In February 1887, newspapers reported Ngāti Tūwharetoa’s proposal to gift the mountain tops of Tongariro, Ngāuruhoe and Ruapehu to the Crown so a national park could be established. National parks were a relatively new concept - Yellowstone National Park in the United States had been created in 1872
The Te Aroha News suggested that the gift was ‘one of the best proofs yet afforded of the gradual extinction of native superstition, for Tongariro has been strictly tapu’. In reality, the initiative reflected Ngāti Tūwharetoa's ongoing concern for its sacred mountains.
In early 1886 a Native Land Court hearing was held in Taupō to determine ownership of various blocks of land within Taupō-nui-a-Tia. Approximately 600 people attended, including the paramount chief of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Horonuku (Te Heuheu Tūkino IV). He was reportedly concerned about the inclusion of the iwi’s sacred mountains in the proceedings. In his book, The Tongariro National Park, historian James Cowan recounted Horonuku’s concerns, as voiced to his son-in-law Lawrence Grace:
If our mountains of Tongariro are included in the blocks passed through the Court in the ordinary way, what will become of them? They will be cut up and perhaps sold, a piece going to one pakeha and a piece to another. They will become of no account, for the tapu will be gone. Tongariro is my ancestor, my tupuna; it is my head; my mana centres round Tongariro. My father’s bones lie there today. You know how my name and history are associated with Tongariro. I cannot consent to the Court passing these mountains through in the ordinary way. After I am dead, what will be their fate? What am I to do about them?
Grace, the Member of Parliament for Tauranga, reportedly advised Horonuku that the only way to preserve the mountains ‘as places out of which no person shall make money’ was to ‘make them a tapu place of the Crown, a sacred place under the mana of the Queen’.
The suggestion was placed before the Judge, Major David Scannell, and ‘by common consent the mountain tops were left in the hands of Horonuku and his family’. A preliminary deed of gift offering the peaks to the Crown was drawn up, signed by Horonuku, and sent to the government. The peaks were formally offered to the government in a deed signed the following year.
The 1887 gift of 6518 acres (2638 ha) became the ‘nucleus of the proposed Tongariro National Park’ – the first national park in New Zealand and the fourth in the world. Over the next 20 years the government sought to obtain further land with which to establish the park. It was formally constituted by Act of Parliament in 1894 but not gazetted until 1907, when sufficient land was in Crown title.
In 2013 the Waitangi Tribunal recommended that Tongariro National Park be transferred from the control of the Department of Conservation to co-management by a statutory authority comprising Crown and iwi representatives.