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Totara Reserve: from exploitation to conservation

My adventure into the world of environmental history began in earnest with my exploration of the history of a forest reserve in the Manawatu. I had visited this seemingly magic place as a child, but apart from a hazy memory, knew nothing about it (including its name or location). I 'rediscovered' the place as an adult, when I returned to the Manawatu to live with my partner. The reason that this place was so 'other worldly' to my childhood self was because it had become so rare - it was one of the last vestiges of a long-vanished forest that had covered the entire region. Almost all of the Manawatu's lowland forest was burnt and milled when the region was settled by Europeans in the late 19th century.

The fruits of this first (tentative) foray into environmental history was "Totara Reserve: A Window into Manawatu’s Environmental History", published in The Manawatu Journal of History, 2008 (4). The following is from a post I originally published in December 2009.

Totara Reserve is situated in the Pohangina Valley on the eastern side of the Pohangina River, in the Manawatu. It encompasses an area of 348 hectares, much of it podocarp forest, made up of totara, matai, rimu and kahikatea, as well as some black beech.

Its history as a reserve began in 1886, when it was gazetted under the provisions of the State Forests Act (1885) as a ‘reserve for growth & preservation of timber and for river conservation purposes’. This at a time when the area was been ‘opened up’ for settlement – settlement in the Pohangina Valley area began with Ashhurst in March 1879.

In 1932, a portion of the Reserve was designated as a Scenic Reserve under the provisions of the Scenery Preservation Act 1908, and vested in the Pohangina County Council. In 1947 the area was increased and, renamed the Pohangina Valley Domain, passed to the Palmerston North City Council for develop as a reserve for recreational purposes. In 1989, it changed hands yet again – this time to the Manawatu District Council, where it remains today. The Council has made ongoing efforts to enhance the reserve’s capacity and potential as an important habitat for indigenous flora and fauna.

Today, the reserve is valued as a rare remnant of lowland forest in the Manawatu district, by no means pristine, but nevertheless a valuable habitat for many indigenous species of plant and bird species. It is also valued as a place of recreation and rest by the many people that visit the reserve to swim, walk, picnic and camp every year. As the history of this reserve demonstrates, we have not always valued our indigenous forest in this way; the massive totara stumps which remain scattered throughout the reserve today serve as a poignant reminder not only of the grandeur of the trees that once towered above the forest, but also of the way in which values towards our indigenous forests have changed from an emphasis on utility to their scenic, ecological and, for many, spiritual, value.

Photo above left: Totara Reserve about 1915, C. E. Wildbore (Palmerston North City Library). Above right: Totara Reserve today, C. Knight.

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