11 Sep 2021

Playing Favourites with outgoing DOC boss Lou Sanson

From Saturday Morning, 4:05 pm on 11 September 2021

Lou Sanson has had a life-long love affair with nature. After more than 50 years out and about in the bush, he's finishing up his career as the Department of Conservation's director-general this week.

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Photo: Supplied

Sanson is leaving the post he assumed in 2013, and joined Saturday Morning's Kim Hill this morning to reflect on some highs and lows during his time there, and play some of his favourite songs.

He started working in conservation in 1971, working as a track cutter in Copland Valley and then started with the Forest Service 47 years ago.

From 1987, he helped set up DOC as Invercargill's first district conservator, and in 2002 headed Antarctica New Zealand, before being appointed director-general of DOC/Te Papa Atawhai.

Sanson developed his love for nature at a young age, thanks to his parents.

"[Mum] dragged me into the hills when I was three, taught me to drink water out of Mount Cook lily leaves."

"I was so privileged to have grown up on the coast. Mum got me my first rifle at 15, and whitebaiting, and goldpanning and possuming and rabbiting and deer shooting.

"I just fell in love with this place. I had this ambition by 17 to walk every valley between here and Haast."

Two of the big issues that have driven Sanson's DOC work have been the ongoing push to create a predator-free New Zealand, and more recently, dealing with the changing face of tourism due to climate change and Covid-19 lockdowns.

Controversies and threats over 1080 use

Sanson said managing the controversial use of 1080 poison to deal with rat, stoat and possum threats was the most difficult part of his tenure. DOC staff have faced threats from protesters and some of them have been jailed.

Sanson said he's tried to engage protesters and understand their views.

"I try and get around the table and talk it through ... People have got very firm views on toxins and poisons.

"I think we're seeing that with the vaccine rollout, and many of the people who were anti-1080 are also anti-vax.

"You have to realise that in a society there will always be views and you've got to find the best way forward if you can do it without hurting your staff."

Sanson said the threats about the use of the poison were difficult to manage.

"It's been tough. Lots of threats, against myself personally, against my staff, stones through cars and things like that."

However, he says the department should never have hired the surveillance agency Thompson and Clark to monitor the activists, and it should have been left to the police.

"That was something we shouldn't have done."

The government announced it's aiming to make New Zealand predator free by 2050.

 The goal of a Predator Free New Zealand was announced by the government in 2016. Photo: 123RF

High-tech solutions to predators

The goal of a Predator Free New Zealand was announced by the government in 2016, and DOC has done its part to try and eliminate stoats, rats and possums.

Rapidly changing technologies such as artificial intelligence, drones and gene editing are all part of the battle.

Sanson said recent advancements in gene editing will likely limit the need to use poison to get rid of predators in the future.

"I think out of Covid we're going to see the age of integrated technologies which could be the next industrial revolution. Nobody thought a Covid vaccine was possible in nine months.

With surveillance technologies now, "we can virtually detect a rat coming across a river."

Sanson's vision is of New Zealand trying to become a "Galapagos of the world."

"These birds do come back. We're a country of birds. I think if we get to predator-free it's the biggest hit to New Zealand's balance sheet that we could ever do."

Changes in how we view tourism

During the pandemic, visitors by New Zealanders to their own treasured landscapes have skyrocketed, with a big rise in people visiting DOC huts and tracks.

The New Zealand Great Walks brand has become a huge success story, Sanson said.

"We actually developed the brand because we couldn't get people out there and now people are just piling out."

"That's been one of the great breakthroughs of Covid is how many people are getting out and just falling in love."

Towns like Hokianga have seen a surge in visitors and that helps local business when foreign tourism has been cut off, he said.

"Hokianga's been flat out when we come out of lockdown."

"Rakiura (track) is the new Tahiti, and Aotea the new Bali, and the Chathams has become one of the most exotic destinations in New Zealand."

Long-term, the vision for tourism should be for New Zealand to "move ourselves up the value chain" in a sustainable fashion, Sanson said.

"We were just struggling to keep up with growth and carparks. We were just struggling with this pipeline of tourism."

"I think when tourism comes back it will come back differently. There won't be the Emirates 380s, four a day coming into New Zealand. It will be a very different kind of tourism."

When tourists come back, "if we put predator-free in there we become an ultra premium destination," Sanson said.

"New Zealand has got more nature than most places. Our competition is Iceland, Costa Rica, Patagonia."

Travel post-Covid will require longer stays due to Covid certifications, Sanson said, and is "going to be complicated".

Questions have risen in the past about some of DOC's commercial partnerships with companies such as Fonterra on projects and potential conflicts of interest, but Sanson said the arrangements are often a net positive for both parties.

"There are thousands and thousands of people and hundreds of businesses who want to do their bit. As we head to a blue and a green economy people want to be seen protecting this incredible asset that we've got which is Papatūānuku and Aotearoa. I just think full credit to people that want to get involved."

Sanson still plans a busy schedule, including painting huts, walking tracks and ski trips, but he said he's grateful to the many people he's worked with over the years.

"I just want to acknowledge the 3000 staff who work for me, the relationships with iwi, whānau and hapū, because it's really about a consent-based relationship with the natural world. It's so important to New Zealand."

As Sanson wraps up his stewardship of DOC, he's looking to finish off by visiting a remote hut he hasn't seen since 1972.

"If I can get into this hut, it'll be so special, it was brand new in 1972, and I just want to have my last night in a hut in the Southern Alps."