View from Cape Reinga
Image: Benhi Dixon | Creative Commons


The public conservation land we administer has different layers of protection, depending on which category or status it holds under various legislation.

Not all conservation land is the same. Some areas need different levels of protection to best preserve their natural, historic and cultural resources.

Categories allow for individual areas to be identified. They also allow areas to be protected with a specific purpose or management objective in mind. For example, an area of conservation land may be the only location where a native species exists.

The Conservation Act defines ‘conservation’ as: “the preservation and protection of natural and historic resources for the purpose of maintaining their intrinsic values, providing for their appreciation and recreational enjoyment by the public, and safeguarding the options of future generations.”

On this page:

Categories and conservation values

Conservation categories are established under the Conservation Act, National Parks Act, Reserves Act, and the Wildlife Act.

About the legislation that guides DOC’s work

Classifications are generally selected based on the Act the land is held under, but there are some exceptions. Additional classifications may be assigned to identified areas to further protect specific values and prioritise how the area is managed.

A summary of classification areas for conservation land follows.

Table of categories of conservation land

More detail about some of the individual classifications within each category can be found in the table.

Categories of conservation land table (PDF, 247K)

National parks

Land held under the National Parks Act 1980.

A national park is an area of land (and water) containing scenery, ecological systems, and/or natural features so beautiful, distinctive or scientifically important that they are of national interest.

They are priceless and represent the natural, historic and cultural heritage of New Zealand to be protected for future generations to enjoy.

Example: Tongariro National Park. It is New Zealand's oldest national park and a dual World Heritage area. This status recognises the park's important Māori cultural and spiritual associations as well as its outstanding volcanic features.

Information on all New Zealand's national parks

Wildlife areas

Areas protected under the Wildlife Act 1953.

A wildlife area is managed for the preservation of wildlife and its habitat. For example, an area with a specific species or a nesting site. They can be areas within parks and reserves, or on private land.

These areas contain some of New Zealand’s most treasured wildlife. Some are open to the public; others are only accessible with a permit or within a specified timeframe to minimise disturbance or damage.

There are three types of wildlife area classification: sanctuary, refuge, and management reserve.

Example: Karewa Gannet Island is a wildlife sanctuary and Matatā Lagoon is a wildlife refuge.

Conservation areas

Land held under the Conservation Act 1987.

Conservation areas include land or foreshore held under the Conservation Act for conservation purposes, that has not been given additional protection. All conservation areas have been set aside for conservation purposes and are protected for their natural and intrinsic resources.

Conservation areas that meet the relevant criteria can be given additional protection as specially protected areas. More about the criteria.

Stewardship land

Some conservation areas are called stewardship areas or stewardship land. They are defined by exception. They are conservation areas that have not yet been assessed to see if they require additional protection.

Most stewardship areas are land that was transferred to DOC when it was established in 1987 because it was considered to have conservation value.

DOC is working through a process of reclassifying this land so that it has the appropriate layers of protection. However, stewardship land is protected under the Conservation Act and cannot be disposed of unless there is no or very low conservation value.


Land held under the Reserves Act 1977.

A reserve is land preserved and managed for the benefit and enjoyment of the public.

Areas set apart as reserves possess a special feature or value, or are used to protect and preserve natural areas or species. For example, the reserve may have value for recreation, education, as wildlife habitat or as an interesting landscape. They may also be created to protect and preserve certain species, public access, or coastlines, islands, lakeshores and riverbanks.

Under the Reserves Act, a reserve must be classified according to its principal or primary purpose. It is then managed/preserved according to that purpose.

Reserves are administered by DOC or an administering body may be appointed, like a local authority, iwi or a voluntary organisation.

How we categorise conservation land

Categorisation contributes to conservation outcomes by identifying areas of land that require additional protection. For example, key sites of biodiversity and/or historic and cultural value.

The process of categorising conservation land is commonly referred to as classification (or re-classification where an existing category is being reviewed).

This is a complex process, and it can result in overlapping layers of protection for specific sites.

Basics of categorisation/classification

An outcome of classifying land is that it determines the purpose(s) for which the land will be managed.

There are a number of factors that have to be considered when identifying and selecting which category to apply to a piece of land.

These include, but are not limited to:

  • Values: the natural, historic, cultural and intrinsic values associated with an area. This is not just about flora and fauna, it also includes if the land has or provides scenic qualities and the area’s ability to facilitate its enjoyment (for example, does it have or could it provide an easily accessible walking environment).
  • Location: the size and place of an area, and its connection to other protected areas.
  • Accessibility: the terrain and types of access of an area. For example, is it locally accessible or near a road; does the land provide access for cars, bikes or walking to another protected area.
  • Significance: the individual importance or uniqueness of an area. For example, is a rare species present or does it have a significant historical/cultural context to consider.

The above information is sought initially from DOC’s files and the local/regional team(s).

Depending on the area and information held, additional information may be sought from a range of experts within DOC, or outside of DOC, like administering bodies or historic, cultural or biodiversity experts.

Once the information is compiled, the potential classifications are assessed to see whether they are suitable. Consultation is then undertaken with relevant iwi/hapū/whānau.

Consultation may also be undertaken with conservation boards, the New Zealand Conservation Authority, and other interested parties (if known), to seek their views on the proposed classification(s).

Not all classification proposals have a statutory requirement for public notification. However, the Minister, or their delegate, may choose to consult with the public if the decision is of significance locally or regionally.

If public notification is undertaken, the feedback from the notification is then put to the decision maker for final consideration. If approved, notification of the approval will be published in the NZ Gazette.

General rules for conservation land

All land held and administered by DOC (and administering bodies) is protected.

DOC (and/or the administering body) is obliged to administer and manage the protected area under its control for the purpose(s) for which the land is classified.

There are certain “rules” associated with protected areas, some are general across all classifications, and some are specific to a classification.

The rules specific to an area can be found on its place page: Parks and recreation.

Some activities require a permission from DOC: Information about all permissions.

General rules include, but are not limited to, the below.

  • Dogs are not allowed on conservation land unless specifically allowed. About dogs on conservation land.
    • Areas allowing dogs should be gazetted as such and will be noted on the sign for the relevant area. For areas where dogs are ‘allowed’ there are two types of permissions:
      • An open area – dogs are allowed and do not need to be leashed.
      • A controlled area – dogs are allowed but must be leashed at all times.
  • Drones, 4WD driving/bikes, motorbikes and cycling are only allowed where authorised. Signs for the area will identify whether the activity is allowed. If not allowed, then a permit is required.
  • Commercial activities on conservation land require a permission, for example guiding, filming, or sporting events. About commercial activities on conservation land.
  • Camping is not permitted on a reserve unless the area has been designated as a campsite.
  • For sanctuaries, nature and scientific reserves (unless authorised otherwise), entry is by permit only or may be restricted and controlled.
  • Any protected area may be closed for access, where deemed necessary for the protection and preservation of the flora or fauna, or where there is deemed to be a health and safety risk to the public.
  • In most cases, taking of flora and fauna from a protected area is not allowed unless specifically permitted, for example hunting.


Contact your local DOC office if you have a question relating to the status of conservation land.

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