View from Cape Reinga
Image: Benhi Dixon | Creative Commons


The public conservation land we administer has different layers of protection, depending on which category or status it holds under various legislation.

Categorising ‘conservation land’ is the main way to protect natural and historic resources. In some instances the conservation land may be the only location where a species exists.

Conservation categories are established under the Conservation Act, National Parks Act, Reserves Act, and the Wildlife Act. Further classifications are assigned to conservation areas to protect specific values and prioritise how the area is managed.

The Conservation Act defines ‘conservation’ as: “the preservation and protection of natural and historic resources for the purpose of maintaining their intrinsic values, providing for their appreciation and recreational enjoyment by the public, and safeguarding the options of future generations.”

All legislation administered by DOC for more information on the legislation that guides DOCs work.  

Categories and conservation values

Categorisation contributes to conservation outcomes by identifying areas requiring additional protection, for example; key sites for biodiversity and/or of historic and cultural value.

The land status/categories are used to determine the purpose(s) for the administration of the land and provide additional criteria for the management of that site.

The various categories of conservation land and the conservation values they are established to protect are detailed below. This is a complex process and there can be additional overlays of protection for specific sites.

Contact our land management helpline +64 4 471 3029 or your local DOC office if you have a question relating to the status of conservation land.

National parks

A national park is an area of land (and water) containing scenery of such distinctive quality, ecological systems, or natural features so beautiful, unique, or scientifically important that they are of national interest. They are considered priceless areas and represent the natural, historical and cultural heritage of New Zealand to be protected for future generations to enjoy.

This status is considered to provide the maximum level of protection. Under the National Parks Act a national park must be maintained in its natural state, and there are restrictions on certain activities. Subject to provisions the public have freedom of entry and access to the parks.

Example: Tongariro National Park is New Zealand's oldest national park and a dual World Heritage area. This status recognises the park's important Māori cultural and spiritual associations as well as its outstanding volcanic features.

Within a national park there may be areas given additional protection:

  • specially protected area – is set apart to preserve intact, with minimum of human interference, an area which possesses indigenous plant or animal life, or ecological, geological or historical features of significance. Must must be approved by the Governor-General
  • wilderness area – an area of wild land (and/or water) which is diverse in landscape. Provides opportunities for physical recreation with minor human influence
  • amenities area – small areas that are suitable for the development and operation of recreation and related amenities and services appropriate for public use and enjoyment of the park, eg visitor centre, carpark area.

Get information on all New Zealand's national parks.

Wildlife areas

A wildlife area is an area identified to be managed for the preservation of wildlife and its habitat (eg an area with a specific species or a nesting site). They can be areas within parks and reserves or on private land.

These areas contain some of New Zealand’s most treasured wildlife. Some are available for public enjoyment, others are only available by permit or within a specified timeframe to minimise disturbance or damage to the areas.

Example: Karewa Gannet Island is a wildlife sanctuary and Matata Lagoon is a wildlife refuge.

There are three types of wildlife area classifications:

  • wildlife sanctuary – an area of land (and/or water) possessing significant wildlife habitat that may be susceptible to damage or disturbance by uncontrolled public entry
  • wildlife refuge – an area of land (and/or water) which provides a haven for any wildlife or possesses important wildlife habitat not otherwise protected
  • wildlife management reserve – an area of land (and/or water) protected for the conservation, management and public appreciation of wildlife.


A reserve is land set apart to provide for the preservation and management of an area for the benefit and enjoyment of the public. Reserves cover a range of attributes, eg recreational use, environmental, landscape amenity, scenic interest, indigenous flora and fauna.

A reserve classification supports the purpose for which the land is held and how it will be managed. Reserves are administered by DOC or an administering body may be appointed, eg a local authority, iwi or a voluntary organisation.

Under the Reserves Act a reserve must be classified according to its principal or primary purpose. It is then managed/preserved according to that purpose.

Example: Te Paki Recreation Reserve is home to a wide range of native plants and animals, with many recreation opportunities.

Reserve classifications cover a wide range of protective management, for example;

  • recreation – an area of open space that in conjunction with the protection of the natural environment, provides places suitable for recreation and sporting activities and the physical welfare and enjoyment of the public
  • historic – land that has places, objects, or natural features of: historic, archaeological, cultural, educational, other special interest
  • scenic – land that holds significant scenic interest or beauty with natural features or landscape
  • scientific – an area possessing ecological associations, plant or animal communities, types of soil, remarkable rock formations and/or other special interest matters that are preserved for scientific study, research and/or education
  • local purpose – usually an area suitable for a specified local educational or community purpose, eg a community hall or library.

There are also classifications for nature, government purpose, wilderness and national reserves – all for a variety of purposes and management requirements. 

Conservation areas

A conservation area status is land or foreshore that is held under the Conservation Act for conservation purposes. It is often seen as providing the ‘weakest’ protection of the conservation categories, however all conservation areas have been set aside for conservation purposes and are protected under the Conservation Act.

Example: Wairepo Kettleholes Conservation Area which protects a fascinating wetland environment covering approximately 400 hectares.

Additional protection can be given to conservation areas through the following classifications:

  • specially protected area – which can be further classified into a:
    • conservation park
    • ecological area
    • sanctuary area
    • wilderness area
    • watercourse area
    • amenity area
    • wildlife area.

Note: that some specially protected conservation areas can ‘overlay’ each other, ie an ecological area can exist within a conservation park.

  • marginal strip – strips of land adjoining the coast, lakes larger than eight hectares in area, and rivers greater than three metres in width; that are held for conservation purposes. 

Stewardship area (or stewardship land) is an area defined by exception. They are conservation areas that have not yet been assessed and identified as requiring any additional protection.

Stewardship areas are land that was given to DOC when it was established in 1987 because it was considered to have conservation value. DOC is working through a process of reclassifying this land so that it has the appropriate layers of protection. However, stewardship land is still protected under the Conservation Act and cannot be disposed of unless there is no or low conservation value.

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