The High Country: A Case for Public Ownership

To ensure the protection of our threatened plants & animals, such as our alpine weta & NZ falcon, Forest & Bird believes public ownership of the high country is crucial.

As well as holding some of our lesser-known native species, our high country plays an important role in carbon storage, and each year draws tens of thousands of tourists to its russet-brown tussocklands. 

Outlined below are some of the reasons why Forest & Bird believes our high-country should remain in public ownership. 

Recreation and tourism

Tourism is already the biggest industry in the high country, but has traditionally been concentrated around national parks such as Arthurs Pass and Mt Cook, skifields and the southern lakes. 

Guaranteed public access to new areas of conservation land has provided new opportunities for tourism and recreation. Throughout the high country, tens of thousands of visitors now enjoy wild places that formerly were largely the preserve of sheep, cattle and a handful of people. New visitors participating in recreation and tourism activities - such as the recently developed Alps to Ocean cycle way - have grown the high country economy and transformed towns such as Hanmer, Springfield, Lake Tekapo, Naseby and Wanaka. 

New business ventures offering heli-biking, heli-skiing, mountain biking tours, guided tramping and nature tours have sprung up to take advantage of these new opportunities. The new public conservation lands are being developed for recreation, with hundreds of kilometres of new tracks.


Pest control is also better managed in the new public conservation areas, particularly control of broom and wilding trees, and animal pests such as goats.

DOC has been allocated sizeable funds to deal with these “inherited” pest problems and in Otago and Canterbury extensive weed and pest control is conducted on most former pastoral lease lands.

The expansion of the high country public conservation estate is also an opportunity to achieve better balance of protected areas.

Most of New Zealand’s public conservation land is confined to the main mountain ranges, and the wetter forested hill country on the western coasts of both main islands.

Ecosystem services

The high country also contributes significant “ecosystem services” that have great economic and social value.

The high country is the source of many of the country’s major rivers, and contains most of our major lakes. Most of New Zealand’s hydro generation and irrigation relies on rivers draining the high country.

New Zealand’s tussock grasslands contain almost as much vegetative carbon as all of the country’s plantation forests. Retirement of land from grazing leads to a significant increase in carbon sequestration as tussock grasslands recover and the succession back to dry forest begins.

It also improves water capture and retention, leading to greater certainty of water supply in dry periods and lessens the impact of flood peaks. The value of Te Papanui Conservation Park for water services alone has been estimated at $136 million.