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Bringing native forests to the community: Wakatipu Reforestation Trust

Officially formed in 2013, the Trust’s founding members have in reality been planting in the Wakatipu Basin for over twenty years. Through the Wakatipu Islands Reforestation Trust, Pigeon Island was planted out with over 40,000 natives over a 15 year period, and it was the success of this work that ignited pioneers Neill & Barb Simpson’s passion to set their sights further afield to the whole of the Wakatipu Basin: creating a movement that has now planted around 50,000 native trees & shrubs throughout the Wakatipu—from Glenorchy to Arrowtown, from Gibbston Valley to Kingston.

In 2013, Neill & Barb decided to take action to increase the number of native plants in the Wakatipu, which were estimated to be less than 5% of the rural landscape. At the time, Barb was growing natives for planting in their own backyard, and when they simply ran out of space, the idea of building a community nursery was born.  

The nursery, located in Queenstown’s Jardine Park, remains integral to the Trust’s work. Over the course of the last 7 years, expert volunteers have worked hard to develop the skills to transition the nursery from buying in small plants from commercial nurseries, to doing much of their own seed collection and propagation. 

In early 2020, the Trust employed a part time highly qualified nursery manager, who has brought knowledge and high level of organisation skills to their operations, as well as being a natural educator, supporting, encouraging and upskilling our volunteers.

“Our nursery is currently growing approximately 85% of our plants from seeds that are eco-sourced by key volunteers” says Karen O’Donahoo, Operations Manager. “It’s a huge commitment—taking two to three years for each and every single tree & shrub from germination to planting”.

Wakatipu Reforestation’s dedicated volunteers are vital to more than just the nursery work. The Trust has logged around 18,000 cumulative volunteer hours since the Trust began, and 3000 hours in 2020 alone, which includes growing native plants, site preparation, planting, and site maintenance.

The Trust also delivers hands-on experiential learning programs to schools. The Trust’s Education Officer hosts nursery visits for students from preschool to high school, where they learn about different native plants by exploring the nursery’s reference gardens, and through potting up sessions. Their education programs also support local schools in their planting programs. 

“Every time I go to a site, I stand and look at what’s been achieved. I think of the volunteer hours. Every plant that’s been nurtured. The school students who helped with potting; the corporate who came to spread mulch; the other one who donated money for fencing; the hundreds of people who came to the last planting campaign. It’s very inspiring.”

As a result of these collective efforts, the Trust’s many planting sites are absolutely thriving. Wakatipu Reforestation Trust volunteers carefully maintain six keystone sites across the Basin, with approximately 20 more community sites and schools to which the Trust provides trees and expert guidance.

Likewise, the collective efforts of many business funders, both through partnerships directly with the Trust and also through the Trees That Count marketplace, help the work in Wakatipu to flourish.

The Wakatipu Reforestation Trust is generously supported by major sponsors: Jean Malpas Environment Trust (Perpetual Guardian); Queenstown Airport Corporation; Les Hutchins Conservation Foundation; Queenstown Lakes District Council; Dept of Conservation (DOC); and ORC EcoFund, along with many others including in-kind supporters. 

And through the Trees That Count online native tree marketplace, over 400 generous individuals—along with corporates such as Go To Collection, Anderson Lloyd, Altitude Tours and Springload—have cumulatively donated over 12,900 trees to the Trust.  

These collective efforts result in excellence. “Our sites are the gold star level of reforestation—we’re incredibly proud of them,” says Karen. “We’re starting to see natural regeneration, which is our long-term goal, and of course the return of birds, lizards and invertebrates.”

Part of the beauty of this change is its visibility. Wakatipu Reforestation is committed to selecting sites that are close to communities: the places where people walk, cycle, and take their children to play.

“Our communities need the visual touchstones of what our native forests look like,” says Karen. “Nothing we do is way out yonder: all of our sites are on public land close to our communities, places where people play with their kids, walk their dogs and ride their bikes. This way, people see the changes through the years, and this in turn encourages a sense of stewardship of place.”

“As a group, we feel inspired by what we’ve achieved to date, and we’re all really committed to long-term outcomes,” Karen notes.

“Queenstown’s unique because we’re a small community with several groups in the conservation area: each group is a spoke in the wheel for regenerating ecosystems. You can see that wheel turning in a tangible way.”

It’s clear that the Trust knows they’re doing valuable work, and is committed to handing on something valuable to the next generation. “It inspires us to know that we’ll be leaving them parts of the whenua in much better condition than it was handed to us.”


Learn more about the Wakatipu Reforestation Trust’s work at and follow their updates at