A former Rotorua man has been recognised for his role in allowing the public to freely enjoy the Whakarewarewa Forest.

Neill Cooper, 89, and his family shared an afternoon tea with Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick and deputy mayor Dave Donaldson today.

The Rotary Club of Rotorua West is hosting a dinner for him at the Princes Gate Hotel tonight.

He was gifted a framed photo of people walking in the Whakarewarewa Forest with an engraved thank you message from the Rotorua Lakes Council for his services to Rotorua, which he was delighted with.

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In 1975 the older part of the forest became a forest park at the instigation of Mr Cooper, who was the Officer in Charge at that time.

Mr Cooper said before that only those with a permit could use the forest, such as pig hunters and deer stalkers.

RETURN: Neill Cooper, 89, enjoyed a visit back to the Whakarewarewa Forest yesterday, where he was once Officer in Charge. PHOTO/BEN FRASER
RETURN: Neill Cooper, 89, enjoyed a visit back to the Whakarewarewa Forest yesterday, where he was once Officer in Charge. PHOTO/BEN FRASER

This was because there was "so much activity going on", such as logging operations and fire control, so officers were "cagey" about people wandering in the forest, he said.

However, since the forest was on the border of the city and was fairly large he thought with careful planning it could be made available for people to use.

Mr Cooper said the message got around quickly, and gradually groups such as the Rotorua Pony Club, Whakarewarewa Rugby Club and school biology classes got permission to use the forest.

"People seemed to really enjoy being able to get into the forest."

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He said when he started about 5000 people per year made use of the forest, but he never thought it would grow to the 500,000 annually that it was now.

Today he returned to the forest after about 40 years.

"To come back and see it all, and the progress and what's been done, it's just fantastic. It's just amazing."

He said it was all "bright and interesting" and that it had been "very, very worthwhile" to make the trip back to Rotorua from Christchurch.

"It's a unique combination of city and forest on your door step, so you must look after it, and manage it, and take care."

Mrs Chadwick said the council was trying to capture the stories of people who had contributed to Rotorua.

"As time passes the stories get lost, and are all building blocks to where we are today.

"We are realising, as a community, we need to do something to mark these people that contributed to this place, who had a vision, and it's lovely for them to see where that's come to today."