Flora, fauna, and family

Between father and son, Dr Geoff Park and Tim Park have spent more than 50 years protecting New Zealand’s natural environment.

Tim Park at Otari Wilton
Tim Park at Ōtari Native Botanic Garden and Wilton's Bush Reserve. Image credit: Wellington City Council.

Dr Park first developed an interest in the outdoors and plants through a connection with a childhood neighbour, acclaimed botanist Tony Druce. This passion led him to Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington (then Victoria University) in the mid-1960s, where he completed an undergraduate degree in Botany and Geology and a Master’s in Ecology and Soil Science.

Thirty years later, Tim Park also came to the University to study. Tim started his degree while also completing his last year of high school. His first papers were in religious studies, although he also studied geography, biology, and photography.

“I’ve always been interested in the link between nature and humans, especially the spiritual benefits people get from nature, and how we use spirituality to organise ourselves as humans,” Tim says.

Tim says this link between humans and nature was also central to his father’s study of ecology.

“Dad was studying old alpine beech forests in the Tararua ranges, and while he was studying he found evidence of old human firepits under the forest topsoil,” Tim says. “This really changed his life and the way he thought.

“Often we try and separate humans and nature and forget about the millennia of interplay between them, to the detriment of both humans and the natural world.”

Tim’s mother Lindsay also studied ecology and taught art classes, giving Tim another link between science and spirituality.

As well as studying at Te Herenga Waka, Tim also made a connection to the University in other ways, including with Salient, and involvement with the campus environment group. He worked at the university library and made connections he has maintained to this day with landscape architects.

Tim also remembers covering several protests, as well as a number of controversial issues in Salient. Protest is also somewhat of a family legacy, with Dr Park acting as the first president of radical student protest group Ecology Action, as well as leading a group of Hutt Valley High School students to protest the widening of SH2 through native bush near Silverstream, ultimately leading to the preservation of much of that bush through the creation of the Keith George Memorial Park.

After graduating (Tim finished his degree at Lincoln University), Tim went straight into an extensive career in ecology. First, he started work with the Department of Conservation (DOC), “getting paid to tramp around and ID plants.

“We were paid to boat and helicopter around Stewart Island and identify the plants there, which was a fantastic experience and not something many people get to do.”

Here lies another family connection—Dr Park founded and led the New Zealand Biological Resources Centre, which was incorporated into the Conservation Department (that would become DOC) in 1986.

After working with DOC and with several regional Councils, Tim joined the team at QEII National Trust. The Trust helps people who own private land to protect natural areas of significance by putting them under a legal covenant that preserves them in perpetuity.

Tim says they were able to protect over 1500 different natural areas during his time there, with the average size of each area being 50 hectares (about 50 rugby fields in size, to put it into a New Zealand perspective).

“Both the government and private landowners really wanted to invest in protecting natural areas at the time, so we were able to achieve a lot,” Tim says. “It was a real privilege to be able to help protect these amazing places forever.”

After doing similar work for the Kāpiti Coast District Council, Tim took his expertise to a completely different part of the world, volunteering with an ecological organisation in Tanzania to grow eco-tourism.

“It was an incredible place to work—we were near the border with Kenya, so we were close enough to visit the Serengeti and climb Kilimanjaro on the weekends.”

After that it was back to Wellington, where Tim joined Wellington City Council. During his time there, Tim was involved with several new projects and partnerships including the WellyWalks—which help Wellingtonians get out and walk in the city and surrounding areas—and helping the Conservation Volunteers get established locally. Perhaps his best-known achievement, however, was enabling the establishment of Predator Free Wellington in 2016.

Tim is now the manager at Ōtari Native Botanic Garden and Wilton's Bush Reserve.

Throughout his career, Tim has maintained his connection with Te Herenga Waka. Alongside the Sustainability Office, Tim helped establish the Growing Futures programme, which allows staff and students to volunteer in an environmental setting.

“It was a great challenge to create a programme where staff and students could get hands-on experience in the environment, and that also could help the University off-set its carbon emissions,” Tim says. “This was a complex project to set up and deliver, but it’s going to leave an amazing legacy for Wellingtonians.”

Tim also works closely with the Landscape Architecture staff and students at the Wellington School of Architecture.

“I aim to challenge students to think different about plants and landscapes, especially how we can effectively integrate native plants and the urban environment,” he says.

As well as guest lecturing, Tim has also been involved in several Summer Research Scholarships, including one on the Pā Harakeke at Te Papa Tongarewa that was one of the Summer Gold award winners for 2022.

Dr Park also maintained a connection with Te Herenga Waka. After graduating, he worked first at the DSIR (now divided into Crown Research Institutes, including NIWA and GNS Science), and then at the New Zealand Biological Resources Centre (now part of DOC). He then returned to Te Herenga Waka as a Stout Research Fellow. It was during this time that he began research on perhaps one of New Zealand’s best-known ecology texts: Nga Uruora: The Groves of Life, Ecology and History in a New Zealand Landscape.

Beginning with James Cook's Endeavour party on the Hauraki Plains, and then covering the New Zealand Company's arrival in the valley that became the Hutt, the book covers how colonial settlement transformed the original forests and swamps in these and other river flatlands in New Zealand. Apart from small reserves and parks, New Zealand bears very little resemblance to the country colonial settlers first saw.

Dr Park also published Theatre Country Essays on Landscape and Whenua with Victoria University Press in 2006.

Dr Park passed away in 2009. Tim remembers one moment in particular from his father’s funeral, when Te Herenga Waka Religious Studies Emeritus Professor Paul Morris—who taught Tim when he was a student—commented on Dr Park’s legacy.

“Paul said Dad contributed a lot to our identity and spirituality as New Zealanders, and our relationship to the bush, particularly for New Zealand Europeans,” Tim says. “It was really special to have my father respected by Paul in this way.”

So, what is next for the Park family and ecology? Tim is currently focusing on his work at Ōtari, but as for the future, he says they’ll just wait and see.

“I’m not sure if my kids will continue the legacy—we’ll see. But they certainly get their dose of nature.”

Find out more about Ōtari Wilton's Bush.