In the “West Coast Conservation Management Strategy

2.2.1 The character and conservation significance of the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini

2.2.1.1 A land apart

In Te Waipounamu (the South Island of New Zealand) when people speak of ‘the Coast’ they almost invariably mean the West Coast – Te Tai o Poutini . Geographically, scenically, climatically and ecologically, the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini is a land apart from other regions of New Zealand.

Geographically The West Coast Te Tai o Poutini is isolated from the east by the barrier of the Southern Alps Kā Tiritiri o te Moana across which there are only three roads and few routes for foot travellers that do not require mountaineering skills. To the west it is bounded by a coast of bold bluffs and wild driftwood-strewn beaches, along which the only harbours are treacherous river mouths and occasional semi-sheltered bays. To the north and south are vast tracts of mountain wilderness protected within the country’s two largest national parks - the 452,000 hectare Kahurangi National Park and 1.2 million hectare Fiordland National Park. This ‘land apart’ is itself in two parts geologically, being severed longitudinally by the Alpine Fault which is the boundary between the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates.

The Alpine Fault is the only place in New Zealand where a major plate boundary occurs on land. The collision of the two plates has been responsible for the creation of the Southern Alps Kā Tiritiri o te Moana, the different character of the ranges in the northern parts of the Conservancy, and ultimately all the other geographic and climatic factors that give the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini its highly distinctive natural character.

Scenically The West Coast Te Tai o Poutini is unique in both an international and national context. It is unique for its rugged coastline and mountain ranges, hill country and glacial outwash surfaces which largely retain natural vegetation cover. It has large rivers and unspoilt mountains-to-sea panoramas. Within these landscapes lie scenic gems: glaciers abutting lowland temperate rainforest, forest-encircled lakes, coastal lagoons, and lowland karst (see Glossary definition) areas.

Climatically The West Coast Te Tai o Poutini experiences a high rainfall by comparison to other regions of New Zealand. Annual precipitation ranges from less than 2000 mm per year in the Maruia Valley to somewhere between 10 and 15 m of rain a year near the main divide of the Southern Alps Kā Tiritiri o te Moana (NIWA, 2007). Much of the scenery for which the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini is renowned depends ultimately on a generous supply of rain to nourish forests and swamps, and feed rivers, streams and glaciers.

Ecologically The West Coast Te Tai o Poutini contains a significant amount of intact natural diversity by comparison with many other regions. Continuous tracts of lowland and coastal forests and freshwater and coastal wetlands cover large areas. In many places indigenous ecosystems and habitats extend unbroken from the mountains to the sea. There are few other places in New Zealand where this occurs to the same extent and few places in the world where Gondwanaland ecosystems remain intact.

2.2.1.2 People and the land

Archaeological research has uncovered evidence of human settlements dating back at least 700 years (Anderson 1982). Settlements existed along the coastline from the Heaphy River in the north to Barn Bay and Big Bay Tīhei Mauri Ora in the south. The West Coast Te Tai o Poutini was, and still is, one of the most important sources of pounamu in the country. Trade in this most precious taonga (treasure) was the key factor that influenced Māori settlement of the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini .

The first written accounts of the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini by Europeans resulted from the explorations of Charles Heaphy and Thomas Brunner in 1846, from Brunner’s subsequent epic journey of 1846-8, and from the journeys of exploring geologist Julius von Haast in 1860 and 1865. The alluvial gold rushes of 1864-8 brought upwards of 30,000 people to the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini , many of whom remained as permanent settlers turning their hands from gold mining to farming, sawmilling and coal mining. Much new country was explored by gold prospectors and later by surveyors like Charles Douglas and Gerhard Mueller. However, much of the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini remains wild and inaccessible.

The character of the people of the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini has been shaped by the landscape they inhabit. Poutini Ngāi Tahu depended on the natural resources found here and later arrivals founded industries based on these resources, most of which are still important today. Many people live on the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini because they value the lifestyle, the distinctive natural and cultural landscapes and the opportunities these provide for tourism, recreation and adventure. It is, above all else, the distinctive features of the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini that make it such a significant region for conservation in both an international and national context.

2.2.1.3 International conservation significance

A number of West Coast Te Tai o Poutini landscapes and plant and animal communities have been identified as being of international conservation importance. In 1986 Westland Tai Poutini National Park was recognised as being worthy of World Heritage status and in 1990 this recognition was extended to all other protected areas on the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini located south of the Whataroa River (see Map 3 Te Wāhipounamu South-West New Zealand World Heritage Area). World Heritage is a global concept that identifies natural and cultural sites of world significance, places so special that protecting them is of concern for all people. Some of the best examples of animals and plants, once found on the ancient supercontinent Gondwana, live in Te Wāhipounamu South-West New Zealand World Heritage Area. Aspects of the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini that are regarded as being of international significance (i.e. meet the qualifying criteria for World Heritage status) are briefly identified below2.

Outstanding examples of major stages in the Earth’s evolutionary history

Virtually all landforms in the World Heritage Area, along with those elsewhere in the Conservancy, are a direct or indirect legacy of tectonic and Ice Age events that occurred during the past two million years. The most recent phases of advance and retreat of glaciers have left a sequence of landforms (e.g. straightened U-shaped valleys, moraine hills, large outwash plains, glacial lakes and dramatic coastal bluffs) that are among the very best examples of glacial processes in temperate regions of the world.

In this same category is what is described as New Zealand’s ‘Gondwana heritage’. About 80 million years ago New Zealand began breaking away from what was then left of the ancient southern super-continent of Gondwana to begin its long era of separate evolution. It was in a very real sense a ‘Southern Ark’ loaded with Gondwana plants and animals that continued to evolve free from the diluting influences that affected other pieces of this ancient continental jigsaw. Among New Zealand’s foremost remaining links with its Gondwana past are its beech and podocarp families of trees. Both of these are found in other countries that were formerly part of ancient Gondwana but in the case of podocarp forests they are better represented and protected on the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini of New Zealand than anywhere else.

Outstanding examples of ongoing geological processes

Prominent West Coast Te Tai o Poutini examples are the continued displacement occurring along the Alpine Fault which has separated the ultramafic rocks of South Westland’s Red Hills Range from those in the Nelson area, and the fluctuations and landscape modifications of the larger glaciers today. The Alpine Fault is one of only four places in the world where segments of boundaries between the earth’s great crustal plates occur on land3. The continued movement along this boundary attracts widespread international attention. So too does the movement of West Coast Te Tai o Poutini valley glaciers, which are outstanding internationally for the extent to which they descend into the realms of temperate rainforest, for having very high rates of descent for alpine glaciers, and for being very sensitive to short-term climate change as well as changes occurring over longer periods.

Outstanding examples of biological evolution

The West Coast Te Tai o Poutini contains outstanding records of the development of soils and the processes of plant succession that have occurred in glacial landforms, including such features as the evidence of refuges for plants and animals during the Ice Ages. There is also evidence of the absence of refuges like that so graphically illustrated by the Central Westland ‘beech gap’. The same is true of the system of parallel dunes that has built up along the outer edge of the Haast coastal plain over the past 6000 years, as a result of climatic fluctuations and/or tectonic activity, combined with massive sediment transport of local rivers on to the coast. The West Coast Te Tai o Poutini remains a stronghold for many endemic New Zealand plants and animals including not only creatures like kiwi, kea and kākā but also large carnivorous land snails (Powelliphanta spp.), giant weta, geckos, skinks and freshwater fish. All are increasingly being recognised as just as uniquely ‘New Zealand’ as high-profile species like the kiwi. So too is the Conservancy’s record of extinct species, especially its Paparoa and Ōpārara cave networks with their rich legacy of fossil and subfossil material.

The most significant natural habitats where threatened species now live

The West Coast Te Tai o Poutini provides significant habitat for a range of threatened indigenous plants and animals. Habitat is considered to be internationally important if it contains a unique community of plants or animals, or an endangered species, or is habitat vital to the continued survival of a species in the wild, or has the potential to be practically restored to meet the above criteria (as is occurring at several priority sites for biodiversity management on the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini ).

Superlative natural phenomena and areas of exceptional natural beauty

Some of the features listed under other criteria, such as glaciers, unmodified karst areas and other aspects of West Coast Te Tai o Poutini landscapes, meet this criterion.

See also
Chapter 3.3 Natural Heritage Conservation,
Section 3.8.1 International Obligations, Part 4,
Section 4.2.7.2 Te Wāhipounamu South West New Zealand World Heritage Area in 2020

Wetlands of international importance

The following wetlands and wetland complexes in the West Coast Tai Poutini Conservancy are of international importance4: Karamea Estuary, Lake Christabel, North Westland Ecological Region Lakes Complex (Lakes Hochstetter, Ahaura, Haupiri, Brunner, Lady Lake and Kangaroo Lake), Groves Swamp and Harman Swamp, Shearer Swamp, Lake Ianthe, Whataroa Ecological Region Coastal Wetland Complex (Saltwater Lagoon, Waitangiroto Lagoon and Swamp, Ōkārito Lagoon), Ohinetamatea Swamp, Tawharekiri Lakes, Burmeister Morass and Hermitage Swamp.

View Map 3 Te Wāhipounamu South West New Zealand World Heritage Area

See also
Chapter 3.3 Natural Heritage Conservation (particularly Sections 3.3.1.4, 3.3.1.5 and 3.3.3.3) Part 4,
Chapters 4.1 and 4.2 (see desired outcomes for freshwater ecosystems and specific wetlands)

2.2.1.4 National conservation significance

The national conservation significance of the West Coast Tai Poutini Conservancy is probably best illustrated by the fact that 5 of New Zealand’s 14 national parks are wholly or partly located within the Conservancy. Lewis Pass National Reserve is also partially located within the Conservancy. The Conservancy’s national significance is also reflected in the fact that it contains the highest proportion of protected land of any conservancy in the country. With 84% of the Conservancy’s total land area gazetted under conservation legislation, it contains around one quarter of New Zealand’s protected lands and freshwater areas.

The West Coast Te Tai o Poutini is distinctive for its wild landscapes, ecological communities and threatened species often once common in other parts of New Zealand but now either extinct or reduced to scattered remnants. Prominent among these are contiguous sequences of indigenous ecosystems stretching from mountains to sea, lowland forests, including dense podocarp forests, freshwater wetlands, coastal wetlands, forested lowland karst landscapes, and several high-profile threatened species. The West Coast Te Tai o Poutini is also outstanding nationally for a range of historical and cultural features. It is the principal source of pounamu (New Zealand greenstone or jade), and has a great historical legacy of gold and coal mining. It also has a large diversity of opportunities for backcountry recreation, particularly at the remote and wilderness end of the recreation opportunities spectrum.

The presence and extent of each of the above factors within the West Coast Tai Poutini Conservancy is today of major national significance for the following reasons:

Marine ecosystems

The West Coast Te Tai o Poutini marine environment is of immense importance to commercial fisheries; an indication of its biological richness and significance. New Zealand’s single largest fishery, the winter mid-water trawl fishery for spawning hoki, operates in an area where enormous numbers of fish and marine wildlife aggregate in the Hokitika Canyon and along the margins of the Challenger Plateau. The large numbers of predatory wildlife, including seals, dolphins, whales, and seabirds that live and breed on the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini are indicative of the rich ecosystem food web that is fed by the upwelling of temperate ocean currents from the Tasman Sea.

The marine environment also includes distinctive features such as rare and unusual species of fish and seaweeds, and has formed spectacular and geologically diverse coastal landscapes. It is one of the few regions of New Zealand that is effectively devoid of marine pests such as introduced Undaria spp., and is largely isolated from future invasions of such species.

More details about these and other marine features of the West Coast can be found in Neale et al (2007).

See also
Chapter 3.3 Natural Heritage Conservation (particularly Sections 3.3.1.6 to 3.3.1.8 and 3.3.3.4) Part 4,
Chapters 4.1 and Section 4.2.8 Desired outcome for the Marine Place.

Coastal wetlands

Estuaries and their margins are among New Zealand’s most modified ecosystems and while the country has many large estuaries very few of these have managed to survive in a substantially natural condition. The large Ōkārito Lagoon is one of the most naturally intact large estuaries on the main islands of New Zealand and this, along with many smaller coastal lagoons and estuarine areas at the mouths of rivers and streams, makes the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini an important region for natural coastal wetlands.

See also
Section 2.2.1.3 Wetlands of international importance

Freshwater wetlands

Like lowland forests, swamps and other types of freshwater wetlands once occupied much larger areas of low-lying New Zealand than they do now. Since European settlement approximately 90% of former freshwater wetlands in New Zealand have been drained and cleared for land development (Ausseil et al, 2008). South Westland Weheka is the only area in the country where large unmodified areas of freshwater wetlands are still widespread today. Freshwater wetlands are one of the most productive of all natural ecosystems and as such the freshwater wetlands of the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini generally, and of South Westland Weheka in particular, are of huge national significance (Cromarty & Scott, 1996).

See also
Section 2.2.1.3 Wetlands of international importance

Freshwater rivers

A preliminary national assessment undertaken by Chadderton et al (2004) attempted to identify the most natural and representative river systems that contain a reasonably comprehensive range of New Zealand’s freshwater ecosystems, communities and species, including threatened species, on the basis that these catchments contribute most to New Zealand’s remaining freshwater biodiversity. Better information may become available over the life of the CMS and will be considered accordingly.

Rivers in the West Coast Tai Poutini Conservancy whose entire catchments were classified as potentially nationally significant include: the Heaphy River, Karamea River, Mokihinui River, Buller Kawatiri River, Grey River headwaters, Maruia River, Ahaura River, Fox River, Hokitika River, Ōkārito River and Cockabulla Creek, Cook River, Karangarua River, Paringa River, Haast River (includes Landsborough River), Okuru River, Turnbull River, Waiatoto River, Arawhata River and Cascade River.

See also
Chapter 3.3 Natural Heritage Conservation (particularly Sections 3.3.1.4, 3.3.1.5 and 3.3.3.3) Part 4,
Chapters 4.1 and 4.2 (see desired outcomes for freshwater ecosystems and specific rivers)

Karst landscapes

There are many karst areas in New Zealand but because the soils that develop in limestone areas tend to be very fertile, most lowland karst landscapes have been modified for productive purposes. The Paparoa and Ōpārara karst areas of the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini have, in contrast, retained much of their natural character, including forest cover. Along with their highly distinctive landforms, including numerous caves, these are now the best examples of unmodified lowland karst in New Zealand.

See also
Chapter 3.3 Natural Heritage Conservation (particularly Sections 3.3.1.4, 3.3.1.5, 3.3.3.3 and 3.3.4) Part 4,
Chapters 4.1 and 4.2 (see desired outcomes for freshwater ecosystems and specific cave and karst areas)

Coal plateau landscapes

In the coastal hills just north of the Buller Kawatiri River are the elevated coal measure plateaux - windswept areas that are often under snow in winter and frequently fog bound. The Buller coal plateaux (i.e. Denniston and Stockton plateaux) comprise a nationally outstanding natural landscape5. The plateaux contain by far the largest occurrence of Brunner coal measures in New Zealand and have the greatest diversity of vegetation types on coal measures. Its ecosystems are defined by the presence of extensive coal measure rocks and associated landforms and vegetation (McEwen 1987). While some of the animal and plant communities of the plateaux are found elsewhere, some Powelliphanta snail populations and the communities containing the endemic coal measure tussock Chionochloa juncea are confined to these plateaux and are internationally unique (Walker 2003). The particular combination of plant communities and associated landscapes present on these plateaux occurs nowhere else in New Zealand (Overmars et al 1998).

See also
Chapter 3.3 Natural Heritage Conservation (particularly Sections 3.3.1.2, 3.3.1.3, 3.3.3.2 and 3.3.4) Part 4,
Section 4.2.2 (see desired outcomes for the coal plateaux)

Lowland forests

A large proportion of the total amount of lowland forest remaining in New Zealand today is protected within West Coast Te Tai o Poutini public conservation lands. In many other parts of the country there is virtually no lowland forest left to protect, especially on fertile coastal and alluvial sites. The years of human settlement and landclearance have resulted in the loss of about 70% of New Zealand’s forest (Fleet 1986; Leathwick et al 2003). Some specific forest types, particularly those in the lowlands, have suffered a much greater loss. In the case of kahikatea forest it is estimated that less than 2% now remains of what once existed nationally (Wardle 1991).

The West Coast Te Tai o Poutini retains most of New Zealand’s unmodified and regenerating kahikatea forest and some of the best examples of dense rimu terrace forest. These forests are also significant food sources for a number of indigenous forest bird species. However, even on the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini some once common forest types, such as mataī-tōtara forest, are now reduced to small and scattered remnants of their former range.

See also
Chapter 3.3 Natural Heritage Conservation (particularly Sections 3.3.1.2, 3.3.1.3 and 3.3.3.2) Part 4,
Chapters 4.1 and 4.2 (see desired outcomes for lowland forests)

Threatened, uncommon and endemic species

The West Coast Te Tai o Poutini is home to a number of species that are threatened, uncommon or endemic to the Conservancy. Among those with a higher national profile are three of the six species of kiwi (i.e. great spotted kiwi roroa, rowi (Ōkārito brown kiwi) and Haast tokoeka, which are either confined to, or strongly centred on, the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini ), as well as South Island kākā, kea, blue duck whio, yellowhead mohua, Westland petrel taiko, Fiordland crested penguin tawaki, scarlet mistletoe, shortjaw kōkopu and giant kōkopu taiwharu, a number of locally endemic Powelliphanta land snails and Hector’s dolphin aihe – all of which have important populations within the Conservancy.

See also
Chapter 3.3 Natural Heritage Conservation (particularly Sections 3.3.2 and 3.3.3.5) Part 4,
Chapters 4.1 and 4.2 (see desired outcomes for threatened species)

Historical and cultural heritage

The presence of pounamu is a culturally significant feature of the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini . Pounamu is responsible for the cultural histories, endeavours, conquests, wars and events that have shaped tangata whenua, Poutini Ngāi Tahu, from their earliest history on the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini to the present day. It is a source of mana, prestige, wealth and industry to Poutini Ngāi Tahu. Other cultural features in the landscape remind Poutini Ngāi Tahu of their tūpuna (ancestors) and their deeds and resulting responsibilities. Today Poutini Ngāi Tahu have an inherited responsibility to adhere to the tikanga, kawa, ritenga and karakia (cultural protocols) of their tūpuna.

In colonial history, the West Coast Te Tai o Poutini experienced some of the country’s biggest gold rushes and several ambitious industrial ventures (e.g. coal mining, timber milling), leaving an extensive legacy of historic mining sites, settlements, structures and trails. Most of these industries are still operative today. Air transport and whitebaiting are also of historical importance.

See also
Chapter 3.4 Historical and Cultural Heritage Conservation Part 4,
Chapters 4.1 and 4.2 (see desired outcomes for historical and cultural heritage)

Recreational opportunities

The West Coast Te Tai o Poutini contains several of the highest and most rugged mountain ranges in the country, and many ‘wild’ valleys, including the Cascade, Arawhata, Waiatoto, Landsborough, Douglas, Cook and Karamea. These mountains are of cultural and spiritual significance to Poutini Ngāi Tahu. The network of huts, tracks and transalpine traverses maintained by the Department, plus the extent of wild and remote places, provide a wide scope for backcountry, remote experience and wilderness recreation, including coastal wilderness travel.

See also
Chapter 3.6 Recreation and Tourism (particularly Section 3.6.1) Part 4,
Chapters 4.1 and 4.2 (see desired outcomes for recreation and tourism)


2 Further information about Te Wāhipounamu South-West New Zealand World Heritage Area is available online at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/551

3 The others are the San Andreas Fault in California, the Andes in South America and the Himalaya foothills region.

4 Cromarty and Scott (1996) identified these wetlands and wetland complexes as meeting the criteria for international importance for designation under Article 2 of the Ramsar Convention.

5 A detailed assessment of Brunner and Paparoa coal measures outside the Buller coal plateaux was undertaken by the Department of Conservation (Appendix IX in Overmars et al 1998). Seventeen sites containing Brunner coal measures were identified. The assessment concluded that the Buller coal plateaux contain by far the largest occurrence of Brunner coal measures in New Zealand, with the greatest diversity of vegetation types on coal measures, and could thus be recognised as a nationally outstanding landscape in its entirety.

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