Andris Apse

Manapouri Damning the dam

Fifty years ago, plans to raise the levels of two of the country’s most scenic lakes sparked a green awakening in New Zealand.

Written by       Photographed by Andris Apse

Political storm clouds started to gather over Lake Manapouri as early as 1904, when the Public Works Department first mooted the idea of raising the lake to generate electricity. It wasn’t until 1959 that an electro-industrial deal was signed, sparking a storm of controversy that would last until the lake-raising issue was settled in 1972. This landscape is no stranger to literal storms either. Three metres of rain fall annually on the mountains that surround the lake, such as here at North Arm, while a whopping eight metres drench Deep Cove, in Doubtful Sound, where the tailrace of Manapouri power station discharges.
Political storm clouds started to gather over Lake Manapouri as early as 1904, when the Public Works Department first mooted the idea of raising the lake to generate electricity. It wasn’t until 1959 that an electro-industrial deal was signed, sparking a storm of controversy that would last until the lake-raising issue was settled in 1972. This landscape is no stranger to literal storms either. Three metres of rain fall annually on the mountains that surround the lake, such as here at North Arm, while a whopping eight metres drench Deep Cove, in Doubtful Sound, where the tailrace of
Manapouri power station discharges.

On March 5, 1959, Charles Turner, engineer-in-chief of the Ministry of Works, addressed the Southland Progress League in Invercargill. The country’s prosperity, he told the meeting, was “balanced on too narrow a base”. The time was ripe for “exporting our rainfall in some other form than meat and wool”. New Zealand need-ed to turn one of its chief natural resources—water—into electricity, and “farm” that electricity to produce the industrial materials the world wanted.

The call to industrialise had become a common refrain by the late 1950s. New Zealand needed to get off the sheep’s back and diversify. Our one-trick economy exposed us to the vicissitudes of international markets and the whims of our major trading partner, Great Britain. Unless the country climbed aboard the industrial express it faced economic stagnation and a declining standard of living. Hydro-electricity, said Turner, was our ticket to ride.

The venue of his speech this night was significant. Southland possessed some of the country’s largest untapped water resources. Prime candidates were Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri, second and seventh largest in the country respectively, and conveniently joined by the umbilicus of the Waiau River. A further geographical quirk made the pair of lakes a tantalising proposition for development: Manapouri’s water level lies 178 m above sea level, from which the lake is separated by a narrow band of mountains. A tunnel between Manapouri and the adjacent fiord (Doubtful Sound) would allow a prodigious head of water to be harnessed. And if Manapouri were raised 24 m to the level of Te Anau, a single superlake would result, with a hydro-electric potential of a cool million kilowatts. For an engineer like Turner, the opportunity was irresistible.

The timing of the speech was also significant. Turner had been quietly renewing departmental interest in a Manapouri–Te Anau power scheme since 1952, with the aim of feeding the national grid. But in 1955, a chance discovery by a New Zealand-born geologist working in Australia changed the emphasis from domestic consumption to industrial production. Harry Evans, a senior geologist with the mineral giant Consolidated Zinc, had been sent to Cape York to search for oil. What he found instead was one of the world’s largest deposits of bauxite, the alumina-containing ore from which aluminium is smelted. There was an estimated 2.5 billion tonnes of the stuff in the red cliffs of Weipa, on the Gulf of Carpentaria. The electrolytic conversion of alumina to aluminium requires a large, continuous supply of cheap electricity.

New Zealand’s huge, untapped southern lakes and Australia’s vast, unexploited bauxite deposit seemed destined for each other.

The time to act was now, said Turner. “We must be prepared not only to set the table but to invite—indeed entice—the industrial guest and induce him to establish himself in New Zealand.”

What Turner didn’t tell his audience was that he and the government were already entertaining a guest: Comalco (short for Commonwealth Aluminium Company), a subsidiary of Consolidated Zinc which had been created to develop the Weipa deposit. A draft agreement was already on the table, granting Comalco a 99-year water right for the Manapouri–Te Anau development and permitting the company to raise the level of Lake Manapouri by 30 m. When the deal was signed in January 1960, the minister of works and of electricity, Hugh Watt, would describe it as “the most important single step in industrial development taken in New Zealand’s history”.

Turner was savvy enough to recognise that even progress-minded Southlanders were proud of their natural assets, especially Lake Manapouri, which, by popular consent, was the loveliest lake in the country. Forested down to its shoreline, framed by snow-capped mountains and dotted with wooded islands, it was the epitome of sublime. Moreover, it lay within the country’s largest national park. So the man from the ministry digressed from his discussion of industrial progress and economic prosperity to speak of a less material concept: beauty. Yes, the lake in its present form was picturesque, but he asked his audience to consider the “less rugged, simple but more formal beauty which the works of man create”. Add to that the improved public access the development would provide, and “the playground of the few could well become the recreation area for the province”.

Turner was preaching to the converted. Among the league members present that evening was Ralph Hanan, the National member of parliament for Invercargill, who had been advocating the development of the South Island’s hydro resources for more than a decade. In 1949, he had told the House that the industries that South Island hydro-electricity would spawn would benefit not just New Zealand but also the British Empire “and all peoples of the world”. Failure to develop that potential would be “a crime against humanity”.

It was utilitarianism pure and simple: the greatest good for the greatest number—Turner’s exact point. “I cannot support the philosophy that the natural beauties accessible to the few should necessarily be preserved to the detriment of the many,” he summed up. That detriment was a lesser standard of living—a fate that could be avoided with a dam, a 100-foot increase in water level and a nearby aluminium smelter. To the engineer-in-chief’s utilitarian mind, it was unconscionable to allow Manapouri’s water molecules to slip away down the Waiau River and not fulfil their turbine-turning, export-creating, wealth-generating destiny.

[Chapter Break]

There was snow on the peaks around Manapouri the week I visited the town. Although it was only March, I kept the fire stoked at night with pine cones and logs. I was staying next door to two of the pioneers of Fiordland ecotourism, Ruth Dalley and Lance Shaw, whose fiord cruise business has helped fund dozens of research and conservation projects, including the eradication of pests from two of Lake Manapouri’s 33 islands—Pomona and Rona. It’s a winning concept: passengers offset their carbon footprint by eliminating the footprints of predators.

While the fire crackled, I read John Salmon’s 1960 book Heritage Destroyed, a landmark in conservation literature in this country. Salmon, a Victoria University biologist, had told delegates at the New Zealand Travel and Holidays Association convention in 1959 that interfering with the lake levels would be a national disaster.

In the book, he warned that the same “mechanical mentality” that had led to the emasculation of the Aratiatia Rapids on the Waikato River, the destruction of Wairakei’s Geyser Valley and the submergence of incomparable Orakei Korako north of Taupo under the waters of the Ohakuri Dam now threatened to desecrate two of the country’s finest lakes. “Today, without so much as an apology, we see these world-famous places filched from the people of New Zealand in acts of State-sponsored vandalism such as have never been witnessed before.”

There had been earlier, equally egregious proposals of scenic plunder. The country’s tallest waterfall, Sutherland Falls, had been shopped to London investors in the 1920s as an electricity source for a fertiliser and munitions industry based on the production of synthetic nitrogen. And Bowen Falls, which tumble into Milford Sound and are today viewed by tens of thousands of visitors a year, narrowly escaped being harnessed for the same purpose.

Was nothing sacred? The book’s epigraph—a couplet from poet–politician William Pember Reeves—posed the question:

Pity the thought, is this the price we pay,

The price for progress, beauty swept away?

Framed by mountains and with native forest spilling down to its shoreline, Lake Manapouri has been a tourist attraction since the early 1900s, when the steam-powered Manurere (top) took visitors on scenic excursions. Environmental protests were a relatively new phenomenon in 1972, when these Ecology Action Group demonstrators took to the streets of Wellington to protest not just lake raising but logging in native forests and the loss of native flora and fauna (bottom).
Framed by mountains and with native forest spilling down to its shoreline, Lake Manapouri has been a tourist attraction since the early 1900s, when the steam-powered Manurere (top) took visitors on scenic excursions. Environmental protests were a relatively new phenomenon in 1972, when these Ecology Action Group demonstrators took to the streets of Wellington to protest not just lake raising but logging in native forests and the loss of native flora and fauna (bottom).


Salmon, like other opponents of the Manapouri scheme, was not against using the lakes to generate electricity, as long as they were operated within their natural levels. But raising the lakes was integral to the Comalco deal. Only the “full development of the asset”, as Turner put it, would permit the economies of scale needed to make a New Zealand smelting venture profitable. There could be no full development without lifting the levels—in Te Anau’s case, until the lake waters were all but lapping at the town’s doorstep.

This doctrine of maximum exploitation was part of what Aaron Fox, a historian based in Southland, calls the “kilowatt cult”—the quasi-magical belief that electricity would usher in a golden age of industrial prosperity and strategic importance for the country. His 2001 doctoral thesis on the Manapouri–Tiwai Point development, entitled “The Power Game”, shows how a succession of cabinet ministers and civil servants in both National and Labour governments were captivated by the “cult of electro-metallurgical development at all costs”.

“They saw this as the 20th century ideal,” Fox told me. “How to get your country from an agricultural economy to a modern industrial economy in one easy step. If you could generate an abundance of power, then suddenly, poof!, these industries would appear.”

If the kilowatt cult was the prevailing political religion, then Turner was its prophet. He regarded Manapouri as an all-or-nothing deal. Failure to develop the scheme to its full potential, he said, would jeopardise the country’s future. But it was his plans for scenic rehabilitation of the lake that really incensed people like Salmon. Turner confidently asserted that skilful engineers could replicate in a few years what had taken nature thousands of years to create. Sand from existing beaches would be barged away, stockpiled, then returned to sculpt new beaches at the elevated level. Trees would be felled, towed away from the shore and sunk. Scrub would be burned. The beautification process would be inexpensive and straightforward.

Such claims aroused widespread dismay. Roy Nelson, the outspoken president of the Forest and Bird Protection Society, wrote to the Prime Minister, Keith Holyoake, telling him it was “nauseating to think that day by day columns of smoke will mark the destruction of a wonderland of scenic gems and the rape of one of the greatest enactments ever made, the National Parks Act”. Raising the levels would be “a grave mistake which could never be rectified”, he wrote. “The people of this country want Manapouri and Te Anau as nature made them—not as they would be after being remodelled by Public Works bulldozers.”

Opponents pointed to nearby Lake Monowai. Raised a mere 2.4 m in 1925 to bolster Southland’s electricity supply, its shoreline graveyard of rotting stumps would remain an eyesore for generations. Could “a few teams of bushmen with power saws”, as Hanan put it, reconstruct the shores of two much larger lakes, one of which was to be raised 10 times as much?


An editorial in the New Zealand Herald in 1959 suggested tartly that allowing civil servants to make decisions regarding the country’s scenic assets resembled “recruiting a police force from the professional burglars association”.

The Herald’s versifier “Whim Wham” wrote, “We’d better start by calling a Lake a Lake, not a scenic (or liquid) Asset.”

In the Wellington Evening Post, the popular writer Elsie K. Morton envisaged a lake “drowned for ever in calculated ruthlessness, beneath 100 feet of water—dark, cold pitiless and fierce in avenging storm, but clear enough in sunshine to show the tops of mighty trees slowly rotting away in their watery grave”.

That fate was never far from my mind in Manapouri. Last thing at night I walked to the roadside reserve at the entrance to town. The streets were deserted, and the smell of wood smoke hung in the air. It was the start of the roar, and farmed wapiti were bugling beneath the stars. They sounded like a schoolboy struggling to reach the high notes on a trumpet. On a patch of concrete at the top of the reserve, before the grass slopes down steeply to the beach, a massive lump of granite stands as a monument, paying tribute to the campaigners whose “fortitude and tenacity triumphed over political and official indifference”. Had the scheme proceeded as originally proposed, the lake would be licking at my feet.

[Chapter Break]

The engineer-in-chief was right about one thing: hydro development has brought tourists to the lake. Manapouri power station—New Zealand’s largest—has become a popular destination, and the switchbacked service road that crosses Wilmot Pass, between the lake and Doubtful Sound, enables visitors to make a visually dramatic side trip to the fiord.

One afternoon, I took the Real Journeys cruise to West Arm—to the “Hall of the Mountain King Where King Kilowatt is Paramount”, as the Otago Daily Times grandly headlined its 1969 story on the opening of the power station. Along with a few other fresh-air fiends, I stood on the open upper deck of the vessel in the bracing wind. Sixty years ago, passengers cruised Manapouri on a steam launch that burned manuka for fuel and sent showers of red-hot cinders and flaming twigs out its funnel, burning holes in ladies’ parasols. Today’s boat trip is less adventurous, but just as scenic. Metaphorically, it is a journey from The Lord of the Rings to Brave New World, from the cloaking forest and plunging waterfalls of the national park to the stolid concrete of the power plant and its spiderwork of high-tension wires.

We climb aboard a coach and creep down a spiralling two-kilometre tunnel to the machine hall. After about a 10-point turn, the driver squeezes the coach into an alcove. I follow a chattering school group inside, where a glassed-in observation gallery provides an overview of, well, nothing much. A line of seven blue Dalek look-alikes protrude through the concrete floor from seven turbines housed on the level below. They are called excitors, though they display no observable, let alone exciting, activity. Occasionally a person emerges from a doorway, briefly inspects something, then disappears through another exit. The station is controlled remotely, from Twizel.

A wall of photographs documents the construction of the place—eight years of labour, a two-billion-dollar price tag (in today’s terms), 16 deaths. I study the picture of the former luxury trans-Tasman liner Wanganella, which served as a floating hostel for workers on the Doubtful Sound side of the project. Workers on both sides had their own custom-labelled beer cans—Deep Cove and West Arm—though it was all regular Steinlager inside. It is said that when the time came to tow the Wanganella away, the tug had trouble shifting her because of the mountain of empties that had been tossed over the side.

The Mohikinui River is one of many South Island rivers under consideration for new hydroelectric development—schemes that are expensive financially and environmentally.
The Mohikinui River is one of many South Island rivers under consideration for new hydroelectric development—schemes that are expensive financially and environmentally.

The machine hall is no place for claustrophobes. You’re in a cavity 200 m underground, with 500 tonnes of water per second cascading down the penstocks from the lake above. Earthquakes regularly rattle the region. For the first 30 years of the station’s life, there was the added possibility of backflow from the 10 km-long tailrace tunnel flooding the machine hall. The scheme’s designers had underestimated the amount of friction between water and tunnel wall, with the result that the turbines could not be run at maximum generating capacity. A second tailrace, completed in 2002, solved the problem, boosting capacity by 20 per cent to the current operational limit of 710 MW.

I step back outside and run my hand along the tunnel wall. It feels like what it is—hewn from a mountain. Water seeps down the granite. Drill holes pock the slabs, as if ready for a charge of gelignite, though the last blast occurred 41 years ago, when the tailrace tunnel was holed through. It unexpectedly blew the safety helmets off the heads of the miners and gathered dignitaries and knocked one politician off his feet—an omen if ever there was one.

By 1969, Manapouri’s turbines were turning and construction of the smelter was under way, but this was just the first stage of the project. Stage two was more controversial: raising the lakes to achieve “maximum exploitation of the resource”. By then, the rise had been downgraded from 30 m, as originally proposed, to 8.4 m, a figure arrived at by the project’s engineers as the best compromise based on various “engineering constraints”. Te Anau, for its part, was to be operated two metres above its mean level.

But even 8.4 m would drown 17 of Manapouri’s 22 wooded islands. I kayaked to some of them, glacier-hewn specks of land home to rare plant assemblages. No deer have ever set foot here, and it is evident in the flora. Orchids, for example, which normally hang from tree branches as epiphytes, trail negligently along the ground. The most pristine of the islands serve as ecological benchmarks, with features not found on the mammal-ridden mainland and therefore of great conservation value.

However, it was what the rise in water level would do to the lake’s 170 km of shoreline that caused the greatest alarm. In 1967, a trial clearance of lakeshore vegetation at the head of Manapouri’s South Arm showed just how much the Ministry of Works had underestimated the task of restoration. Eighty per cent of the felled trees failed to sink, and burning the vegetation proved problematic in Fiordland’s wet climate. The Dominion Sunday Times labelled the exercise “a sick joke”.


The Electricity Department belatedly asked the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research to provide data on the flora of the zone to be submerged—what today would be called an “assessment of environmental effects”. The DSIR, in turn, asked the Otago University botany department to do the work. In one of the Manapouri saga’s happier happenstances, Associate Professor Alan Mark got the job.

“If you’re going to be an ecologist you’ve got to stir things up a little”—so reads a Peanuts poster on the wall of Mark’s tiny office, a space so small that in an earthquake the white-haired professor would be buried by books tumbling from his shelves. Stir things up he did. With honours student Peter Johnson, he sampled and described the lakeshore plant zones—a complex sequence of transitions related to frequency and duration of inundation, exposure to wind and wave action, type of substrate, slope and other factors—and looked at how natural fluctuations in lake levels affected growth and survival.

The research revealed just how delicately poised the lakeshore vegetation was, and that the consequences of interfering were “a great deal more far-reaching and unforeseen than the Ministry of Works engineers suggested”. This was the message conservationists gave to a government-ordered commission of inquiry into the raising of the lake, convened in April 1970.

The commission admitted as much, noting in its report that certain features of the lake would be “irretrievably damaged”, but concluded, “In our opinion, the Crown is contractually bound to Comalco to raise the level of Lake Manapouri.”

A raised lake seemed a fait accompli.

[Chapter Break]

Enter Ron McLean, Southland sheep farmer and leader of the Save Manapouri Campaign, a cause to which he devoted the last decade of his life and for which he was awarded an MBE.

Before McLean became involved in 1969, opposition to the raising of the lakes had been spearheaded by the Forest and Bird Protection Society and the New Zealand Scenery Preservation Society. They had hammered away at officialdom for a decade. What the issue needed was someone to “run the flag up the pole”, as Aaron Fox put it.

A Nuffield scholar (he travelled to England in 1958 to study sheep-farming improvements) and former president of the Southland division of Federated Farmers, McLean had been outspoken on farming and community issues and was a logical choice as chairman of the campaign committee. In a sense, he couldn’t avoid the issue; the transmission lines carrying Manapouri power to Tiwai Point passed a few hundred metres from the boundary of his farm on the outskirts of Invercargill.

His daughter, Jill Galt, was in her last year of secondary school when the campaign kicked off. During the summer holidays, she joined her father on a six-week speaking tour around the country. “I put the slides into the projector and Dad did the talking,” she recalled. “I couldn’t believe how passionate and ready people were to join the campaign. They had been working in isolation, and here was a chance to be part of something national.”

What was notable about the audiences was that they were drawn largely from the ranks of middle New Zealand. Whereas later protests would come to be dominated by the post-war baby boomers, Save Manapouri’s protagonists were middle-aged farmers, doctors, local body politicians, civil engineers and housewives. “A group further from the archetypal bearded hippy protesters of the 1970s could hardly be imagined,” says Fox.

[Chapter Break]

Save Manapouri wasn’t the first environmental campaign in the country; there had been a successful crusade to save Northland’s Waipoua kauri forest from the axe in the late 1940s, and localised hydro protests such as Aratiatia and Tongariro in the ’50s and ’60s. But it was the first nationally co-ordinated campaign, and the first to manifestly influence politics at a national level. It caught the country’s imagination in a way that no previous protest had—hundreds of letters of support flooded into the McLean mailbox and 19 regional Save Manapouri committees were formed.

“It helped that Lake Manapouri was a postcard and calendar icon,” says Fox. “It was a scene familiar to far more New Zealanders than had ever visited the place, and that helped galvanise public opinion in a way that debates about the loss of the Whanganui or Clutha Rivers never managed.”

The threat to the country’s heritage seemed to unite older and younger generations at a time when other issues were dividing them. University students and their professors marched together in protest. A member of a Save Manapouri street march in Wellington spoke for many when, in answer to a television interviewer’s question, he said he was “marching for his children”.

Effective use of the media was one of the hallmarks of the campaign. Supporters bombarded their local newspapers with letters and pasted SAVE MANAPOURI stickers on their cars. There were full-page newspaper advertisements and appearances on television, which in 1969 was still in its first decade in New Zealand.

One of the campaign’s novel fundraising initiatives was to float a public share issue of 30,000 50-cent shares. To convey the message that all New Zealanders had a stake in Manapouri’s fate, the share certificates offered a “Perpetual Dividend: Retention of Lake Manapouri in its Natural State”. To highlight the shoreline devastation a raised lake would cause, the campaign offered visitors free jet-boat rides on Lake Monowai, while VIPs were given free scenic flights over the lakes.

McLean had been a bomber pilot in the war, and he understood the need to press home the attack on multiple fronts. He made sure the campaign had access to expert personnel who could address the issues of ecology, economics, engineering design and environmental consciousness. One in particular, Invercargill civil engineer Jim McFarlane, was able to show that the proposed 8.4 m rise in lake level would result in a mere 4.5 per cent increase in electricity output—a paltry increment compared with the environmental cost.

Otago University botanist Alan Mark drew attention to the host of ecological impacts that flooding the shoreline would have—from beach slumping to biodiversity loss—the campaign began to be waged more on environmental grounds. Mark, who chaired the government-appointed Guardians of Lake Manapouri, Monowai and Te Anau for 26 years, was knighted in 2009 for services to conservation.

One of McLean’s closest lieutenants was his dentist, Bill Bell. “Ron used me as a chopping block,” Bell, now in his 80s, told me. “Every other morning, after he’d gone around his sheep and was having a cup of tea, he would ring me at the surgery. It didn’t worry him that I had a roomful of patients, he wanted to dissect the latest story in the newspapers and discuss how the campaign should respond.

“We had to be quick on our feet because the government kept coming out with facts and figures on how the smelter would benefit the region. People had the idea that there would be Cadillacs and fur coats for Invercargill. We wrote huge numbers of letters to the newspapers, saying that Manapouri would be ruined, but for every letter we wrote, another one would say ‘Raise the lake. The smelter will put Southland on the map.’ My main argument was that a lake in a national park should have been sacrosanct. That was the point that got me, mostly.”

It was a point that got a lot of other people too. There was a sense that if Manapouri were raised, what was to stop the Ministry of Works building, say, a quarry on Mt Cook?

There was also a widespread belief that the government had handed a multinational corporation the lake and its hydro potential on a plate. Aaron Fox’s analysis of the negotiations with Comalco shows that, time and again, New Zealand’s leaders were outmanoeuvred at the bargaining table. In the Manapouri–Tiwai saga, Fox sees “the irresistible force of government dreams of national profits dashed against the immoveable rock of the commercial realities of international finance”.

What should have been an early reality check came in 1962, when Comalco cried poverty, saying it couldn’t raise funds for both the power scheme and the smelter. Instead, the government, seemingly hypnotised by the dual prospects of abundant electricity and a major-league industry, agreed to build the Manapouri station itself, without any guarantee that Comalco would proceed with the smelter.

Six years later, with the power station nearing completion, the government should have been in the box seat. But in its eagerness to clinch the smelter deal, the Holyoake administration gave concession after concession to the company, which portrayed itself as a neophyte in the international aluminium market needing special treatment in the form of lowered tax rates, protection from foreign competition and guaranteed access to the local market.

“What nobody in government seemed to question,” says Fox, “was the irony that the supposedly fledgling, cash-strapped Comalco was a subsidiary of some of the wealthiest and most influential Australian, British and American multinational companies in the world. Any one of them could have bought and sold New Zealand at the time.”

Government hopes were dealt a further blow when Comalco announced its plan to operate the smelter on a non-profit or “tolling” basis, with the three commercial partners in the project (Comalco and two Japanese companies) being charged only for the operating and management costs, and not for the raw material (alumina). Under this arrangement, the government would not derive taxation revenue from duty on the imported alumina, but only from the finished product, which would be subject to the fluctuations of the global aluminium market.

Far from diversifying the national economy, says Fox, the government had invested in another primary industry, the export of “solid” electricity in the form of aluminium. It was an extension of the old colonial economy.

As the true nature of the Comalco deal trickled out, public disquiet grew. In 1970, more than a quarter of a million people—about 10 per cent of the population—signed a “Save Manapouri” petition. This time the government paid attention. A parliamentary select committee recommended in June 1971 that the lake be maintained at its natural level for the present, and that the government should renegotiate with Comalco over meeting the electricity shortfall. The political tide was turning.

[Chapter Break]

The issue was eventually decided at the ballot box. In the run-up to the 1972 general election, Labour, seizing the moral high ground, pledged that the lakes would not be raised. National hedged, saying a final decision would be postponed for six years. Labour won by a landslide, including picking up four marginal National seats in Otago and Southland.

The campaigners were euphoric, but what happened next stunned even stalwarts like McLean and Mark. The incoming Prime Minister, Norman Kirk, appointed a group of six guardians to supervise the management of the lakes. All six were prominent Save Manapouri campaigners. It was unprecedented. “The protesters were no longer struggling on the outside against departmental and political forces; they were now on the inside, calling the shots,” notes Neville Peat in Manapouri Saved!, his book on the history of the campaign.

Mark, who chaired the guardians for the first 26 years and was knighted this year for his services to conservation, says Kirk’s decision showed great courage. “He took a bigger risk in doing that than in not raising the lake,” he told me. “Our brief as guardians was a mile wide. We were to recommend operational limits that would preserve the health of the lakes and the rivers that flow into and out of them. What a role! And it came totally out of the blue.”

Appointing an official environmental watchdog was, says Mark, a milestone in the country’s transition from a mindset of resource exploitation to one of sustainable management. Today’s Resource Management Act, which enshrines environmental values in the policy-making process, is a legislative descendant of the Manapouri decision. The Official Information Act, too, has roots in the public’s rejection of the bureaucratic secrecy that surrounded Manapouri and other contentious issues of that time, says Mark.

Increasingly, voters were disinclined to swallow assurances such as that offered by Prime Minister Holyoake in 1971: “If you do not know why we do a certain thing, just rely on our judgement.”

As much as Manapouri was an awakening of the country’s environmental consciousness, it was a declaration to its political leaders that they would be held to account. In Heritage Destroyed, John Salmon had written that New Zealanders were too apathetic and insufficiently critical of government. The government’s back-down over Manapouri emboldened people—especially young people—to demand other policy reversals: over French nuclear testing in the Pacific, sporting contacts with South Africa, the Vietnam War.

Not that Manapouri catapulted the country into a golden era of conservation, sustainability and political transparency. The government’s Think Big energy projects of the 1980s saw a return to the developmental imperative and the drive to exploit, abetted by political subterfuge, scaremongering and environmental disregard. “A cost to the environment…is the price of progress,” said Energy Minister Bill Birch in 1981, echoing statements about Manapouri two decades earlier.

Think Big aside—and some commentators consider it an aberration, the last gasp of a dying paradigm—Manapouri’s main legacy was to bring the environment into the mainstream of public debate. Today’s resource-use battles—such as whether wind farms should be placed on prominent mountain ranges, or prospecting for minerals allowed on the conservation estate—are waged with strong public support for the value of environmental heritage. Manapouri demonstrated that protecting natural assets was as important to the country as achieving economic development.

The campaign ushered in what some have called “the environmental decade”—a period which saw the formation of the Values Party in 1972, the first protest voyage to the French nuclear-testing zone in 1973, the founding of Greenpeace New Zealand in 1974, the opening of the first marine reserve in 1977 and, in the same year, a mammoth 340,000-signature petition calling on the government to put a stop to the logging of native forests.

When singer–songwriter John Hanlon’s top-10 single “Damn the Dam” was released in 1973, it epitomised the groundswell of environmental sentiment that Manapouri had helped create. “To give power to the people all this beauty has to die,” ran Hanlon’s plaintive refrain. To which an increasingly assertive sector of the public retorted: “No way!” (Hanlon wrote the song as a soundtrack for a two-minute television commercial for fibreglass home insulation—a subject as oddly resonant today as hydro-electricity is.)

The Manapouri power scheme, proposed as a stepping stone to industrial self-sufficiency, instead became a touchstone for a nation’s environmental awakening. One spokesman for the Save Manapouri Campaign called the debate over the lake’s future “the greatest test of our maturity as a nation since Gallipoli”. But in the almost 40 years since the lake’s preservation was secured, battles over natural resources have continued to rage. As a people, we remain undecided over how much of our natural heritage should be sacrosanct. Is a lake a lake, or is it a liquid asset?
The Manapouri power scheme, proposed as a stepping stone to industrial self-sufficiency, instead became a touchstone for a nation’s environmental awakening. One spokesman for the Save Manapouri Campaign called the debate over the lake’s future “the greatest test of our maturity as a nation since Gallipoli”. But in the almost 40 years since the lake’s preservation was secured, battles over natural resources have continued to rage. As a people, we remain undecided over how much of our natural heritage should be sacrosanct. Is a lake a lake, or is it a liquid asset?

On Lake Manapouri itself, conservation has moved beyond protection to restoration. The lake’s two largest islands, Pomona and Rona (named after islands in the Scottish Orkney group) have been cleared of pests, and native birds reintroduced. The work has been done by 160 volunteers putting in more than 4000 hours.

Along the eastern shore of the lake, where water flows in from the Waiau River, the Kepler Track meanders through glades of beech and deep carpets of moss. One morning I took A side track to Shallow Bay Hut, where volunteer hut warden John Irwin was painting the roof. He had been a schoolboy in Oamaru when the Manapouri protest was happening. “No way did people want to see Manapouri go the way of Monowai,” he recalled. “They ruined that lake. It took 80 years for the stumps of the drowned trees to rot. The politicians said Lake Manapouri would be cleaned up, but there was no way they could have done it.” Irwin told me not a night goes by that he doesn’t tell trampers staying in the hut that “this wouldn’t be here if people hadn’t spoken up”.

Towards the end of my visit, my sense of Manapouri as a timeless sanctuary was shattered by the sound of chainsaws and diggers. Ruth Dalley, my host in Manapouri, said the council was clearing trees from the foreshore reserve to provide a better view for houses on the main road. It was illegal, she said—the council did not have resource consent for the work, and some of the trees should have been protected under the district plan. She had protested, but the clearance was going ahead anyway. She refused to watch.

I walked down to have a look. It was ironic: the council was clearing shoreline vegetation so that people could enjoy an unimpeded view of a lake whose shoreline vegetation had been saved 40 years earlier. An elderly resident was talking to the contractor about removing a few additional trees that were outside the area designated for clearance. “Consider them gone,” the workman said matter-of-factly. “They were never here.” Later, they were indeed gone, and it struck me that here were the two New Zealands that clashed in the 1960s, alive and well. One would take a little more away (or a lot, if it could get away with it); the other would leave a little more intact.

We all make cost–benefit calculations. What to keep, what to let go, where to draw the line—in this case the waterline. Thirty metres higher? Eight-point-four metres? Fifty years ago, some people drew a line in the sand on Manapouri’s beaches—and it was the natural waterline.

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