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Friday, April 23, 2010

The Karori Sanctuary: Introduction

The Karori Sanctuary is an ambitious restoration and conservation project in Wellington, New Zealand.  It is a 225ha (550 acre) reserve nestled amidst suburban development, just a few kilometers from the central business district. I visited the sanctuary twice while I was living in Wellington, earlier this year, as part of a study abroad program run by Georgia Tech.


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I say the Karori Sanctuary is ambitious, but "audacious" might be a better term. The stated goal of the sanctuary is to restore the Karori Valley to some approximation of what it would have been the day before humans arrived in New Zealand, some 800 years ago. That's about when the Maori (often referred to as tangata whenua, "people of the land") arrived by canoe from eastern Polynesia.

According to the Karori Sanctuary Trust, completion of the project will take 500 years.

Much of the difficulty of the project arises because humans - first the Polynesians, then the Europeans (referred to as pakeha) - have introduced exotic species to New Zealand: plants, insects and, most regrettably, land mammals. Many of New Zealand's endemic bird species are (or were) flightless, and many of those that can (or could) fly are (or were) ground nesters.

More than this, of course, pakeha introduced their own ideas of what a good and productive landscape should look like: Karori Valley itself was burned over, as was much of the Wellington region, to convert the native bush to farmland.  Many of the endemic bird species are nectar feeders, unable to subsist without native flora.

But then, a little later, Karori was protected from urban development and from most other human uses because, for 120 years, it served as the catchment for Wellington's water supply. The dams and their reservoirs are still in place, but the opportunity to convert the valley to other uses arose because they were decommissioned: because of earthquake risk (about which more later), it seemed imprudent for Wellington to be dependent on those particular reservoirs for its water supply.

The Karori Sanctuary also works mainly by exclusion: it is surrounded by a fence specially designed to keep out all mammals: stoats, brush-tail possum, cats, rabbits, rats and mice. By this means, the Trust is attempting to create and maintain a "mainland island" on the fringes of a busy urban area. (Campbell-Hunt 2002, 14).

I am now beginning a more detailed investigation of the Karori Sanctuary, its history and its goals, as a case study in the ethics of the built environment.

The starting point is to ask: Why that goal? Why attempt to reset part of the urban fringe to its pre-human condition? Does this mean the managers of the Karori Sanctuary are taking "pristine" nature be the paramount standard of value in matters conservation, as though the best kind of landscape is that which has never been touched by human beings?

It's not obvious that this is the sole motivation for the project, nor is it obvious that it ought to be. I ask the question, really, because the language of a "pre-human" state draws the Karori project inexorably into the great wilderness debate that has been raging in American environmental ethics for some time, and also into the great ecological restoration debate that runs alongside it.

I will, sooner or later, look at Karori by way of those two debates.  For now, I'd just like to appeal to the framework from The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth to identify some of the other values and value conflicts might be bound up in the Karori Sanctuary as a place in which humans pursue projects.

Aesthetics. Quite frankly, Karori is gorgeous, a little green gem nestled in a steep-sided valley. Of course, this is a matter of judgment, and there are different standards of judgment, but I think there's likely to be a broad consensus on this. The sanctuary also affords different kinds of aesthetic appeal, from the quaintly picturesque lower reservoir (image at right, including the quaintly historic valve house) to sweeping vistas from the observation tower by the upper reservoir. Then, of course, there is bird song, with the tui and the bellbird as stand-out performers.

Recreation. When the Karori Sanctuary was first proposed, there was some opposition from people who wanted the newly-opened valley to be made available for recreational use. (Campbell-Hunt, 18) There seems to have been some compromise struck, at least to the extent that I saw a number of people out running on the broad, paved trails in the lower, more public part of the sanctuary.  There are great opportunities for walking, for birding, for sitting and watching.

Educational Opportunity. There's lots of good stuff here, opportunities to learn about land-use history in the Wellington region, conservation, ecology, island biogeography, geology, and research methods. One mission of the Trust, and one of the ways it has built political and financial support for the sanctuary, is to provide educational programs and interpretive exhibits. When I visited the sanctuary with the Georgia Tech program, our students helped gather data on banded birds - hihi (aka stitchbirds) and bellbirds - at feeding stations.

Economic opportunity. A new visitor center was under construction when I visited the Sanctuary, and has since been completed. The Trust is building the place up to be a premier tourist destination, now billed as Zealandia: The Karori Sanctuary Experience. It is meant to be something worth paying for, something to draw tourism dollars to Wellington and support dollars to the Trust.

Justice toward species.  Aside from restoration of native bush, a primary objective of the Sanctuary is to protect some of the most endangered bird species in the world.  Karori is now home to the only mainland breeding population of hihi (aka stitchbirds), nectar-feeders that will be dependent on supplemental feeding stations until more of the native plant life is restored.  (The image, left, is of a female hihi at a feeding station.)  There are also little spotted kiwi, bellbirds, tui, kaka (an endemic parrot), and saddlebacks.

But then, protecting these bird species requires the ruthless exclusion of mammals. The fence keeps them out, but something had to be done about the mammals already living here and any that might somehow be introduced.  Predator eradication was carried out by means of trapping, broadcast poison, poison bait, and other methods. Trapping in 1999 yielded 3 tonnes of brush tail possum! 

This is a a curious feature of conservation in New Zealand, generally: the image of conservationists wielding toxins to exterminate mammals over wide areas of conservation land, including Tongariro National Park in the center of the North Island. This bears some thinking about.

Legitimacy. Also worth thinking about is that this project has been undertaken by a private conservation trust, though they have of course needed to negotiate with various political authorities, especially the City of Wellington.

Property. The trust has also negotiated with various iwi (kinship groups) of tangata whenua on a number of matters, including translocation of species from one tribal area area to another. 

The nature of property rights is an unavoidable question in all decisions regarding conservation in New Zealand.  For pakeha, property rights are possessed by individuals or by legal corporations. For tangata whenua, authority over land (mana whenua) rests with iwi and is passed on by kinship connections (whakapapa). New Zealand was founded on a document, the Treaty of Waitangi, that offered explicit (but subsequently much ignored) protection for mana whenua in exchange for recognition of the sovereignty of the Crown.

Since the Waitangi Tribunal was created in the 1970s to adjudicate claims under the Treaty, recognition of mana whenua has been taken more seriously than it had been for much of New Zealand's history. What this means, though, is that conservation is often a cooperative enterprise between government authority and iwi that sometimes calls for delicate negotiation.

(I heard, third hand, of an excellent story about the crater lake on Mt. Ruhapehu, a proposal to use dynamite to relieve pressure on the natural dam that contains the lake in order to prevent destructive lahars, and protests from tangata whenua about dynamting one of their ancestors. Sometimes a volcano is not just a volcano.)

Sustainability.  Aside from the possible connection between biodiversity and ecological sustainability, and the role of conservation research in understanding the conditions under which we might be able to sustain our various projects, there is a separate set of questions about the sustainability of the Karori project itself. Can a private trust really see to its end a 500-year conservation project? Could any institution do that?

There is a particular challenge in this case: the Karori valley is part of the Wellington Fault, which means the sanctuary in fact straddles two continental plates, the Pacific and the Indo-Australian. The plates are moving relative to one another and, sooner or later, there will be significant movement on the fault in Wellington itself that will rupture one or both of the dams, split open the fence and, assuming the City of Wellington is still a going concern at the time, divert resources to relief and reconstruction. Who will have time and attention then to protect the hihi from the stoats, who even now are no doubt drooling to get through the fence?

(The video, below, is a fly-over of the Wellington Fault. It passes over the Karori Valley starting around 0:20, with the two reservoirs plainly visible. Starting at 0:28 it passes over the Wellington Botanic Garden, near Weir House, where we were living, and at 0:35 the fault crosses under the only highway and the only rail line out of Wellington - but that's a topic for another discussion.)



On a more personal note, I was strangely moved by my visits to Karori, once with the Georgia Tech group, and once on my own. Like New Zealand as a whole, I found it beautiful, and strange, and slightly sad.

In New Zealnd more than any place else I've lived or visited, I had an overwhelming sense of the fragility of the present. New Zealand landscapes are in the grip of profound transformation, with pressures from all directions. As I visited different parts of the islands with my family, and as I walked in Karori, I was dogged by a persistent sense that these places will never be as they once were, they will not stay as they are, and they will never be as people might hope.

This is not to say there will not still be good places. Indeed, New Zealand is and will remain full of excellent places, offering opportunities to pursue many different kinds of worthwhile projects. It's just that, where places like Karori are concerned, it's worth investigating in some detail just how complicated - how odd, really - some of those projects can be in a changing landscape.

And, really, every place on Earth is like New Zealand in this respect. It's just that the New Zealand landscape seems somehow to be more obviously ephemeral than others.

Sources
Campbell-Hunt, Diane. (2002). Developing a Sanctuary: The Karori Experience. Wellington: Victoria Link Ltd.

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