Prior to 1986, environmental reponsibilities were scattered over of a variety of government institutions. Sometimes it was a case of the fox guarding the chickens with some departments having responsibility for both the protection and exploitation of the resources under their control. For instance the New Zealand Forest Service was responsible for protecting indigenous forest and also for converting native forest into commercial plantation forest. The Commission for the Environment had the role of advocating environmental protection, but it lacked influence or 'teeth'. Other agencies with environmental administration functions were the Department of Lands and Survey, the Ministry of Works and Development, and the Wildlife Service of the Department of Internal Affairs.
Today, the Department of Conservation has responsibility for giving policy advice on conservation matters to the Government and for managing all protected Crown land including protecting its indigenous biodiversity, and promoting nature and heritage protection on and off the conservation estate through public education. The Ministry for the Environment's role is to give policy advice to the Government on sustainable management of the environment, to provide guidance to local authorities and the private sector, and to promote sustainable management through public education. The Commissioner's role is to provide independent advice to Parliament on environmental matters and to provide an independent assessment of central and local government environmental agencies and their activities (Statistics New Zealand, 1996).
The overall reform process meant that by mid-1987 the following institutions were abolished (Buhrs and Bartlett, 1993):
- New Zealand Forest Service
- Department of Lands and Survey
- Wildlife Service of the Department of Internal Affairs.
- Commission for the Environment.
In their place were created institutions with clearly defined commercial, regulatory, administrative, policy and environmental advocacy functions:
- Ministry of Forestry
- Department of Survey and Land Information
- Department of Conservation
- Ministry for the Environment
- Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.
The Ministry of Works and Development was abolished in April 1988, with its commercial functions allocated to the Works and Development Corporation and its resource management responsibilities transferred to the Ministry for the Environment. The Department of Survey and Land Information was restructured in 1996 to form Land Information New Zealand and TerraLink, separating land information policy functions from commercial activities.