The Tongariro Natural History Society (TNHS) was born out of tragedy following the untimely deaths of five people in a helicopter accident on Mt Ruapehu, near Turoa Skifield, on 9 December 1982. All on board died after the pilot became disoriented while flying at night testing lights for night flying and for search and rescue operations. Those in the helicopter were:
• Keith Blumhardt – Ranger Whakapapa
• Bill Cooper – Senior Ranger Ohakune
• Doug McKenzie – pilot
• Derek White – Ranger Whakapapa
• Marie Williams – Park Assistant
The close-knit mountain community was stunned by the loss of life which all these years later, still remains the most significant accident involving park staff. A memorial service was held at The Chateau and people gathered from many parts of New Zealand to pay tribute to the personal qualities of these outstanding individuals, share memories and to grieve. In the weeks and months that followed the idea of some kind of memorial to those who had lost their lives was discussed, and money was donated for this purpose.
In an inspired move, Bruce Jefferies, who was the chief ranger of Tongariro National Park , Roy Lynch, a long time mentor for many park staff (who later became the society’s inaugural president), and a number of colleagues and friends of the deceased came together and, from a series of discussions, suggested that a natural history society be established. The main idea was to establish a cooperative network of people who loved the national park and were prepared to work alongside park staff, particularly in park interpretation and conservation education. Societies with similar objectives to the TNHS and associated with a particular national park are common in America, and it was this concept that fired the imagination of people from many different walks of life.
In July 1984, when the society was formally founded, it became the living memorial to the night fliers. The money donated was used to establish a Memorial Fund which was used as seed-funding to publish a geologic field guide to Tongariro National Park called “Volcanoes of the South Wind”. This book, by Karen Williams (sister of Marie Williams), was the trail blazer for the society and gave confidence to members to continue publishing information about the park.
In October 1984, an essential connection was forged between the Department of Lands and Survey and TNHS when a Memorandum of Heads of Agreement was signed by both parties. This provided the society with a special status, particularly in its relationship with the department, and enabled both parties to plan cooperatively and to work towards meeting a wide range of conservation objectives and ideals. The inherent mutual benefits that are a part of this relationship are on-going and durable and the agreement remains current today between TNHS and the Department of Conservation who have managed the park since 1987.
The fledgling society published a second book “Roots of Fire” in 1987 and has subsequently published several other books. In the first few years of the society’s existence, members met to explore the park, often going to interesting places that were off the beaten track. The following day would then be spent providing volunteer services for various tasks within the park.
As the society became better established and more viable, finances increased and annual contributions were made to a wide range of projects that were consistent with the society’s objectives. These included the current park handbook, displays at the Ohakune Visitor Centre, Track work and signs at Rotopounamu, audiovisuals at Whakapapa as well as many other projects. Members have also provided assistance with the Summer Nature Programme for many years, as a point of contact for visitors at the Whakapapa Visitor Centre and, in many other ways, support DOC in areas that unite both organisations’ objectives.
Following the filming of parts of the Oscar winning trilogy “Lord of the Rings” in the park, the society received a boost in funding for undertaking the restoration of sites that were used in the film. A more recent milestone was the society’s ability to recruit professional staff, which has resulted in a significant increase in volunteer activity as well as accessing funding from philanthropic organisations. This, in turn, has enabled several innovative projects such as ecological restoration at Lake Rotopounamu, intensive surveys of blue duck habitats and, more recently, the Waimarino Wetland Restoration project. The aspirations of the creative thinkers that came together and started the society are progressively being realised through a wide variety of activities.
Arising from a tragedy more than twenty five years ago is a vibrant organisation that recognises, in all its endeavours and activities, the spirit of the people who died that night on the slopes of Mt Ruapehu. From despair and sorrow have come fresh ideas and the progressive realisation of an enduring dream. TNHS is indeed the living memorial that was envisaged so many years ago.
The first logo of the Tongariro Natural History Society was black and white and designed by Jeremy Bennett of the Wellington Polytechnic School of Design in the 80s. In time a more colourful version was adopted based on the initial sketch of the park's volcanoes. The evolution continues. Like many organisations we have refreshed our logo but retained key elements. While the official name of our incorporated society still stands - Tongariro Natural History Society - it has always been a bit of mouthful. This led many people to call us "TNHS" does nothing to help our profile or tell people about the amazing work we do. We've been a bit of a secret society and the move to a new and more active brand will help us attract members and partners. Our patron, Sir Tumu te Heuheu understands the reason for the change and says he is pleased to support the committee in its decision to promote a name change to 'Project Tongariro'. The executive is leading the charge and believes using the new name will eventually result in greater awareness and understanding about the work of the society in Tongariro National Park. So while the name on our constitution and our chequebook hasn't changed, please support us by adopting our new more active name of 'Project Tongariro'.
The Project Tongariro Memorial Award was established by the society in memory of Keith Maurice Blumhardt, William Edward Cooper, Douglas Neal McKenzie, Derek Ian White and Marie Pauline Williams, who died on Mt Ruapehu while testing helicopter rescue equipment on 9 December 1982.