With community engagement at the forefront of our mission these days, it's hard to believe that the idea of New Zealanders getting involved in our work was once a novel concept, even controversial.
Since we began in 1987, a blend of experimentation, innovation, challenge and boldness has helped the organisation develop and grow its community engagement work. And it's still evolving, responding to the growing and changing nature this work.
Today the organisation works with around 1000 of the 4000 or so community organisations that carry out conservation work on a voluntary basis around Aotearoa. We have over 800 partnerships and 26 percent of these involve tangata whenua.
Every year we also work with around 14,000 individual volunteers and deliver around 700 knowledge and skill sharing initiatives with communities.
But how did DOC get to this point and what is the future of this work? We take a brief look back at some of the milestones in this journey and glimpse at the opportunities and challenges ahead.
The first volunteer policy and programme
Controversy courted the very start of this work in the late 1980s. The National Parks Centennial celebrations were ending and Christine Jacobson was tasked with researching and developing the organisation's first national volunteer policy and programme.
It was this work that arguably paved the way for the concept of wider public involvement in DOC's work.
But it wasn't straightforward says Christine who was a policy advisor for DOC at the time.
"The NZ Workers Union was very concerned that volunteers would take their jobs and we had to do a lot of reassuring to make sure that wasn't the case. That's why the initial volunteer guidelines were strict about making sure that volunteers would not do core work and would have the combination of work and education aspects."
Christine describes those who helped the programme's development as "inspired and courageous staff who were prepared to experiment."
Volunteers having a break from restoration of the Cleddau horse bridge, Fiordland National Park, 1993
Southland's long-running volunteer programme
Southlanders are very proud of their conservation volunteering history. Their DOC Southland and Otago volunteer programme is believed to be the first programme of its type in the country.
It was put together in 1988-89 by Fergus Sutherland who had travelled to the United Kingdom to find out how conservation volunteering worked.
Today the programme is the "backbone of our volunteer work in Southland" says John McCarroll our community supervisor in Invercargill.
Increasing recognition of Treaty partners
The 1990s saw an increasing focus within DOC to work more effectively with its Treaty partners.
We developed Te Pukenga Atawhai - a professional development programme based on "building cultural capability within DOC that supports the Treaty principles and our work with whānau, hapū and iwi", says DOC's Kaihautu Te Putahitanga, Director-Strategic Partnerships and Treaty, Joe Harawira.
"It gave notice to our employees about our responsibilities as a Crown agency to put the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi to the forefront in recognition of true partnership."
The Nga Whenua Rahui fund also became more prominent, supporting the protection of indigenous ecosystems on Māori owned land: Its kaupapa reaffirming the bond between tangata whenua and the land.
Participants pepeha in front of Maketu Marae, Kawhia as part of Te Pukenga Atawhai
Innovation fund - a catalyst for change
In the early 2000's a dedicated 'Green Budget' was provided to DOC to explore new ways of working with communities.
The new funds required the organisation to develop more face to face connections with local communities and to create innovation and leverage through effective partnerships.
Influences at the time included the first national Biodiversity Strategy's call to motivate and support widespread community action.
"It was a really positive time and an affirmation that working with communities was an important component of our work" says national volunteering advisor Jan Simmons.
The 'Experiencing Marine Reserves' programme was one of several successful models seeded in the early 2000s
A shift from DOC-led to supporting others
More and more community organisations and landowners started to carry out restoration and pest control work in their special local places, both on and off conservation lands.
As well as the big NGOs like Forest and Bird, with a long background in conservation, there were now hundreds of new smaller groups, with varying levels of capability and experience.
Our work with the community began to shift from being mainly DOC-led, to working with and enabling a myriad of community-led activities like Project Tongariro.
It's one of many stories of how a community group transforms from small beginnings into a significant and sustained contributor to local conservation efforts.
Project Tongariro volunteers with DOC200 traps at Mt Pihanga, Lake Rotopounamu Forest
First national community strategy
Another major culture shift occurred within the organisation with the 'Conservation with Communities Strategy 2003' – our first national community strategy.
It was communicated and embedded throughout organisation through nation-wide workshops, local strategies, staff champions, and performance measures.
At the same time the need to build staff capability to do this work led to the creation of our first national community partnerships training – 'From Seed to Success'.
Understanding the value of community conservation
We began to ramp up our knowledge of the community sector - understanding the factors of successful partnerships and the value of voluntary contributions to our conservation work.
A DOC-commissioned survey in 2007 found that 200 of its community partner groups contributed nearly $16 million of value to conservation in one year, including voluntary labour, funds, skills and in-kind contributions.
The Community Fund was first established at this time also - an earlier version of the present-day DOC Community Fund.
Engaging young people at centre of communities
Conservation education started to become more prominent. Whilst there had always been some education work carried out by a network of dedicated staff, there was a growing recognition within the organisation that supporting and empowering young people was now a vital investment in conservation: young people represent the future and will be the next leaders in conservation.
Impact in community engagement
From 2010 onward another major organisational shift happened with the Department's aspiration to double conservation. We began to look at how to have impact in community engagement. The organisation supported the community desire for a portal for ecological restoration information and resources and co-built today's 'Nature Space' website.
Thorndon's Patanga Hill restoration coordinator Dinah Priestley explores the Nature Space site at an open day
The multi partnerships approach began between DOC and several regional councils including the 'Nature Central' initiative involving DOC and three councils. A commercial arm of DOC was established to work with corporate partnerships like Air New Zealand and Fonterra as well as small to medium size business.
Philanthropic commitment also grew with major contributors like Project Janszoon enabling large-scale landscape restoration, and other philanthropic partners backing the development of new conservation technologies and approaches.
Today there are new and emerging influences, opportunities and challenges. Tourism and the 'Good to Grow' partnership with the Corrections Department are examples in volunteering says DOC national volunteer manager Polly Cunningham.
We are also seeing gathering momentum around the concept of a 'conservation collective' adds Annie Wheeler, DOC's community partnerships manager.
"This could be a collective of community groups working together with DOC and council to achieve a predator free vision for a region, or multiple partners working collaboratively to restore a large landscape."
We'll be looking at some exciting developments and possibilities in future stories. Watch this space!