Wood Becomes a Basic Requirement
Banks, the naturalist who accompanied Captain Cook on his first voyage, collected botanical specimens from trees which later were to become important sources of timber. Strangely enough he neither collected, nor commented on, kauri, the timber which was soon to gain an outstanding reputation far beyond the bounds of New Zealand. By the end of the eighteenth century the British Navy was scouring the world in search of shipbuilding timbers. As the forests of Britain had been sadly depleted, ships travelled as far as New Zealand to get masts and spars and timber. The first was the brig Nancy which visited the Thames in 1794 and loaded a cargo of kahikatea (white pine) spars.
By 1810 kauri was known in Sydney as a superior ship-building timber and much of the early settlement around the Hokianga Harbour sprang from timber cutters engaged in this trade. It was an arduous one, not only because of the size of trees to be felled but also because of the primitive nature of the equipment used. The story of this early exploitation of the northern kauri forests is an epic one. The kauri trade both to overseas and to many of the southern ports of New Zealand increased apace. By 1853 exports had risen to 11,000,000 board feet – a considerable feat taking into account the small size of sailing vessels in which the timber had to be exported – and the trade formed 31 per cent of the total value of the exports from the country. Wool at that time contributed 22 per cent and dairy products only 4 per cent, no meat being exported. Five years later, however, the timber proportion of the export trade had fallen to less than 4 per cent. It never again formed more than a small part of the exports, even though the quantity at the height of the white pine trade for butter-box timber rose to close on 100,000,000 board feet. This amount declined to a negligible quantity as native forests were cleared for farming and timber supplies grew scarcer and more remote. Finally, in 1939, the export of native timbers was mainly prohibited. Only since the entry of wood from the exotic forest tree, radiata pine, in the form both of timber and of pulp and paper, have forest products once again figured prominently in the export market.