Fifty years ago, a small group gathered in an Invercargill living room to save one of our most beautiful lakes. What they launched that night not only rescued Lake Manapōuri, but changed society. Mike White looks back on the groundbreaking campaign that sparked New Zealand’s modern conservation movement, and asks why it’s still so hard to protect the environment.
A passerby remarks that it’s not a bad spot. “There’s nobody here,” one of the guys replies with wonderment. “It’s the perfect place.”
He’s lying. Fifty metres along the beach, there are two other people, having a late breakfast at a picnic table. They finish up, and return to their van and the rest of their holiday.
Then there’s nobody left. Just an empty beach and a still lake stretching towards islands and outcrops, and the irregular ridgeline of the surrounding mountains. Somewhere distant there’s the rumble of a boat chugging across the lake. Sparrows descend on the picnic table, searching for crumbs. A pair of paradise ducks swoops overhead. It is the perfect place.
But 50 years ago, the powers that be were prepared to sacrifice all this. In the name of progress and industrialisation, the government wanted to artificially raise the level of Lake Manapōuri, which lies within Fiordland National Park, to generate more electricity. They’d already built a power station at the lake’s western end – water dropping 178m from the lake to underground power turbines, then discharged down a 10km tunnel drilled through the mountains to Doubtful Sound and the Tasman Sea. The electricity this created was all destined for a single aluminium smelter at Tiwai Pt near Bluff, 160km away.
But by damming the Waiau River that flows from Lake Manapōuri, engineers argued they could raise the lake’s height by up to 30m, increasing the amount of water it held and thereby improving the power station’s operation, and generating power nearly 100% of the time, even in dry periods. Doing so, however, would mean drowning many of the lake’s 33 islands, and flooding surrounding native forest for kilometres inland. The electricity department, the Ministry of Works, successive governments, and the giant multinational company behind the scheme – Comalco – argued the effects on the lake would actually be beneficial; at worst, negligible.
Ideas of harnessing Lake Manapōuri reached back to 1904, when a Public Works Department engineer, Peter Hay, presciently noted its suitability for generating electricity and smelting aluminium. But even in those unregulated days, Hay foresaw difficulties with the plan, given Manapōuri was already one of New Zealand’s most idealised tourist locations. “It is not likely, for scenic reasons, that a high dam would be built at Manapōuri. The present beauty of the lake is worth preserving to the fullest extent.”
But by the 1950s, Hay’s warnings had been lost in the rush to diversify the country’s economy away from farming, and attract industry. Leading the charge was the Ministry of Works engineer-in-chief, Charles Turner, who told a public meeting in Invercargill that New Zealand needed to export “our rainfall in some other form than meat or wool”.
Not long before, large reserves of bauxite, the raw material for aluminium, had been discovered in Australia and Comalco had the rights to extract it. Thus, Turner encouraged the idea that refined bauxite could be shipped from Queensland to a smelter at Bluff, where the enormous amounts of cheap electricity from Manapōuri, the country’s largest hydro-electric scheme, would create aluminium. It seemed a brilliant collaboration.
So in 1960, without any public consultation, the then-Labour government signed a deal with Comalco giving it exclusive rights to use the waters of Lakes Manapōuri and Te Ānau for hydro-electricity for 99 years, including raising lake levels to maximise this. When Comalco cried poor, the government said it would build the Manapōuri power station, the first of many examples where Comalco outmanoeuvred naive politicians.
Environmental groups opposed the project but, as historian Aaron Fox says, “Good luck to anyone who took on the Ministry of Works in those days and that incredible, implacable bastard, Charles Turner.”
Fox says Turner’s influence was shown by his ability to get politicians of all hues to support the scheme, and his sympathies were demonstrated by the fact he went to work for Comalco after retiring. Growing public concern about environmental damage saw the original plan to raise Manapōuri’s level 26m, reduced to 8.4m. But by 1969, the first electricity had been generated from Manapōuri’s power station, construction of the smelter at Bluff was progressing rapidly, and the plan to raise the lake by 1971 and obliterate its glacier-carved beauty seemed inevitable.
On 20 October that year, pipe-smoking amputee and Invercargill deputy mayor Norman Jones and his wife Marjory opened their Dome St house to four people who, like them, were concerned about Lake Manapōuri’s imminent destruction. There was Ron McLean, who farmed sheep on Invercargill’s outskirts; McLean’s dentist Bill Bell; Invercargill doctor Bill Reekie; and Dipton farmer Alister McDonald.
They knew they had the might of government and the corporate world against them, but they also knew how much they loved the area and what was at stake. What occurred that night in Jones’ lounge launched a remarkable campaign. But the truth is, it sparked much more than that: changing the way we view the environment, and helping create today’s conservation movement.
McLean had a holiday home at Te Ānau, had hunted in Fiordland’s mountains and boated on its lakes. But it was his deep concern with the arrogance of the process to raise the lake, as well as his desire to protect this environment, that led him to spearhead public opposition to Manapōuri’s raising.
With clipped moustache, scraggly sideburns and a passable comb-over, McLean had always been involved in community affairs. He’d been on the rabbit board, the local hall committee, been involved with the meat and wool board, the national TB organisation, and been a Federated Farmers representative.
But his daughter, Jill Galt, says he had no real idea how their Manapōuri group would take off. “It was an issue that came up and he seemed to be the man on the spot. It was just something he couldn’t have not done, something he really needed to do.”
The pylons and transmission lines to the Tiwai Pt smelter ran beside his farm, giants striding across the flatlands that reminded him of Manapōuri’s cause every time he stepped outside.
The Save Manapouri Campaign launched a national petition in January 1970 and within two months had gained more than a quarter of a million signatures, about 10% of the country’s population, at that time the largest petition ever presented to Parliament. To promote it, McLean and Galt, who was still at college, hit the road, holding public meetings and establishing 19 Save Manapouri Campaign committees throughout the country. Sir Ed Hillary joined the Auckland branch, many high-profile New Zealanders lobbied the government in Wellington, and McLean became The Dominion’s 1970 Man of the Year.
“[My father] had a quiet approach, and was very reasoned and logical,” remembers Galt. “He was very articulate and eloquent, but definitely not a lectern banger or wild hand gesticulator. And he wasn’t affiliated to any political party – I think they would have liked him to have been, but he was a bit of a maverick, I guess.”
The campaign took over their lives, Galt says. “When we left on that first trip, there was hay cut. And it was still on the ground when we came back a fortnight later.”
There were frequent meetings in the house Galt still lives in, and constant phone calls to dentist Bill Bell, who was the group’s secretary, his patients often left waiting in the chair while the pair discussed strategy. McLean’s health began to fail during the campaign but he didn’t pull back.
“It took its toll,” says Galt, “but things do, don’t they, if they’re worthwhile? If there’s something that’s worth standing up for and enough people will do it, you just quietly persist. And that’s really what he was doing. I think it raised an awareness and brought into perspective things that people might not have thought about if there hadn’t been a campaign – and thank goodness there was one.”
The electricity department and Ministry of Works had long claimed raising the lake would actually improve Manapōuri’s appearance. But this mythical match of progress and panorama had been exposed as a lie at Lake Monowai, 30km away. In 1925, Lake Monowai had been raised just 2.4m to create a hydro scheme there. The result was an ecological nightmare, the once-beautiful lake now fringed by mud and the skeletons of dead trees that had been drowned.
To counter this, government engineers argued they would clear vegetation from Lake Manapōuri’s shore, sinking trees in the lake and bulldozing stumps to create new beaches around the raised lake. It had even trialled this on two acres in one of the lake’s secluded arms, an area the locals told Mark he must visit.
When Mark got back to Manapōuri township, a radio reporter asked him what he thought of the trial clearance, and Mark announced it was “pathetic” and in no way demonstrated the feasibility of clearing the lake’s 170km shoreline. This didn’t go down well with the electricity department, and not long after, Mark was told the university's contract had been cancelled. But by the time this was formalised, Mark had completed his work, clearly showing the devastating environmental effect raising the lake would have. In some areas, the new lake level would extend more than 5km inland, destroying all the bush to that point.
Using Mark’s evidence, public opinion against the proposal grew. Comalco was disturbed by this; its managing director, Don Hibberd, wrote to Prime Minister Keith Holyoake stating his “considerable concern” about the “concerted campaign against the raising of Lake Manapouri”.
Holyoake, whose government seemed bewitched by Comalco’s promises and had become devotees of what was described as a “kilowatt cult”, replied that “the opposition is not quite so formidable as it has seemed at times”. As with much of his judgment over the issue, Holyoake was terribly wrong.
He crucially underestimated concern amongst his own constituency – even the Otago and Southland National Party executive labelled raising Manapōuri “completely indefensible” and “legalised desecration of our national heritage”. Indeed, it wasn’t post-Woodstock hippies who led the opposition – legendary student protester Tim Shadbolt worked on the hydro project – but the likes of McLean and Jones, who were naturally conservative.
Across the country, people marched against the government’s plan. “In the name of progress, they’ll destroy every beautiful thing we’ve got,” cried one protester, distilling how opponents felt. That feeling hardened when it was revealed raising the lake, with its terrible environmental effects, would only increase the power station’s output by 4.5%. Then it was uncovered Comalco had offered shares to politicians, public servants, judges and journalists in a clumsy and misguided PR campaign.
Eventually, the government ordered a commission of inquiry. However, while its October 1970 report acknowledged raising the lake could cause serious environmental damage, it said the government’s hands were tied because it was locked into the deal with Comalco.
Public opposition didn’t stop, though, and when Holyoake arrived at Tiwai Pt to open Comalco’s aluminium smelter in 1971, he was jeered by a thousand protesters. Under growing pressure, and with an election the next year, Holyoake indicated raising the lake would be postponed. This still didn’t defuse the issue and it became a flashpoint at the 1972 election.
And by this stage, it had become clear it wasn’t just Lake Manapōuri that was at stake. Manapōuri is connected to much larger Lake Te Ānau, New Zealand’s second-biggest lake, by a short stretch of the Upper Waiau River. The Ministry of Works envisaged effectively turning the two lakes into one by raising them both, creating a massive water reservoir for the power station.
Again, Mark was called in to survey the area and report on the effect of raising Lake Te Ānau. His conclusions were the same: the engineers were effectively “playing god” and it would be disastrous for vegetation around the lake, while also risking flooding the town.
John Moore was Te Ānau’s GP, a suave 27-year-old who’d arrived in the area in 1968, knowing little of the brewing controversy. But when he started reading what was proposed, he got angry, and helped form the Te Anau Preservation Committee.
A lot of the debate was esoteric, with measurements and calculations and uncertainties, all of which, Moore says, “was really hard to get excited about for anyone who didn’t have their feet in the water”.
But after someone supposedly threatened to bomb any control structures around the lake, the media suddenly realised this wasn’t “a left-wing, liberal, anti-
development, slightly abstract issue, but a bunch of fairly pissed-off locals whose personal lives were affected directly”.
Ken Bradley went to high school at the village built to house workers on the power station, and says the protests of the early 70s were the first time he’d ever heard the words “conservation” or “ecological protection”. But Bradley, who later spent 41 years working in Fiordland for the Department of Conservation and its predecessors, says he underwent a gradual environmental awakening. “I think every New Zealander did. It was the wake-up call for New Zealanders.
“It was a difficult one, because everyone here benefited from the construction, but there was always concern about raising the lake, and the majority of people living here knew there was going to be a showdown at some time, and that did happen.”
When Holyoake’s successor, Jack Marshall, arrived in Te Ānau on the campaign trail in 1972, he was met with placards shouting, “Ecology Power, Not Comalco Power”, “Bigger May Not Be Better”, “Save our Lakes” and “Ban the Dam”.
Meanwhile, Labour, under Norman Kirk, had promised to keep the lakes at their natural levels, and this commitment was central to Labour easily winning the election, with four sitting Southland and Otago National MPs losing their seats.
Alan Mark has little doubt the election result saved Lakes Manapōuri and Te Ānau from being raised, believing National would have proceeded despite the protests. And he also thinks it saved his career. “If the Nats had won, I’d have been down the gurgler, because they were really getting into me. But Labour having won, I was flavour of the month.”
Their job was to oversee the health of the lakes, and Mark, now knighted for his services to the environment, remained chairman for 26 years.
The Guardians’ current chairman, Darryl Sycamore, 45, wasn’t even born when the Manapōuri protests were spreading across the country. But, as one of Mark’s former students, the links with the movement are strong, and the desire to protect the lake just as firm. Much of the Guardians’ work involves ensuring Meridian, which operates Manapōuri’s power station, maintains the lake within its natural levels while generating power. (All Manapōuri’s power still goes to the Tiwai Pt smelter – a staggering 13% of New Zealand’s total electricity production.)
Mark is now 87, still working as an emeritus professor at Otago University, and still sometimes giving advice on Lake Manapōuri. “Life’s too short to hang your boots up.”
He credits the Manapōuri campaign as being significant beyond saving the lake, saying it was a forerunner of the Resource Management Act, which requires environmental values to be considered in developments, and also helped create the Official Information Act, because of the secrecy that surrounded government plans for the lakes. In many ways, the campaign marked the point between an age when the environment was seen as something to be exploited for profit, and one where it was considered something with intrinsic value. And it foreshadowed other successful environmental protests, against such things as logging native forests and nuclear testing in the Pacific.
But Mark acknowledges the fight to save the environment is still tough work. There have been wins: preventing Waitutu Forest in western Southland being logged; stopping the damming of Buller’s Mōkihinui River; getting South Westland classified as a World Heritage site. There have been losses, though – notably the permission given for coal mining on the Denniston Plateau.
“But I’ve always said, you win some, you lose some, and there’s no point in despairing over the losses – you keep striving for what you can.”
“My uncle, bless him, in his misguided way was one of the big business proponents for getting the smelter to come to New Zealand. But my aunt was a bit of an environmentalist and we were walking around Manapōuri and she was going, ‘It’s such a shame they want to flood all this. I suppose it’s progress, but it’s such a shame.’”
The environmentalist and former Green Party co-leader says saving Manapōuri was a victory for the lake, but equally important was how it showed what public protest could achieve. The experience and knowledge gained at Manapōuri helped prevent another smelter being built at Aramoana. Indeed, it’s an irony that the most lasting effect of the Manapōuri proposal, which sought to subjugate and suppress nature, was how it actually gave rise to the conservation movement, which is now politically powerful.
But while public attitudes to conservation have matured, Fitzsimons says the pressures on the environment have also grown in the past 50 years, with significant population increase and enormous economic expansion.
“The battle will never be won, it will never be over. We’re never going to have a society where everyone agrees that biodiversity and ecological stability outweigh economic development. It’s different values systems that are in conflict and it’s ‘how much of this, how much of that’, to some extent. People draw the lines in very different places.
“So you’re always going to have to have people standing up for the natural world. And that’s all right – it’s not a bad way of life. We don’t always want to just go home and mow the lawns and watch the telly.”
Lou Sanson, the Department of Conservation’s director-general, understands there are sometimes necessary compromises between development and the environment – he signed off building the Manapōuri power station’s second tailrace to Doubtful Sound (which increased its output) when he was Southland conservator, and supported a land swap that would have allowed the Ruataniwha dam to be built on conservation land for a Hawke’s Bay irrigation scheme. But he doesn’t believe what happened at Lake Manapōuri 50 years ago could occur again.
“That amount of disregard for environmental effects – I just can’t see that would ever happen now. That was basically the government of the day saying, ‘We’re going to raise this thing by x metres and we’re bloody going to destroy these islands,’ and all that sort of stuff.”
Not only have government approaches changed, with greater understanding of nature’s value, Sanson says, but the conservation movement is now much stronger and more widespread.
However, Sanson says there will be always be tensions between business and conservation, and points to the location of wind farms, aquaculture, and hydro schemes as likely flashpoints. It’s inevitable some of these battlefields will be on DoC land, and plans to dam the Mōkihinui River barely a decade ago are a reminder of that. “But again, the conservation movement rose up and in the end, the CEO of Meridian saw the light.”
Sanson frequently refers to what happened at Manapōuri in his speeches, because of its crucial lessons, and because of his personal connection. “I know every inch of it. I’ve spent many weekends just in love with the place, boating it, hunting, fishing, climbing its mountains. Just the spirituality of the place, the peace of it. And you go to Mōnowai next door and say, ‘Shit, how did we do this – how did we actually really bloody leave all those [dead] trees here?’”
Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage says while there is greater awareness of the environment’s importance compared to 50 years ago, the threats to it are constant. These included tourism proposals, such as a succession of applications in Fiordland for a monorail, a gondola, a railway, a new road tunnel, and more helicopter flights and landings within the national park.
However, Sage, who spent years campaigning for the environment with groups like Forest & Bird, believes it’s easier now for the public to fight back, and points to the Environmental Legal Assistance Fund, which helps non-profit groups get lawyers or expert witnesses in court hearings.
“But there still needs to be really strong community support for protection of nature’s cathedrals, our national parks, our reserves and public conservation land. The price of democracy is eternal vigilance, and it’s the same with protection of conservation values.”
Robert Murrell admits he spends far too long gazing out over Lake Manapōuri. From the guest house his family has run since 1889, he gets a 180º view of the lake and bordering mountains. Even trimming the lodge’s hedges can be vaguely pleasurable when this is your outlook.
If the lake had been raised, people would have now been parking their boats near the Murrells’ front lawn.
“It would have been different,” says Murrell, “but I think we can quite happily say it would not have been better. Its pristineness is why our guests come here, not for something that’s been modified.”
Alan Mark gets back to Manapōuri as much as he can, having built a kitset bach overlooking the lake in 1980. He loves the view, the spectacular mountain scenery, the lake’s moodiness. “I don’t think you’d ever tire of it. And I can’t imagine what it might have been like, had it been raised.”
John Moore, the GP who led the Te Ānau campaign to save the lakes, shifted to Nelson in 1976, but it’s always special to return and see what he helped save. “I feel blown up with emotion. I don’t think it’s self-congratulatory, but it’s a powerful feeling. A lot of my soul is down there.”
Moore has remained involved in community affairs, and environmental issues have never been far away. He rails against the pollution of Canterbury’s rivers and groundwater, predicting it will become “the greatest environmental disaster in New Zealand’s history”, and points to Waikato land permanently poisoned by cadmium.
“We’ve got climate change rampant, and everyone pretending they’re doing something about it, and no one is. But I’m 77 now, and I think it’s time for the kids to take over. I hope they do – because we’ve made a hell of a mess.”
Moore says many of the lessons from the Manapōuri campaign have been drowned out by the continually reprised mantra that the economy must grow, “without any sort of inkling that the economy depends on a healthy environment. We need to remember [Manapōuri], we really do, and it’s hard for people – they’re much more interested in watching TV.”
As Moore’s Manapōuri colleague, Ron McLean, remarked, with a mix of reflection and foresight after their campaign was over: “The situation is such that the public must continue to have a watchdog role and be very careful to see that things don’t go too far, before they make their opinions known.”
The Shaw brothers: Protecting paradise
“All the rellies were still in Auckland, wondering why the hell we were going down there, to the frozen wasteland of ice and snow and crevasses and god knows what,” says Hunter.
Hunter was eight, Lance seven, and the brothers found themselves in heaven, hunting pigs and rabbits and trout, and rowing across the Waiau River to get to school.
“It was a great, free-range, feral place,” remembers Lance. “On New Year’s Eve everyone would go out with their rifles and fire shots across the river.”
“All sort of relatively safe,” adds Hunter.
Talk about raising the lake began in the late 50s, but it took a while for locals to really understand what it would mean, and how so much of the country they hunted in would be flooded.
For Lance, the turning point was when he took Labour leader Norman Kirk by jet boat up Lake Mōnowai to see the destruction caused by raising it in the 1920s. “That’s what opened my eyes.”
After that, there was no doubt which way they were going to vote at the 1972 election. “There was no option. Of course we voted Labour. For no other reason than the issue of the lake.”
Lance, 75, and wife Ruth, who for many years ran a tourist boat in Fiordland, have continued to protect their environment. They’ve fought against those who poisoned trees on the lakeshore to get better views; the proposal to build a monorail to Te Ānau; and the council plan to pump Te Ānau’s sewage close to Manapōuri.
“We still have fights when we have to, but we’re not looking for them. It’s hard yakka, and you lose a lot of friends.”
But winning the biggest battle, 50 years ago, to save Lake Manapōuri, has meant both he and Hunter have been able to live the life they’ve wanted to.
“I look at the lake and go, ‘You cracker!’ It’s kind of like an inner glow that stays with you forever. Where would you run to if you left Manapōuri? That’s the question I ask myself. And there’s nowhere I’d rather go.”
Hunter: “It’s just a beautiful area to live.”
This article was first published in the June 2019 issue of North & South.