NZ's first National Park turns 130 today, as the true intentions behind its beginning are poised to be realised.

When a Ngati Tuwharetoa chief "gave" Tongariro and other volcanic peaks to the Crown 130 years ago today, creating the heart of our first national park, he could have had no idea how popular it would become.

Few ventured up Mts Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe or Tongariro in the 19th century, owing to lack of roads and railways and because the peaks were - and are - sacred to the surrounding iwi and hapu.

The establishment of the park by legislation in 1894 - the world's fourth national park - did little to change access to the North Island's highest places.

Advertisement

But the growth in visitor numbers to the park, especially with its connection to the Lord of the Rings movies and its marketing to foreign tourists as a Unesco World Heritage site, has become overwhelming.

When conditions are good, more than 2000 people a day hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing over the shoulders of Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. This crush of humanity has goaded the Department of Conservation, legally banned from charging overseas-style park entry fees, into imposing ever stricter car-parking controls at either end.

Over on Ruapehu, where the Whakapapa and Turoa ski areas attract about 150,000 skiers and snowboarders a year, the company in charge is spending tens of millions of dollars on new lifts.

It was on September 23, 1887 that Tuwharetoa paramount chief Horonuku Te Heuheu Tukino IV, signed a deed in which, it was claimed, he gave the summits of Mts Ngauruhoe and Tongariro and part of Ruapehu to the Crown for a park.

A day later, the Native Land Court vested the peaks in the Crown for a national park.
The myth of the gift was born.

Tongariro National Park "was the first in the world to be gifted by a country's indigenous people", DoC says in its management plan for the park.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature said: "The spirit of this gift fostered the formation of the national park network in New Zealand, and thus has safeguarded some of the most outstanding landscapes in the world from development."

Fuelled by the 19th century romantic admiration of nature and the creation of the Yosemite and Yellowstone parks on the United States, the idea of protecting the thermal, volcanic and mountain wonders of New Zealand took hold.

New Zealand was "paving a way in the world with biculturalism and understanding", says landscape photographer Craig Potton, author of the 1987 centennial book, Tongariro, a Sacred Gift.

"And it's a great part of that collaboration between iwi aspirations for the protection of the tops of the mountains and European notions of national parks."

Potton notes the influence of the colonial premier Sir William Fox, who knew of the rise of the national park concept in the US, and the realisation that New Zealand's natural attractions should be protected from individual exploitation.

But he also acknowledges the powerful twin influences on Te Heuheu of seeing land blocks sold after passing through the Native Land Court, and the suggestion of his MP son-in-law Lawrence Grace to make the peaks "a tapu place of the Queen" and thus preserve them.

Moves had been made to protect Taranaki/Mt Egmont in 1875 and a decade later, the first of the reserves were created at Aoraki-Mt Cook National Park.

These were the core of New Zealand's second and sixth national parks, in a list that now boasts 13, covering more than a tenth of the country's land. They contain some of our most impressive places, from the golden shores of Abel Tasman, to the icy pyramid of Mt Aspiring, and from the marble labyrinths of Kahurangi, to the dripping beech forest of Arthur's Pass.

Sir Tumu Te Heuheu, paramount chief of Tuwharetoa.
Sir Tumu Te Heuheu, paramount chief of Tuwharetoa.

By the mid-1880s, when government was buying up big in the central North Island, it decided to have the volcanic peaks for the centrepiece of a park.

The Waitangi Tribunal says that when it became clear the sale of the peaks was unlikely, Grace, the brother of a state land-purchase agent, helped persuade Te Heuheu to work with the crown.

The ariki's eventual gift, however, attracted only scorn from some in the colonial press, with indignation at the land being so much less than 65,000 acres (26,305ha) expected.
"... the Maoris have given 9000 acres in all ...," a Herald correspondent wrote. "The gift is absolutely valueless, or it would not have been presented."

The tribunal, in its 2013 findings, describes the park's creation as a "near-run thing and New Zealand attained it only after a series of negotiations in the 1880s".

Calling Te Heuheu's gesture a "noble gift" was inaccurate, the tribunal said. Instead, he agreed to "tuku" - transfer - several mountain peaks into joint trusteeship with the Crown. The tuku was not, as Native Minister John Ballance thought, an English-style gift, but rather an offer of partnership, with Queen Victoria as joint trustee.

The Crown didn't compensate for land compulsorily acquired for the park and failed to consult Whanganui iwi over its creation and operation.

The tribunal now wants the government to create the intended partnership with the iwi and hapu of the area. They would hold the park jointly with the Crown. It would be moved from DoC control, to co-management by a crown-iwi authority.

In 2014, Te Urewera National Park's 60 years as a park came to an end when, under a crown settlement with Ngai Tuhoe, it was transferred to the control of a new, Crown-Tuhoe board. Unchanged public access was guaranteed.

Negotiations on the future of Tongariro National Park are expected to start within months between the Crown and iwi of the Ruapehu and Tongariro areas. Could Te Urewera be the template?

"The Minister of Conservation said that was unique and would never be repeated," said Sir Michael Cullen, a Tuwharetoa negotiator and the former finance minister.

"But unique is a very strong word and I'm sure that there would be an expectation among all the iwi and particularly Tuwharetoa that at the end of the process the Crown will not be the sole owner of the national park.

"Sir Tumu [Te Heuheu, paramount chief of Tuwharetoa] has already made it clear that there is no question of moving away from free [public] access to the park.

"It's a good example that it's quite possible to have these relationships without it closing down the opportunities all New Zealanders have at the present time."