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NZ Nature fund founder: Gibbston vineyard owner Denis Marshall

In New Zealand, Denis Marshall’s best known as the Minister of Conservation who resigned after the Cave Creek tragedy. In Queenstown, he’s probably best known as the co-owner of Gibbston’s Hawkshead winery. But, as PHILIP CHANDLER explains, his biggest legacy’s likely to be helping save NZ’s endangered plants and wildlife

More than 25 years after resigning as Minister of Conservation, Denis Marshall’s more involved in conservation than ever.

He’s just launched the NZ Nature Fund, with the lofty aim of raising $30 million over five years to rescue native birds, reptiles, fish and plants in critical danger of extinction.

At an age, 77, where others pull back from things, this Queenstowner, who’s busy enough running a winery, is on a mission.

If we don’t act now, NZ risks losing thousands of native species, he says.

NZ Nature Fund’s actually a rebranding, and reactivation, of the NZ National Parks and Conservation Foundation which he founded about 20 years ago.

Launched with local support from the Hutchins family (Real Journeys/Wayfare Group), Sir John Davies’ family (Ultimate Hikes and NZSki) and Henry van Asch (AJ Hackett Bungy), it initially went very well, Marshall says.

‘‘We raised a lot of money over about the first five years — several million dollars.’’

But then a new Department of Conservation director-general, Al Morrison, told charities like the foundation that DoC itself would raise money for conservation projects from the private sector.

Marshall: ‘‘Our trustees just about folded their tent, but I said, ‘don’t do that, we’ll just sit tight because someone will change their mind’.’’

Indeed, just before the DoC boss retired, he changed his mind.

‘‘Gradually we got cracking again because we were just managing funds people donated to conservation projects.’’

However, a stumbling block was the foundation’s unwieldy name.

‘‘No one could remember all four words, they could usually get two or three, but they can all remember this one, ‘NZ Nature Fund’.

‘‘Young people I talk to recognise it instantly, and they’re saying, ‘I like that, how can I help?’’’

With the rebrand, Marshall says the organisation’s ‘‘going to be back in the fundraising game, and change from being just passive to being very active, out there supporting projects throughout the whole country’’.

Without denigrating DoC, he argues his fund gives donors better value ‘‘than if they put it in a government department which has got a huge overhead’’, while donations also qualify for tax deductions.

DoC’s own funding, he adds, is spread too thinly to be able to do the ‘‘game-changing’’ work that’s needed.

Marshall says one of his foundation’s aims is to make Fiordland, as it’s fairly unpopulated, ‘‘a giant wild area’’ for biodiversity, ‘‘because a lot of the native species are held in small reserves and small sanctuaries’’.

‘‘We just agreed that we will look after Sinbad Gully, in Milford.

‘‘We’ve already got a donor that will fund about half of it, and we’ll get the other half.’’

He says the former foundation had already scored a few wins, for example through Fulton Hogan ploughing in $200,000 a year to save the takahe, but he warns ‘‘we are going backwards’’.

‘‘We’ve lost a lot of species over the last 150 to 200 years.

‘‘What we’ve got to make sure is those remote areas are able to carry the species that are still hanging in there.’’

Ironically, as a former farmer, Marshall admits farmers did a lot to reduce native species numbers through land clearance.

In his case, however, he notes conservation runs deep in his family — ancestor William Swainson was an early NZ naturalist.

‘‘We use the birds he drew on our wine label.’’

Though on the political right, he says ‘‘I think people across the political spectrum support conservation’’.

He argues members of NZ’s Green Party are ‘‘more socialists than conservationists’’.

‘‘We call them watermelons because they might be green on the outside but they’re red in the middle.’’

scoop@scene.co.nz