A long-term vision to restore Carnival Park Scenic Reserve in Pahiatua to its previous glory kicked off with a community open day on June 16.
The official welcoming included a blessing by mana whenua, with Hiria Tua and Rihari Daymond opening the day's proceedings.
"The area was a hunting and fishing ground for iwi, prior to European settlement for Rangitane and Kahungunu," said Rihari.
Carnival Park, a beautiful area of the native bush of about 17 acres, was opened as a botanic garden in 1915 with proceeds from a local carnival.
Explore Pahiatua Incorporated (EPI) member Karolyn Donald says the area was originally part of Te Tapere Nui o Whatonga (also known as 40 Mile Bush), but is now one of the few remnants of the once-mighty forest on the lowlands.
"Some of the trees were here before European settlement and survived a devastating fire that ripped through the area in 1898. This makes the reserve unique and culturally significant."
Karolyn has strong connections to the reserve. She grew up in Pahiatua and was the custodian of the neighbouring campground for 15 years. However, Karolyn says she is just one in a long line of locals who have managed and cared for Carnival Park.
"I'd especially like to acknowledge Stanley Wolland, who has been involved with all things Carnival Park since 1975, and Judith Gleeson who first joined a planting at the reserve as a newly graduated teacher in the late 1960s and has been involved ever since. It's a huge privilege to follow those who have gone before me."
Tararua District Council administers the campground, and the Department of Conservation administers the reserve.
EPI has set up an agreement with the DoC to enable community restoration of the site. The open day formally celebrates the establishment of this agreement and seeks to get community feedback and involvement in the next steps.
DoC community ranger Wendy Gray says she's excited about helping restore the reserve to its former glory and reintroducing endemic species.
"While native trees are present in the reserve there is a prevalence of exotic species and some 50 odd weed species which make it difficult for natives to establish and survive."
Karolyn says in the past year, some weed and pest management has been undertaken – 75 possums have been trapped since February – but it is only a drop in the bucket.
"Restoring Carnival Park is a huge task and will take a lot of hard work. Full restoration won't happen in my lifetime, but you've got to start somewhere.
"Local schools have long been coming here to do plant and seed identification. If we get more natives thriving, we can show our children what the whole area used to be like.
"Our community members have a great sense of ownership of this treasure. Carnival Park has been a large part of the lives of Pahiatua residents for centuries, and we look forward to securing it for our future generations as well.
"It's exciting to think we've got a committee and a project together to restore the bush from the weeds that have grown over the centuries and to protect it going forward.
"There's a colonial history in there, where a pond was designated as part of a botanic garden with exotic trees and plants with manicured paths," she said.
In 1966 pine trees were planted to protect the bush from the wind on the western side. Judith Gleeson, fresh out of Teachers' Training College, was nominated to bring children down from Pahiatua School to plant the trees. She has been down to Carnival Park with children for environmental studies each year since then.
Judith spoke to school children about colonial history.
"The first settlers in 1881, Mr John Hall and family, lost their eldest son when they were clearing the bush in an accident - before they had celebrated their first Christmas here. John Henry Hall was buried by a tree and his family never really recovered from the tragic event.
"They left the area of bush, now Carnival Park Scenic Reserve, as a memorial to John Henry Hall and they would not chop down any more trees. In 1904, a group of people decided to buy the area of bush for the town, they held a Queen Carnival to raise money.
"Four to five young women were in a beauty contest nominated for cash, with one becoming the Queen. That's why it's called Carnival Park. They raised £900 to pay for it.
"Later, a pond was built which held many goldfish and there was a fountain playing, made of stainless steel. Ladies with long dresses and parasols would parade through, strolling on a Sunday afternoon and having a picnic on the lawn by the pond. Then one day, mysteriously, the water all drained out of it and the goldfish were relocated 25-30 years ago.
"We would like to think that the power of the people would persuade everybody to allow a pond to be reinstated. I still have the vision," she said.
In the 1980s the land for the Scenic Reserve owned by Tararua District Council was gifted to the Department of Conservation.
In 1990, Lyn Ranson set up the Carnival Park Board of Management, with Judith Gleeson and Stanley Wolland involved. In 2000 Karolyn Donald was the custodian of the Camping Ground and joined the management board. In 2015, current custodian Richard Hanson joined the board and has been working since on cleaning tracks of fallen branches.
Peter Russell has written (for Explore Pahiatua) a comprehensive weed management plan to eradicate the 50-plus weeds in the park. He has identified 130 species of plants, of which 68 are native.
The pine trees planted for wind protection are too tall now, not providing shelter and fostering weed growth. Kanuka will be planted as a replacement.
Pahiatua Rotary has donated money towards potting mix for germinating the seeds.