The New Zealand Defence Force not only protects New Zealand it also protects our precious environment.
We take management of our training areas seriously and as a result the Tekapo Military Training Area has become a prime example of environmental management for the better.
The NZDF manages 17,000 hectares of land in Tekapo which our soldiers use to train and exercise in.
Defence Estate and Infrastructure Land Management Officer Mrs Shona Sam says it is an integral part of the NZDF culture that we are responsible land owners and that we look after and protect the area.
“We help to protect what makes New Zealand so unique and that is the natural landscape. The Mackenzie Basin is a significant landscape and we manage a large tract of un-grazed land high in biodiversity value.
“We work hard to ensure that we minimise our impacts as much as possible for the long term sustainability of the landscape as a whole, while still providing a good training area for current and future soldiers,” she said.
Mrs Sam said soldiers can cover any part of the training area on foot, but vehicles are restricted to minimise the impact on the environment and to provide safe and effective routes for military training.
“Any firing with large calibre firearms are is restricted to the impact zone, and as part of any exercise there is time set aside to refurbish areas, particularly ensuring digging and explosion holes are remediated.
“If necessary grass seed is spread and then covered with shade cloth to prevent soil from blowing away in the wind,” she said.
When exercises take place in Tekapo soldiers and their units are given rules that show where they can go, where they aren’t able to go and where they can fire into.
“This is to help protect the significant natural land value areas and waterways in the training area from being negatively impacted by military activities.
“As part of the brief when they arrive on the ground soldiers are given information about what to look out for and what to do if they see something while they are out in the training area that could impact the environment, like pests,” said Mrs Sam.
Something very unique to this 17,000 hectares of land is that NZDF does not graze any animals in the training area.
“We don’t graze any of the training area and therefore it provides a large space where native plants can establish, grow and increase in number. Tekapo is a hard climate to grow anything in and the soils are quite poor in nutrients which means it can take many years to re-establish native plants and recover from any sort of impact,” she said.
There are some areas within the training area which have not had any grazing or impact for over 20 years and as a result NZDF is seeing some good recovery of native tussocks and other native plants.
“Snow tussock is one native tussock that is becoming more visible now than it has in the recent past. We also have a very good population of robust grasshopper which is a nationally endangered insect species present in the training area that we have been able to maintain, as well as its current distribution and population,” said Mrs Sam.
Keeping the area as pristine as it is takes a lot of effort and NZDF works with a number of organisations to help achieve this. There are several places within the training area which have been classified as significant areas and there is a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Conservation in place to ensure that they are protected.
The Upper Fork River is a significant natural area and contains little to no pest plants and has a high natural biodiversity.
“This makes it a pretty important space to protect. The areas contains several threatened native fish, there are also threatened lizards present in the area along with braided river birds like the Banded Dotterel which nest on the riverbed.
“We work closely with the Department of Conservation to allow as much access for them as possible and have also worked with them to put protective measures in place such as fish weirs which prevent trout getting up the streams and eating the native fish.”
There are also a number of other ways that NZDF help to mitigate any pests impacting the local biodiversity and environment — including measures to stop the spread of didymo, control of wilding conifers and pest control of wallabys, rabbits, hares, ferrets, possums and hedgehogs which are all a threat to the environment.
Mrs Sam said at present all vehicles are prohibited from crossing the Fork River to prevent any spread of pests and didymo into the area.
There is a large wilding conifer control program on in the training area with the objective of having no adult coning trees and so far NZDF have been largely successful with this, Mrs Sam said.
“A lot of what NZDF does naturally aligns with helping protect biodiversity. Soldiers training on foot have minimal impact on the ground and putting vehicle restrictions to reduce environmental impact has also had a significant positive impact on the training area and helps to ensure that the area remains a good training area for the long term,” said Mrs Sam.