Occupy the forest

The 40th anniversary of a turning point in New Zealand conservation.

Written by      

Shaun Barnett

Your perch: a giant tōtara in the central North Island. Your view: thousands of hectares of podocarp forest, chainsaws chewing its edge. Your mission: to stage the world’s first treetop protest. Your name: Stephen King. Not the American novelist, but a barefoot botanist opposing forest destruction.

During the 1970s, native forests were being milled, but many New Zealanders felt it was time to preserve what remained of our wild lands. Young activists, including King, formed the Native Forest Action Council (NFAC), and gathered signatures for a petition, which resulted in a reprieve for West Coast forests.

But at Pureora, the chainsaws continued to snarl. In April 1977, King had been appalled to see thousand-year-old tōtara being felled, some of no use for timber. Meanwhile, conservationists feared for the future of the kōkako—only about 1400 remained, with the largest population at Pureora, and so the bird became the symbol of protest.

King and NFAC leader Guy Salmon raised public awareness with submissions and slogans such as “Don’t beat about the bush, just stop the logging”. But after diplomacy failed, defiance seemed their only option.

By 1978, King and others were willing to put their lives on the line. When loggers returned from their Christmas holiday on January 18, they found King and 13 other protesters stationed in the canopy. Frustrated millers implored them to leave. A police squad arrived, and loggers began spray-painting trees as a warning, but the activists held firm. By then, their stance headlined all the country’s major newspapers. One read, ‘Forest protesters face death as logging commences’. Unnerved, the district ranger called a halt.

Eventually, the Forest Service backed down, pausing logging while the Wildlife Service researched kōkako. Native-forest logging ceased in 1982.

Today, visitors can gain a similar view to King’s by scaling Pureora’s 12-metre Forest Tower to reach a platform high in the canopy. From Pikiariki and Bismark Roads, accessible from Pureora Village, it’s a ten-minute walk to the Forest Tower. Nearby, DOC has positioned a restored D7 bulldozer to mark where logging stopped.

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