therefore open to suspicion some scientists could ‘fudge’ data and make ‘extravagant claims’. Descending to this level of criticism was galling. It reflected defensive reactions to the ecosystem degradation that had become clearly apparent to many scientists over the relatively short period of their working lives.” (Chapter 6, p.157)
From the tone of this review so far, you will note that I am doing little more than recording instances of Mark’s work and some of his opinions upon it.
There is a reason for this.
While one admires Mark for what he has attempted and achieved in the area of conservation, one also has to admit that his writing style is almost in the nature of a report, being largely a matter of listing and ticking off various enterprises in which he has been involved. This is especially true in the last three chapters, where we hear of many battles fought in Forest and Bird, and the struggle when Timberlands sought to log indigenous trees on the West Coast (as Nicky Hager’s Secrets and Lies reports, Mark had the honour of being called a “smart bastard” by a publicist for Timberlands.) There has been the campaign to prevent the Denniston Plateau being mined; the campaign to eradicate wilding trees; takahe management in the Fiordland mountains; the preservation of patterned wetlands and alpine vegetation; and an expedition to check the effects of deer browsing.
There has been Mark’s participation in ENGOs, of which he remarks:
At their best, ENGOs [Environmental Non-Government Organisations] are the foot soldiers of environmentalism, and my experiences with them have been variously rewarding and frustrating on both human and conservation fronts. Typically, every active member has his or her private environmental agenda so that group tensions can arise….. I have learnt valuable, if at times difficult, lessons about the nature and accessibility – or inaccessibility – of power, but have always dealt with principles, not personalities.”   (Chapter 9, p.226)
And [unsuccessful] opposition to the construction of the (leaking) Clyde Dam. And [successful] opposition to Meridian Energy’s plan to build a huge wind-farm across Central Otago’s Lammermoor Range. And the coordination of the “Wise Response” campaign to make the government endorse a systematic review of all aspects of bio-management and ecology with a view to sustainability. (The whole Wise Response submission to parliament is printed as an appendix).
One unifying theme is all this is Mark’s perception of the connectedness of his various causes – all are contributing to the one goal of a well-managed environment. There is little rancour expressed against farmers who did not always see eye-to-eye with conservationists, but there is a strong sense of how “development” can often lead to little more than a degraded environment.
Intriguing footnote: There is more than one way to write about the urgent need to protect the natural environment. It can be written about in the scientific, matter-of-fact and somewhat dry style of Professor Mark. Or it can be written about in poetry. It strikes me that many of Mark’s concerns are shared by the Dunedin poet Richard Reeve, whom Professor Mark once references in Standing My Ground. You will see evidence of this in the review of Reeve’s Generation Kitchen.
Silly and impertinent footnote. Standing My Ground is illustrated with many photographs. On Page 138 there is a photograph of various worthies, in 1985, pacing out the mountain route that would become the Kepler Track. The track, between Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau, is indeed a great walk. I walked it in 1994. What irritated me, however, was the helipad at the top of the track, allowing lazy trampers to be flown up, so that they could claim to have walked the track by merely walking downhill from the top. The noise of helicopters buzzing up and down quite destroyed the ambience of the place, as well has making is harder to doze off in the nearby hut. I haven’t been on the track for over 20 years, but if this arrangement is still in place, I would like Professor Mark to start a campaign to have the helicopters banned.

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Just a brief note on Neville Peat’s Stewart Island – Rakiora National Park. Peat is a conservationist who is cited a couple of times by Alan Mark. He is also a skilful writer. I enjoyed his Shackleton’s Whisky when I reviewed it for the Listener some years back, but I have yet to catch up with his book on the Tasman Sea, for which he won a major book award. This 72-page guide to Stewart Island is the revision and update of a guide Peat wrote in 2000. Lavishly illustrated (‘scuse the reviewer-speak), looking at the geological, botanical and historical features, it will obviously be of most use to holiday-makers and hikers visiting New Zealand’s third island.

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