Contact us

Protecting our precious places

Gordon Stephenson - a visionary environmentalist passed away on 26 December 2015

13 January 2016

Media release

Gordon and Celia Stephenson at the 4000th covenant registration celebration eventThe Board and staff of Queen Elizabeth II National Trust are very saddened by the news of Gordon Stephenson’s death on Boxing Day, and extend heartfelt condolences to Celia and her family and friends.

National Trust Chair James Guild said Gordon Stephenson was dedicated to promoting and protecting the natural environment.  As a key founder of the QEII National Trust, Gordon was a visionary environmentalist with a deep appreciation for New Zealand’s natural heritage, influencing how we perceive and care for it within our farming landscapes, he said. 

‘Gordon is a true conservation icon. He was also a great friend and a constant source of support for the National Trust. He will be greatly missed,’ he said.

Mr Guild said Gordon has left a remarkable legacy for New Zealand. 

‘The National Trust protection model he played a critical role in establishing has proved to be a very successful. More that 100 covenants are registered every year protecting bush, wetlands, vulnerable biodiversity, and other sites of cultural and social interest on private land. 

‘The area protected covenants today totals around 180,000ha and every year more landowners approach the National Trust asking to establish covenants with it,’ he said.

Mr Guild said the National Trust was honoured to have Gordon and Celia Stephenson as special guests at its 4000th covenant registration celebration in May 2015. 

‘Gordon was a gifted orator and in his speech acknowledged the protection ethic of covenantors and the special value the 4000 existing covenants added, individually and collectively, to the character of New Zealand. He was proud of what the National Trust had achieved in the 40 years since it was established,’ he said.

While farming in the 1970s, Gordon and Celia 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. Gordon knew that many other landowners felt the same and socialised the idea of a ‘Heritage Trust’ with his peers, and with politicians and government officials in Wellington. 

This eventually led to the establishment of the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust, offering landowners a way to permanently protect special features on their land with covenants while retaining ownership and management responsibility of the protected land.

Mr Guild said Gordon’s vision and the conservation movement he and Celia triggered in establishing New Zealand’s first QEII National Trust open space covenant in 1979 changed the way natural and cultural places on private land are valued and preserved in New Zealand.

During his lifetime Gordon had an unwavering commitment to conservation and to good environmental management on the 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 Stephenson passed away on 26 December 2015, aged 91.


More information

Queen Elizabeth II National Trust website -

Media liaison – Anne McLean – 04 474 1689

MoST Content Management V3.0.6374