Forest Remnants of the Country
A far-sighted decision, and one which greatly influenced what happened to native forest, had been made in 1841 when a Lands Claim Ordinance decreed that land purchased from the Maoris was to be the property of the Crown. This ensured that at some time or another most of New Zealand became Crown land and that settlement had at least some kind of orderly basis. The significance was great in a country that had about two-thirds of its surface covered with forest, much of it on rugged mountainous country, at the commencement of European settlement.
Non-forested land was soon released for pastoral purposes and forested land for agriculture when it was required or as it was milled over. By 1913, or even before then, most suitable agricultural soils had been released and the forest cleared or partially cleared from them, leaving a forest pattern, the bold outline of which is much as is seen today. Some clearing had, indeed, eaten too far into mountain forest, with the result that accelerated erosion was occurring. But the protective importance of these forests was soon recognised, and they were by and large withheld from settlement. In the Schedule to the State Forests Act 1885, the Commissioner of State Forests was to fix altitudes in all State forests above which no cutting (presumably clear-felling) was to be permitted. Forests were to be divided into mountain reserve and level reserve, and only timber marked by a Conservator was to be felled in the mountain reserves.
Apart from the solid nucleus of remaining native forest, there would have been considerable areas, probably totalling a few million acres, of forest cut over in the course of logging. Much of this had been burned over. To this could be added partially cleared land for settlement.
While legislation had provided the means for managing forests, administrative action had failed. One of the tragedies of European settlement of New Zealand was that logging and fire were allowed to decimate the great kauri forests, whereas simple management measures could easily have been introduced that would have ensured flourishing and permanently productive forests, yielding timber acknowledged to be of the world's best. The same thing can be said of many other forests, particularly beech forests in many localities and the rimu forests of the West Coast where logging methods produced only intractable bogs.