The perfect place for a restoration project

ALASTAIR PAULIN
Last updated 09:30 20/01/2014
Jake Goonan
ALASTAIR PAULIN/FAIRFAX NZ
DEDICATION: Department of Conservation ranger Jake Goonan carries three double stoat traps during the Project Janszoon operation in Abel Tasman National Park this week.

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Alastair Paulin

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Golden sand beaches, turquoise bays, yellow kayaks. We're all familiar with the tourist-friendly image of Abel Tasman National Park: Nelson playground, the jewel in the region's crown, the country's most-visited and smallest national park.

In truth, that series of beaches is not even part of the park: the narrow strip of land that runs between the mean high water mark and mean low water springs forms the Abel Tasman Foreshore Scenic Reserve, which is administered jointly by the Tasman District Council and the Department of Conservation.

Ninety-nine per cent of visitors to the park stick to this sandy strip, with just 1 per cent walking the inland track.

The other common misconception about the park is that it is a slice of pure New Zealand - that, like many of our other national parks, it is a strictly conserved remnant of pre-European settlement native bush.

But much of what has been a national park since 1942 was farmed by early settlers, and the native timber felled. That opened the door for invasive species, and the Abel Tasman is now one of the least biologically diverse chunks of the conservation estate.

This has led to the odd situation where the country's most popular national park does not have much public money allocated to what we might think of traditional conservation activities: there is not much native flora and fauna left to protect. The money instead is allocated to facilities for the fauna that is there - humans.

Into this breach has stepped Project Janszoon, an ambitious effort to restore the park's biodiversity.

Funded by an Auckland family who wish to remain anonymous, the project, which was launched two years ago, has vowed to spend $25 million over 30 years. The hope is that if a well-resourced and sustained effort can restore the park's ecology, it will show the value of making the effort, and may inspire others to try similar approaches.

The irony that the park's popularity is a cause of some of its degradation also makes it an ideal showcase for restoration.

As the Project Janszoon website expresses it, the park "was chosen by the trust because it is one of New Zealand's most iconic and accessible national parks. This is an ideal location to demonstrate the potential of a sustained restoration effort where it can be appreciated by more than 150,000 visitors who enjoy the park each year".

Since one of the project's key aims is that "visitors to the park applaud an outstanding conservation success and look for ways to further enhance it", the sterling rehabilitation work being done in partnership with DOC is supplemented by the sort of PR clout that usually accompanies more commercial ventures.

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And this is how I found myself 300 metres above the park on Wednesday, strapped into an AS350FX Squirrel helicopter along with Project Janszoon director Devon McLean, a reporter and cameraman from TVNZ, and a reporter from Radio New Zealand.

We flew from Reid Helicopters' base in Wakefield to Hadfields Clearing, the former Hadfield farm at Awaroa Inlet, the base for one stage of the largest stoat trapping network to be undertaken by a private trust in New Zealand.

I described that operation in a news story the following day, and I'm grateful that the chance to tell that story came with the bonus of an amazing fight on what pilot Bill Reid said was the best day of summer.

The tide was in, the inlets were full of clear water in every hue of blue and green, and as we passed over Anchorage, Bill thought he spotted a pod of either orca or dolphins. We swooped over the bay, but whatever he had spotted had dived out of view by the time we came around. Perks of the job don't come much better than that.

Above the steep gullies and crumbled Separation Point granite of the park's interior, Devon pointed out the signs of the park's ecological frailty and burgeoning signs of health.

Where vegetation had been burned, there were large bald patches. The granite is covered with infertile soil, and new growth happens very slowly. What at first looked like welcome patches of fresh growth were actually the lime-green leaves of the Australian invader willow-leaved hakea, which crowds out light and nutrients for slower-growing natives. It is just one of 130 weed species in the park.

Red-hued stands of pine were both a pest and a success story. The red colouring showed that the wilding pines had been poisoned, and Devon explained that by next year, they would just be dead spars, soon to fall to the forest floor.

Project Janszoon, like the poisoned pines, is a sign of both good news and bad. I'm troubled that looking after national parks is not enough of a priority that it can be publicly funded.

As Naomi Arnold wrote this year, "a report by the auditor-general in 2012 found that DOC is underfunded for the work it needs to do; it said that with the resources it has, DOC can actively manage only one-eighth of New Zealand's conservation land, and only about 200 of the 2800 threatened species".

But since that is the reality, I'm happy that there are publicly-spirited people like the family behind the trust that is funding Project Janszoon.

The project's self-imposed deadline is 2042, the 400th anniversary of Abel Janszoon Tasman's exploration of New Zealand, and the 100th birthday of the park's founding.

I look forward to a return flight into the park in 28 years' time, when the view from above promises to be lusher and even more beautiful than Wednesday's.

- Nelson

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