Helen Hughes

If we are to remain a successful living species on this planet we need to live within the limits of the resources around us. I don’t think I thought a lot about this as either a University student or as a young mother. But I did acquire the right training.

I did Botany at University and got interested in Ecology so it was no surprise that I did my Masters thesis on a plant ecology topic. Then I went to the States on a Fulbright and did some plant physiology and biochemistry, also very useful. However the College was just starting a brand new subject called Conservation (this was in 1952) and I was persuaded to take it, to make up the numbers. My knowledge of Conservation at that point was strictly soil conservation so it was an eye opener to study conservation of living species.
My first summer I went to a summer school in Montana and just for fun, learnt about aquatic macrophytes – mainly because we went out in a boat on Flathead Lake which is in the Glacier National Park.. On returning to my College in the Fall, I was informed the NY Fish and Wildlife Service were having problems with water weeds (aquatic macrophytes) and needed some research done, which I did. So when I completed this second lot of University training, I was an ecologist, with an appreciation of conservation and how to try and manage the problems (such as water weeds) caused by humans interfering with natural ecosystems. It was a good basis for learning about environmental management.
Several years later I started my career in the NZ Public Service, first with the Freshwater Section of DSIR and then with the Commission for the Environment which was established after the 1972 Stockholm Environmental Conference. My years with the Freshwater Section and in DSIR had me once again dealing with the effects of human activity on ecosytems. During this time it was more a matter of advising how to control the adverse effects rather than adjusting human activity to minimize the effects.
A milestone was reached when I was put in charge of an interdepartmental group to write a New Zealand Conservation strategy. There was a World Conservation Strategy put out by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature which we largely followed but we did add a couple of new principles , cultural concerns and the use of non-renewable resources. Then came the 1984 snap election and a surprise to see much of the NZ Conservation strategy incorporated in the Environment manifesto. This was followed by the same words appearing in the Environment Act and then the Resource Management Act.
When I was appointed Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE), I was familiar with the legislation under which we operated but when asked by members of the public what did sustainable management actually mean, it was rather hard to find a comprehensive and meaningful answer. We did a lot of reading of overseas literature and read about such problems as desertification and disappearing cod stocks in the North Atlantic as well as threatened large African animals but none of the issues seemed to directly apply to New Zealand.
Our first PCE investigations changed that picture. There was a proposal to introduce myxomatosis to control a rabbit plague in Central Otago. We went down to see for ourselves the damage caused by too much grazing pressure from sheep and rabbits. That was when I realized we were looking at a completely unsustainable system. Central Otago was fast becoming a dust bowl and we were viewing insipient desertification. This was a process I had believed could never happen in New Zealand.
Two reports later we were recommending a change in land use, farming to the limits of the climate, soil and vegetation conditions - NOT the market price for merino wool, and an integrated land management programme. The rabbits taught us that when land management is unsustainable, the ecosystem is unsustainable, the economy of the area is unsustainable and the human habitation becomes socially unsustainable as people walk off the land.
Because the rabbits and merinos grazed a tussock landscape we also recognized that we humans are very bad at managing long lived species. Tussocks like rimu and totara can live for over a hundred years, so do orange roughy. When a species is longlived its reproductive cycle starts at a late age – a cycle which does not fit with the human life span and human use of resources. Knowing the life cycle, knowing the limits of every species’ well being is a prerequisite for sustainable management. When we add a variable in the form of climate change we have a long way to go to understand how humans and other species can exist long term on planet earth.
The fact that we are causing climate change is recognized and that is half the battle. We also know what should be done. We humans have a habit of waiting until tragedy has struck before dealing comprehensively with the issue. With human demands on political systems to act, we can get there. We can learn to live sustainably on the planet within the natural limits of our environment and resources and we need to start now.