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Obituary - Gordon Stephenson

Gordon Stephenson Obituary

Gordon Stephenson — a visionary environmentalist

10 October 1924 — 26 December 2015

James Guild — Chairperson Queen Elizabeth II National Trust

Gordon Stephenson will be remembered for the impact he had on this nation’s environmental ethos. At a time when land clearance and maximising pastoral production was being championed and subsidised by government policy, he advocated for a more balanced rural environment. For him, the natural environment was considered just as important as the developed, where the last remnants of original vegetation were considered taonga — treasures not obstacles to prosperity — and where preservation became a partner with pastoralism not an impediment. He believed kaitiakitanga or guardianship was an honour not a chore.

Gordon Stephenson’s conversion to ecological enthusiast happened soon after his arrival in New Zealand. He described it as an epiphany, observing that studying New Zealand’s ecology offered the nearest thing to studying life on another planet. In the 1970s, he became deeply alarmed by the level of destruction of indigenous nature on private land and the fact that there was nothing that could be done to prevent it. He began socialising the idea of a protection mechanism in the form of a ‘Heritage Trust’ with his peers, and politicians and government officials in Wellington. 

In determining the functions and powers of the proposed Trust, Gordon held strongly to three principles – that the protected land remain in private ownership, that protection should be a voluntary process without the use of inducements or coercion, and that the protection should be in perpetuity.  All of these principles were novel concepts for conservation on private land, and generated much debate, but ultimately all were enshrined in the Queen Elizabeth the Second National Trust Act.

Gordon’s farsightedness eventually led to the development of the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust Act 1977, governing the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust, an organisation dedicated to protecting and promoting ‘open space’ features on private land (areas of land or water that serve to preserve or to facilitate the preservation of any landscape of aesthetic, cultural, recreational, scenic, scientific or social interest or value), and offering landowners a way to permanently protect these features on their land with covenants. The National Trust now has thousands of members and acts as trustee for hundreds of thousands of hectares of covenanted land. 

During his lifetime Gordon had an unwavering commitment to conservation and to good environmental management on farm. He has sat on the national bodies of Federated Farmers and Forest and Bird and had leading roles in organisations such as the Waikato Conservation Board, the Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust, the New Zealand Landcare Trust, and the South Island High Country Review Committee.

He instigated the Ballance Farm Environment Awards, which are now held nationally with the national winner receiving the Stephenson Trophy. Gordon first mooted the idea of a farm environment competition in 1991 as a way of recognising farmers who were trying to balance farm productivity with environmental protection. 

In 1992 Gordon and Celia Stephenson were jointly awarded the Loder Cup, New Zealand's most prestigious conservation award for plant conservation.

In 1998 Gordon became a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. In 2000 he received a Biodiversity Accolade award at the launch of the New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy. 

In 2013 Gordon received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Waikato for his on-going contribution to the environment. Gordon was a Distinguished Life Member of Forest and Bird, an Honorary Member of Rotary, and an honorary kaumatua at Pikitu Marae, Waotu.

Gordon’s vision and the citizen-led conservation movement he and his wife Celia triggered when they established New Zealand’s first open space covenant with the National Trust in 1979 revolutionised the way natural and cultural places on private land are valued and preserved in New Zealand. He leaves an enduring legacy that has changed the landscape of our nation for the better. All New Zealanders are the beneficiaries of his remarkable combination of vision, tenacity, and his successful advocacy for the environment and for a greater balance between productivity and protection on private land.

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