Thirteen years ago, a Californian movie software engineer and psychotherapist bought 73ha of land at the head of Lake Wakatipu.

Lifelong environmentalist Rob Lay had a growing sense of alarm about climate change, and decided the best thing he could do was plant trees. Guy Williams visited him at Camp Hill to ask about a restoration project that has produced stunning results.

When Rob Lay bought Camp Hill in 2006, it had three forlorn patches of forest.

The stands contained mountain and red beech trees hundreds of years old, but sheep and cattle grazed beneath them, preventing the growth of a forest understorey and natural regeneration.

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He had come to New Zealand the year before to commercialise digital effects software, including helping Weta Digital with its work on Peter Jackson's King Kong.

Views of Camp Hill, from Glenorchy-Paradise Rd, in 2006. Photo / Rob Lay
Views of Camp Hill, from Glenorchy-Paradise Rd, in 2006. Photo / Rob Lay

He had built a career developing digital effects software and equipment for the film industry, but despite founding and running successful companies, he decided he wanted to contribute more to society than just make money.

He went back to school and got a PhD in psychology, and started a sideline career as a licensed psychotherapist.

Through that work, including with clients with drug addiction problems, he noticed a common thread was their ''disconnection with nature''.

''I think so many of the problems in the world are caused by this disconnection, and our complete oblivion from what's happening around us.''

Watching the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, about former United States vice-president Al Gore's campaign to educate people about global warming, was a watershed moment.

Views of Camp Hill showing the results of Rob Lay's 13-year reforestation project. Photo / Rob Lay
Views of Camp Hill showing the results of Rob Lay's 13-year reforestation project. Photo / Rob Lay

''In that, Al Gore says 'What can be done? Plant trees, plant more trees, plant even more trees'.
''I began to think that what I could do was plant trees, and start fixing the environment.''

So he bought Camp Hill, a beautiful rectangle of land that is overlooked by Mt Alfred, Temple Peak, Lovers Leap and Mt Earnslaw and stretches eastwards from the Glenorchy-Paradise road to the Rees River.

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He had the goal of restoring it to a pristine forest habitat with a plethora of plant, bird and insect life.

The only problem was he had ''zero knowledge'' about how to do it.

''I had never planted anything — I was an engineer and a psychologist.''

A wwoofer planting trees in 2012. Photo / Rob Lay
A wwoofer planting trees in 2012. Photo / Rob Lay

He walked into the Department of Conservation's Queenstown office to ask for advice and was shown into the office of the late Barry Lawrence, then biodiversity assets manager for Wakatipu, who arranged to visit the property with him the next day.
''He was fantastic. He came for a day, and the vision was born.''

Every spring and summer since then, with the help of a team of wwoofers (willing workers on organic farms), he and his partner, Eve, have planted nearly 50,000 trees on the property.

They have planted mainly beech species, but also podocarps such as kahikatea, matai and totara, as well as native shrubs and grasses.

Wwoofers fertilise holes drilled for new plantings, with irrigation in place, in 2011. Photo / Rob Lay
Wwoofers fertilise holes drilled for new plantings, with irrigation in place, in 2011. Photo / Rob Lay

Through trial and error, he has developed a systematic planting method that has yielded high survival rates and accelerated growth.
The three patches of forest have been joined, then expanded about fourfold to cover nearly half the property.

The beech trees planted in 2006 are now 10m tall, and native birds have returned: kereru, tui, bellbirds, fantails, tomtits, robins, kakariki, moreporks, pukeko and even falcons.

''The regeneration is coming in waves, as thick as grass,'' he says.

In 2008, he began work on restoring a 15ha wetland, fed by a spring on the property, that was choked with willows.

He spent the next six years clearing the pest trees with chainsaw and digger, then replanting the area in stages.

Camp Hill owner Rob Lay has developed a process for planting native trees that achieves almost 100% survival rates and accelerated growth. Photo / Guy Williams
Camp Hill owner Rob Lay has developed a process for planting native trees that achieves almost 100% survival rates and accelerated growth. Photo / Guy Williams

It is now alive with native and exotic birds, native fish, brown trout and frogs.
He has now achieved his reforestation goals at Camp Hill, after the last mass tree-planting exercise was carried out last spring.

He is close to finalising a covenant on the property with the QEII National Trust, which partners with private landowners to protect natural and cultural heritage sites on their land.

The wetland in 2006, choked with willow trees. Photo / Rob Lay
The wetland in 2006, choked with willow trees. Photo / Rob Lay

Now in his 60s, Mr Lay plans to own and manage the property for the rest of his life, but the covenant ensures it will be protected forever.
''I was looking at what's going to happen to this place when I'm gone.''

When asked how he feels about the transformation he has wrought at Camp Hill, his answer illuminates the restless energy that has driven it.

''It doesn't feel as good as you'd think — Eve complains about this.

The wetland after a restoration project started in 2008. Photo / Rob Lay
The wetland after a restoration project started in 2008. Photo / Rob Lay

'All I see is what's wrong. But I know it needs to be glass half full.''
The focus of his work on Camp Hill will now be on weed and pest control, and his tree-planting efforts will be redirected to another major reforestation project.

Keen to try out his developing methods on a marine forest environment, he bought a 100ha property in Moonlight Bay, in Marlborough's Queen Charlotte Sound, in 2010.