PUNAKAIKI, New Zealand -
The west coast of New Zealand’s South Island is an open place. Not the Canterbury plains kind of open, with their smooth expanse of hedgerow-lined grazing lands. Instead, it’s the kind of open that lets you drive for kilometer after kilometer, your gaze sweeping from the upward slopes of terraced mountains to the blue horizon of the Tasman Sea, without a single house or car or human silhouette crossing your line of sight.
The reasons for this are primarily logistical, Jamie explains, as he steers the car along the highway. Only a few mountain passes connect the west coast to the island’s more populous eastern side. And only a few spots along the rugged coastline offer good shelter from the Tasman’s often-stormy weather.
As a result, the west coast is the place to find vast stretches of New Zealand’s remaining lowland temperate rainforest, three of the nation’s national parks and kilometers of naturally sculpted coastline dotted with only the occasional bed-and-breakfast.
Aside from the occasional home or dairy farm, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation holds sway over most of the western land area. Given the colloquial meaning of the word “conservation” and New Zealand’s reputation for careful environmental stewardship, one might guess that the land is in good hands.
Then comes the first glimpse of a coal train, climbing eastward over the Southern Alps towards Christchurch cargo ships, laden with ancient rock scraped from a west coast hillside.
As the economies of New Zealand’s regional trading partners – especially China – have grown, the island nation has struggled with an increasingly uneasy balance between its fundamental commitment to the preservation of the natural environment and the economic appeal of resource exploitation.
On the one hand, an immensely profitable but shoddily regulated dairy industry increasingly threatens the health of local waterways. On the other, citizen protests – including a 40,000-strong march in 2010 – stopped government plans to open national park land to mining.
Still, tensions over mining periodically spark flurries of news activity. Currently making headlines is the Crown Minerals Bill, which could transfer significant power away from the conservation ministry, allowing economic ministers to control mining access and the conservation status of lands.
For an American abroad, it brings up disturbing echoes of our own debates over land use. For us, at least, the national parks remain sacred. And as we’ve established additional reserves, we’ve nudged out existing economic interests – buying out, for example, the commercial fishermen who visited Papahanaumokuakea in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Since the establishment of Yosemite – then a state park – in 1864, our country has honored a conservation ethic that forever preserves exceptionally picturesque portions of the nation. We have recognized the intrinsic value of these locations and taken pride in them as icons of our nation. And we’ve continued to grow their ranks – from the national park to the wildlife refuge to the recreation area.
Yet whenever the perceived economic benefits are high – particularly as fossil fuel prices soar – we scoff at the line in the sand that separates our souls from our wallets.
Take, for example, the perennial battle over drilling in the Arctic. The last five years have seen us swing wildly between “Drill, baby, drill” and portraits of polar bears, look askance at many a politician’s wobbly campaign promises about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and watch as Shell tried, and failed, to initiate offshore drilling in the Chukchi Sea this past summer.
Perhaps it’s telling that this current battleground is a place so remote that few of us will ever see it. For one, it speaks to our expanding technological arsenal, whose development is driven by the increasing value of dwindling natural resources. And it underscores just how crowded our planet has become, not just by 7 billion people, but by 7 billion sets of hopes and dreams – and wants – that are slightly bigger than those of the generation before.
Jamie downshifts and pulls off the road in Paparoa National Park. We wander down a path cut through a thicket of native tree ferns and flax bushes, emerging onto a limestone outcrop that has eroded to reveal thousands of delicately – and sometimes precariously – stacked layers: the famous Pancake Rocks.
The Department of Conservation has carefully marked a line around the bluffs not to be crossed, for safety’s sake. I lean over the railing to watch the waves churn through the narrow channels and deep pools below. “D’you think you could kayak in that?” asks Jamie, a New Zealander through and through. A few tourists eye us warily. It feels crowded for the first time that day.
Holly welcomes reader comments – and helpful advice from whitewater kayakers – at hollyvm “at” stanford “dot” edu.