A successful battle against marina development plans for Napier's Ahuriri Estuary nearly 40 years ago is continuing to bear fruit with the society formed to protect the environment having a pivotal role in protecting the area around the State Highway 2-Watchman Rd intersection project near Hawke's Bay Airport.

After years of having their arguments brushed-off and being a thorn in the side of councils and developers, concerned citizens formed the Ahuriri Estuary Protection Society in 1981 and with founding chairperson Isabel Morgan and secretary Sue Macdonald still in their respective chairs 36 years later, the society has played a central role in protecting the habitat of the estuary and the Westshore Wildlife Reserve.

Both say that had it not been the steps taken in the 1960s to 1980s, against the plans for "rich-man's" boat berthage in the inland waterway, the area would have been destroyed by building projects and other developments over the years.

NZ Transport Agency system manager Wayne Oldfield said ensuring the ongoing health of the estuary and the Westshore reserve is one of the key goals for the construction team working on the roundabout project at the intersection of the highway, Meeanee Quay and Watchman Rd, which extends across the reserve and creates a new entrance to the airport.

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The project, due for completion next year, was designed to do away with what had become one of the country's most dangerous highway intersections.

The estuary is classified as a wetland of national and ecological significance. More than 70 species of bird have been sighted in the area, including threatened species such as the Australasian bittern, New Zealand dabchick, banded dotterel and black-billed gull. It is also an important habitat for eels, fish and some shellfish.

Mr Oldfield said as part of the environmental mitigation measures associated with the project, a large portion of land at the southern end of the Westshore Wildlife Reserve is being converted into a "scrape lake".

"We're trying to create a feeding, roosting and breeding area for small wading and waterbird species, such as dotterels, plovers, stilts and the seasonal influx of a wide variety of migratory birds which annually visit the adjoining Ahuriri Estuary," he said. "It's a fair way from the main construction site, so we wanted to make sure people knew what was going on."

Environmental consultant Tony Billing said the wetlands within the wildlife reserve are non-tidal, which makes this form of construction ideal for this area.

"We're also developing dedicated bird roosting sites which will be constructed by raising the land slightly above the existing water level in order to provide birds with a safe and secure site to rest," he said.

"The new area will greatly add to the wildlife value of the Wildlife Reserve and will also provide a good opportunity to ornithologists to observe a wide variety of bird species."

The NZTA has worked with the estuary protection society as well as the Department of Conservation, Forest & Bird, and the Napier City Council to develop the new estuary and wetland environment.

Mrs Morgan, who in the 2007 Queen's Birthday Honours was awarded the MNZM for services to the conservation, recalled the old days yesterday, saying: "There was this general attitude you can do anything with the estuary, it doesn't matter."

There'd been a meeting in the Colenso High School in February 1981, friends of the estuary leaving disgruntled and forming the society within a week.

A huge shift followed and the society was a formal partner in discussions over protecting the estuary from the construction and operation of the Hawke's Bay Expressway across the estuary. It opened in 2003.

"There have been some good outcomes," she said.