email a friend iconprinter friendly iconTongariro National Park
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Plants, too, cause problems for park managers. An early ranger introduced grouse from Britain as game and brought heather to feed them. The grouse died out, but heather spread as a lavender-hued plague, displacing native vege­tation over wide areas. Lodgepole pine came from North America as a timber tree; its wind-borne seeds carry far beyond plantations, making it exceedingly difficult to eradicate.

Only the widespread use of traps and poisons to fight intruders has prevented the decline of species such as the rare blue duck, which still inhabits Tongariro streams; the parrot known by the Maori name kaka; and the absurdly fearless little New Zealand robin, which hops around the boots of hikers, searching for insects in leaves stirred by their footsteps. Thanks to intensive poisoning and a program of raising chicks in captivity until they can defend themselves, the kiwi's eerie whistling calls still echo through Tongariro's woodlands, thrilling those who venture out along trails on quiet nights.

Incongruously, the North Island's most popular ski areas sit on the three slopes of Ruapehu, with their associated shops, lifts, and roads. No such blatantly commercial development would be allowed in a national park today, but the ski runs date from 1913 and, for better or worse, attract a half million visitors a season. Department of Conservation (DOC) staffers constantly try to find compromises in park management that will keep skiers satisfied while protecting one of the planet's most wondrous places.

Decisions about Tongariro's safekeeping have grown ever more complex. In recent decades Tongariro's Maori neighbors, the indigenous iwi (Maori communities)—long excluded from such matters by the ruling Pakeha (people of European ancestry)—have regained polit­ical rights and influence. Some believe that Te Heuheu—­who was, after all, chief only of the Ngati Tuwharetoa tribe—had no right to give away the three volcanic peaks on behalf of all Maori and would like to reclaim the park as sacred tribal land. Others, less radical, would close the mountaintops to climbers or restrict access to those accompanied by a local Maori guide.

Bird-eating stoats, parking-lot construction, profound spiritual and cultural values—all these issues crowd the desks of DOC managers. And one more: Theoretically at least, the park could blow itself to smithereens at any moment.

A visitor can put these concerns out of mind for a while—long enough for a hike that in a single day can encompass barren volcanic rock and rich, complex forest, the sound of waterfalls and the whoosh of native pigeons' wings, the smells of sulfur from deep underground and of moss and ferns and earth after rain. And above it all, the sight of the three great peaks of Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, and Tongariro, the creators and destroyers of this land. 

Mel White's last story was "Path of the Jaguar," in March 2009. Stuart Franklin is currently working on projects in the United Kingdom.
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