Read a short history of DOC, written to celebrate our 20th anniversary.

Born with a mission

On 1 April 1987 the Department of Conservation was launched by Prime Minister David Lange in Wellington, at Antrim House, with 1111 permanent and 718 casual staff nationwide. Its first Minister was Russell Marshall, followed within the first three years by Helen Clark and Philip Woollaston.

Staff were drawn from the land management giants, the New Zealand Forest Service and Department of Lands and Survey, and the much smaller Wildlife Service and the Archaeology Section of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust*, both of the Department of Internal Affairs, as well as other government agencies.

Gone were the green and khaki uniforms; light blue and beige would represent a fresh face of “conservation” in New Zealand. The first Director-General, Ken Piddington, was explicit that the new Department would shake off the baggage of its parent agencies.

Environment, generally, was ripe for restructuring in New Zealand, in the prevailing 1980s climate of free market reform. The move towards a single “conservation” agency started in November 1984, and gained force after a national conference in 1985.

At the time the NZFS was both protecting and logging native forests, and Lands & Survey was caught between protecting land and burning it for development, as well as managing national parks and reserves. Forest and Bird, the Native Forest Action Council, Friends of the Earth, Maruia Society and other NGOs were campaigning to protect lowland podocarp forests around the country.

To the Executive of the day, the public service was burdened with mixed objectives, and there was no coherent approach to biodiversity conservation. It made sense to gather the “green dots” around the country into one agency.

Thus, the Conservation Act 1987 requires DOC to protect natural and historic heritage, and provide recreational opportunities on land entrusted to its care. Nature was to be protected for its own sake and the benefits to New Zealanders protected for future generations to enjoy.

Bird scientists were brought under the same umbrella as park and reserve managers, and nature conservation benefited almost immediately. Initially, however, most Wildlife Service staff at district level were concentrated in the Taupo and Rotorua areas, because of the trout fishery rather than native species.

Not least, the Department was launched with an expectation of an entirely new relationship with Māori; Section 4 of the Conservation Act requires the Department to “give effect” to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi. Ken Piddington was (and still is) fluent in te reo.

* The Historic Places Trust was accountable to the Minister of Internal Affairs and partly funded from Vote Internal Affairs, pre-1987. Staff were employees of Internal Affairs. With the passing of the Conservation Act 1987, these responsibilities were transferred to the Minister of Conservation. The Director-General was represented at HPT Board meetings until 1993 when the HPT gained greater independence from DOC. While still responsible to the Minister, HPT staff then became employees of the Trust. Both agencies continued to work together but each developed its own focus, e.g. with the HPT taking on a policy advice role within government.

In 1998, the Minister of Conservation’s historic heritage review resulted in a further administrative change, with the portfolio responsibilities for the HPT being transferred to the Minister for Culture and Heritage.

A rocky start

From the beginning the agency’s name was not to be abbreviated, and if at all, to Conservation - of course, the acronym DOC appeared within days. Ironically, it was the Department that would need help. The first year’s budget – around $185 million in 2007 dollars - was said to have been overspent by 3.1 per cent, which was then removed from the 1988-1989 allocation. (DOC revenues from national park hut fees and concession fees had not been included in the accounting.)

Compounding the issue was that DOC had been launched with no central financial system; the eight DOC regions around the country and 34 districts operated more or less autonomously.

It was difficult to track overall expenditure, at a time when offices were being set up, and physical assets divvied out in the environmental restructuring. The State-owned enterprises Landcorp and Forestry Corporation were believed to have taken the good vehicles, leaving DOC a motley collection. There was a tendency to grab assets whether needed or not, and wheeling and dealing became popular at district level: in one transaction, a grader was traded for a photocopier.

Those who could splashed out on flash office fit-outs which incurred instant public condemnation from the environmental NGOs: the money was supposed to have gone on conservation gains, not Maurice Kain fabrics and pink-and-grey corporate interiors.

It was partly for this perceived extravagance that government would come down so heavily on the Department.

DOC was forced to borrow $11.5 million to be repaid over seven years to make ends meet. In 1989 Coopers & Lybrand associates were brought in to help restructure the Department, to improve the match between staffing levels and the budget. The regions and districts were reformed into 14 Conservancies. The four-tier structure was reduced to three, with the district conservator level removed, and 188 staff were made redundant.

The next Director-General, David McDowell, envisaged a “spare, lean DOC team”. He had little option: DOC had two-thirds of the funding that was allocated pre-1987 for conservation purposes, in line with higher expectations of the public service. The Department had gone into bat with missionary zeal but with one arm behind its back and it would have to cope financially, as well as align itself politically.

It was unprecedented at the time for a government agency to have a statutory advocacy role such as DOC’s, and early on staff had taken it up with enthusiasm. As an early example, the Department challenged Electricorp over minimum flows in the Whanganui River and won the case, with the support of NGOs but to rumblings within Cabinet.

DOC staff adopted a thrifty, no.8 wire approach to the business, which became a source of pride. But the main effect of the 1989 restructuring was to bring the staff closer together, and over time dilute the staff cultures brought into DOC from the various parent organisations.

The fee system for national park huts and DOC campgrounds was extended to forest park huts in 1989 and 1990, to general public outcry at having to pay $4 a night, and later grudging acceptance.

The early 1990s

1990 was a benchmark year. There were more than 100 Chatham Island black robins (cf. one breeding pair in 1979, and despite widespread scepticism on whether the species could be rescued). The New Zealand Conservation Authority was formed with 17 regional conservation boards to oversee national parks management, among other duties. The government set up the Nature Heritage Fund* to buy private land with high conservation values, to be managed by DOC.

Bill Mansfield was appointed Director-General in 1990, not least to build financial systems within DOC. But it would take until 1993-1994 for DOC to achieve clean audits, and get a Treasury tick as a “tidy operation”. Pay scales still reflected the earlier hierarchy of NZFS, Lands and Survey, and the Wildlife Service.

Also in 1990 Tongariro National Park was designated a World Heritage site for natural reasons, and conservation lands in Westland, Canterbury, Otago and Fiordland were consolidated as Tewāhipounamu, doubling the area of the 1986 World Heritage designation. (Tongariro achieved a world first when it was also inscribed for cultural reasons in 1993. New Zealand’s subantarctic islands were added to our World Heritage list in 1998.)

The same year an amendment to the Conservation Act was passed to improve DOC’s planning, with conservation management strategies.

In 1991 Ngā Whenua Rahui** was set up to help Māori land owners conserve biodiversity on their land. DOC relationships with iwi got a boost with the establishment of the Kaupapa Atawhai managers’ network, and increasing involvement in Treaty settlement processes. As a result, iwi have become more involved in managing some reserves, with the assistance of DOC.

The Resource Management Act 1991 upped the ante on DOC’s advocacy role - the onus was now on DOC to show the effects on conservation values of development proposals. In taking on coastal responsibilities from the Ministries of Agriculture and Fisheries, and Transport in 1987, it fell to DOC to lead work on the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement (completed in 1994).

Native species conservation was initially but not entirely bird focused as “species recovery plans” introduced from 1991 reveal: kōkako, kiwi, kakī (black stilt) and kakabeak were first off the blocks, as well as three species of skink. Many more plans were to follow, as the individual energy of scientists and resources allowed. In 1992 a priority-setting scheme and key individuals raised the profile of invertebrates and freshwater fish.

By this time scientists were warning of a “third wave” of native species extinctions, with weka and whio (blue duck) in some areas in marked decline. This came as a shock: it was thought that native wildlife on the mainland had reached an equilibrium with introduced predators. DOC needed to lift its game.

The national possum control plan in 1993 brought an additional boost to biodiversity conservation, as did plans to control Himalayan thar, wasps and weeds. Field centres around the country joined the lolly scramble to inject more cash into their programmes.

In respect of historic places conservation, DOC was launched with little direction or resources. When the connection with the Historic Places Trust was severed in 1993 DOC gained more clarity, with the focus on land managed by DOC to include actively-managed sites such as Mansion House on Kawau Island, the Old Government Buildings in Wellington, and many others, e.g. Māori pā sites, old gold workings, redoubts.

A minor review led to 38 staff being made redundant in 1993-1994, as part of ongoing efforts to bring the books into balance. Meanwhile there was no one figure for the number of huts and tracks DOC managed, let alone their asset value. A back-of-an-envelope calculation produced a $700 million figure, which was not recorded on DOC’s balance sheets. Work started on an inventory.

* The Nature Heritage Fund was originally the Forest Heritage Fund, and is funded out of its own Vote.

** While Ngā Whenua Rahui establishes 25-year covenants, it was envisaged as a parallel organisation to the Nature Heritage Fund. (The Queen Elizabeth II National Trust, which is about permanent open space covenants on private land, was established during the Queen’s 25th Jubilee year in 1977.)

A new image

By 1993 the proliferation of different signs, business cards and publications around the country was such that the Department more resembled a set of affiliated organisations than a single agency. The 1980s pastel uniforms were decommissioned. Minus logo, they were shipped to war-torn Bosnia as humanitarian aid. For conservation, green and khaki was back.

The trademark green-and-yellow signs made their appearance from 1994 in colours that were easy to read and wouldn’t fade. Over time the Department looked more coherent – today few of the vehicle fleet are other than white – and it looked as though the tough early days were over.

Cave Creek and afterwards

On 28 April 1995 a viewing platform in the newly-formed Paparoa National Park collapsed with the loss of 14 lives. DOC was “shaken to the core”. Denis Marshall was Minister. Immediately afterwards, more than 520 structures were inspected, of which 65 were closed for repairs.

No one person was held accountable for the accident by the Commission of Inquiry. The subsequent State Services Commission review found that DOC was functioning as well as could reasonably be expected. But adequate national project and risk management systems were lacking. The engineering expertise present in the NZFS had not been transferred into DOC. The new requirements of the Building Act 1991 and Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 had not filtered down to field staff.

Within three months 20,000 assets were inspected and inventoried over 12,500km of track. Eighty engineers were hired over three years to write safety standards, and design new and modified structures. Extra funding was allocated during 1998-2000 to continue the upgrade of visitor infrastructure.

DOC became increasingly risk conscious, as did New Zealand as a whole. In its visitor assets management system, every platform, bridge, boardwalk, hut, track and sign is catalogued and regularly inspected. “Quality conservation management” has been written into Standard Operating Procedures, of which many cover health and safety of staff.

Before stepping down, Bill Mansfield led a second major round of restructuring in 1996, advised by Bach Consulting. East Coast and Hawke’s Bay Conservancies were amalgamated, reducing the total number from 14 to 13. But the big change was to strengthen the “line management” system, largely current today. Three regional offices (now two) headed by general managers would improve the accountability of Conservancies to the Director-General.

Among the SSC’s findings was one with a familiar ring, that in the mid-1990s “controversy over the use of 1080 poison, Kaimanawa wild horses, Treaty of Waitangi issues, whale watching, tussock grasslands … in Central Otago, fast ferries, and the Poor Knights marine reserve, to name but a few, showed the heat and litigious activity that can be generated around modern conservation issues.”

The new structure and the setting was, essentially, the Department that Hugh Logan took over on being appointed Director-General in 1997.

The mid-1990s saw early steps towards site-based ecological restoration, with the development of world-leading control of rats and stoats (as well as possums and goats). The “mainland islands” had new funding confirmed in 1996.

In that year Northwest Nelson was established as Kahurangi National Park, and there were 13 marine reserves (cf. two in 1987, Cape Rodney-Okakari Pt near Leigh, and the Poor Knights).

In 1996 Part IIIB was inserted into the Conservation Act to bring the management of concessioned activities on public conservation land in line with the RMA. Tourism and recreation were continuing to grow in New Zealand, and a visitor strategy completed in 1996 would help ensure a variety of recreation experiences around the country.

“Restoring the Dawn Chorus” was the title of DOC’s strategic plan for 1998-2002, in light of the urgency of native species conservation, and was retained as a title until 2002-2005. This period was marked by an improving relationship with the Treasury, and a review of historic heritage.

As the 20th Century came to an end, tenure review of South Island high country pastoral leases was bringing more land into conservation management, hut booking systems started being introduced for the Great Walks to limit crowding, and the Crater Lake of Mt Ruapehu was refilling after the 1995-1996 eruptions. Nick Smith ended his term as Minister by allocating funds to research a hitherto-underestimated predator, the stoat.

The new millennium

In 2000 the New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy and new funding for five kiwi sanctuaries brought in a new era of biodiversity conservation, with stronger science, more pest control, more pest-free offshore island sanctuaries, and experimental management of threatened species.

A $2.5 million funding boost for work with communities in 2000-2001, brought in by the Green Party and followed up by the Minister, Sandra Lee, led to hundreds of partnerships with communities across the country. DOC's conservation with communities strategy, completed in 2003, revealed a change in Department thinking, that its future would be inextricably linked to working with others.

As well, the Biofunds grants saw a huge increase in community and landowner-based conservation. Today there are more than 3000 such projects nationwide.”

But the scale of the biodiversity conservation problem as it is known today is much larger than envisaged in 2000, let alone 1987.

Where DOC is doing the work, it is doing well, reviews have found, but there are many areas where the work is not being done, often for reasons beyond DOC’s control, and overall, New Zealand’s native species biodiversity continues to decline. The kiwi for example is managed in only 5 per cent of its range and in much of the remaining area is in decline.

In 2002 the World Conservation Union (IUCN) classification of threatened species was replaced by a DOC system better suited to New Zealand’s island ecology. It had on its cover an image of an endangered Chatham Island weevil on its only food source, an endangered speargrass, to make the point that the cold, clammy and spiny, as well as vegetation are as worthy of conservation as our iconic birds.

The same year Rakiura/Stewart Island became New Zealand’s 14th national park. Around this time the Department began fleshing out a project - the Nature Heritage Management System - to do for native species conservation that which had been done for managing visitor assets.

Also at this time two rat plagues in the South Island severely dented the remaining populations of orange-fronted kākāriki, mohua, and to a lesser extent whio and long-tailed bat. In response, Conservation Minister Chris Carter announced Operation Ark in 2003, an early warning system for predator plagues and resources for multi-species pest control. Stoat plagues were eliminating kiwi chicks at Okarito. That year DOC confirmed Campbell Island rat free after a massive eradication operation.

In 2004 the Recreational Opportunities Review came on the heels of a massive injection of capital and operational funding into recreation facilities, leading to hut and track upgrades, and matching the assets provided with public need.

General Policies were introduced in 2005 to provide a “standard of care” across the Department and ensure that all conservation values are taken into account when managing a particular site. The two documents, one for conservation generally, and one for national parks, include a need to manage “ecosystem services”, such as water and soil conservation and carbon storage.

The same year a series of studies started to measure the economic impacts of activities, mainly tourism and recreation, in selected conservation areas, starting with the West Coast. They showed there is a wider economic value in conservation than commonly understood and rebut claims that “DOC land” is a lock-up of resources.

Also in 2004 work stepped up on managing the effects of an impending lahar on Mt Ruapehu, along the upper Whangaehu River. At the year’s end Prime Minister Helen Clark announced that New Zealand’s single-largest landholding, Molesworth Station, would be managed for conservation, with the existing farm.

As at 2007 DOC has published 59 species recovery plans, including kākāpō (pop. 86), whio, several sea and shore bird species, native frogs, wētā, native fish, giant landsnails, bats, diverse lizard and plant species. As knowledge increases, more species become added to the threatened species lists and today there are around 2800. To put the figure in perspective, there may be as many as 30,000 species of insect alone in New Zealand, if there were any way of counting them.

The Biodiversity Strategy also drew additional resources for marine protection. Since 2002 the number of marine reserves has doubled over those established between 1975 and 2000. With the tally shortly to reach 33, the marine environment has received more attention than previously but there is still progress to be made.

For instance, attempts to better protect the New Zealand sea lion failed when the fishing industry overturned a squid fisheries closure in the courts – revealing the limits of using the precautionary approach to conserve the marine environment.

The Department has a new Strategic Direction, under the leadership of Director-General Alastair Morrison, looking at the broader social and economic context of conservation, which has always been present but is being brought into sharper focus.

DOC is working towards joining a whole-of-government commitment to sustainability, and is looking into the contribution it can make to New Zealand’s international obligations on climate change. The move of Head Office into Conservation House will lead to energy savings and help DOC meet govt3 sustainablity commitments.

The Mt Ruapehu lahar passed almost without incident a fortnight before the 20th anniversary; all emergency and risk management systems worked as expected.


Looking back over the first 20 years DOC staff past and present may take pride in what has been achieved. The recreational facilities network on the public conservation estate is world class. Great strides have been made in the conservation of species and ecosystems, with island pest eradications, and multi-species pest control on the mainland. Species like the Chatham Island robin, kākāpō, takahē, kakī, the Middle Island tusked wētā, diverse giant landsnails and some species of kiwi have had their long-term chances of survival greatly improved.

Looking ahead, the war on pests has yet to be won, and there is much to do in marine conservation. The historic places area can only grow but this will depend on commitment to this area. A developing inventory and monitoring system for historic places will help guide future work.

Building into conservation an approach to sustainability and economic issues will grow in importance, with synergies for conservation.The work cannot all be done by DOC staff alone - we must engage and support the community including iwi in a meaningful and sustained manner to get the best we can for conservation of nature, as well as of historic resources.

Author's note

Inevitably, there have been aspects of the Department’s work omitted in the short history presented. Peter Bygate was Acting-Director General for considerable periods in the early years. Simon Upton was Minister during part of 1996. DOC firefighting, in New Zealand and overseas, has been recognised as world class. The community relations side of the Department has barely been touched but is no less significant for that. There have been developments in whale conservation, and DOC people have represented New Zealand in many international conventions and United Nations-led organisations connected to conservation. There have been and will be implications for DOC of the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2005. Many DOC staff have taken up work opportunities abroad as recognised leaders in their fields.

To any person or deed that has been missed, my apologies. Department staff will know for themselves the part they have played in the remarkable progress that has been made in the last 20 years.


Ministerial Brief: DOC: August 1987

Departmental Review, final report: Coopers & Lybrand associates: December 1988

Restructuring ’89: Information for staff, Part 1: DOC: May 1989

Report of the Conservancy Establishment Review Team: DOC: July 1989

Head Office Establishment Review: DOC: July 1989

The Green Print: The State of Conservation in New Zealand, a brief to the incoming administration: DOC: November 1990

SSC Review of the Department of Conservation: DOC: November 1995

Conservation Management: history and systems of the Department of Conservation: DOC: December 1995

Our Islands, Ourselves: a history of conservation in New Zealand: David Young: 2004

The Management of Tourism Operations on Public Conservation Lands through Concessions: submitted Masters thesis: Harry Maher: March 2007

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