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An Otago Campaigner

Standing My Ground: A Voice for Nature Conservation
by Alan F. Mark (Otago University Press, $45)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

AlanMark-001Some years ago I wrote an article on the History of Conservation for Te Ara, the online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. It was a challenge to summarise a complex and evolving story in 3000 words, but if I had had access to Emeritus Professor Alan Mark’s fascinating autobiography, the task would have been so much more straightforward and the result more authoritative.

Alan Mark has been at the centre of most of the major environmental battles since the 1960s, and his vision and wise advocacy are now widely recognised. From being perceived as a young iconoclast associated with the Save Manapouri campaign, he has become an icon of the conservation movement. In skimming through the photographs scattered through this book, I noted that several politicians over the last 15 years are photographed with Alan Mark – obviously now an effective way to establish your environmental credentials.

Autobiographies are always selective, concentrating on the topics that the author wants to talk about, and the memories that s/he wants to leave behind. Alan Mark has decided to give an account of his working life, concentrating on what would now be called his environmental advocacy. There is little detail on his personal life or opinions apart from environmental matters. Born the son of a Dunedin electrician, he was clearly academically gifted. There is an early sign of his independence when he rejected the ‘Colditz Castle’ atmosphere of Otago Boy’s High School for his sixth form year, returning to study for his university entrance by correspondence at Mosgiel District High School. Majoring in biological topics at Otago University, he won a Fulbright Scholarship to Duke University in the USA where he completed his PhD on the ‘grass balds’ of the Appalachians. Since 1959 he has worked in Otago, for most of that time at or associated with the Botany Department in the university where he had a distinguished academic career.

A key issue dominating the early chapters of the book is the ecology of the tussock grasslands of Otago. Mark showed that the snow tussocks trap droplets of water from fog as a survival technique, and that this was important in understanding high country water recharge. In the early years this was not accepted by some local runholders who were reluctant to curtail their traditional practice of burning off the snow tussock. Mark noted that “the lack of any tussock grassland reserves in the entire South Island high country meant a serious absence of any baseline reference areas. Because all of the high country had been allocated for pastoral farming, it was impossible without representative, non-farmed areas to assess objectively the impacts of the various aspects of pastoral farming.” Initially there was strong resistance to the designation of specific reserves, but due to Mark’s persistent advocacy the number of reserves has gradually increased so that now about 15% of New Zealand’s high-country grassland has been protected.

Alan Mark first came to public notice as part of the long campaign (1959-72) to preserve Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau in their natural state while the government and the NZ Electricity Department wanted to maximise electricity generation. In the years after World War 2, environmental damage was regarded as the price of progress, but the Save Manapouri campaign was the first time that a major development scheme had been opposed on environmental grounds. Mark and his students provided much of the scientific evidence about the impact of changing lake levels on shoreline ecology. Then, after a decision was made to maintain the lakes at their present levels, he served as a member of the Guardians of Lake Manapouri and Lake Te Anau for the next 26 years.

One of the surprises in reading this book was the realisation of the amount of time that Alan Mark has spent on official bodies – including the New Zealand Conservation Authority, Otago Catchment Board, Land Settlement Board, Mountain Lands Committee, Fiordland Marine Guardians, National Parks and Reserves Authority, and the Royal Forest as well as various quangos, engos (environmental non-governmental organisations) and ad hoc committees. No armchair critic, he has been prepared to devote precious time to the nuts-and-bolts issues of conservation. Perhaps this is one of the secrets of his success on so many issues as he has been prepared to continually present and discuss scientific evidence to decision makers – and the networking this involved undoubtedly showed that he was a thoughtful and reasonable person.

Despite my admiration for the author, I have to concede that this book is not an easy read. The writing itself is clear enough, although like many scientists (myself included), he does not waste space on adjectives or descriptive prose. The problem is that Alan Mark has been involved in so many conservation issues over the last fifty years that it becomes difficult to remember whether the Save Manapouri campaign came before or after the Maruia Declaration, and how these are related to the designation of the South-West New Zealand World Heritage area. A chronology or timeline near the beginning would be a very useful addition to the second edition. But this is a book that anyone who has been involved with the conservation movement over the last fifty years will want to read. It is a wonderful tribute to Alan Mark that many of the issues he campaigned over have been successfully resolved.