Story: Ellis, Leon MacIntosh

Page 1: Biography

Ellis, Leon MacIntosh

1887–1941

Forestry administrator and consultant

This biography, written by Michael Roche, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Leon MacIntosh Ellis was born on 17 July 1887 in Meaford, Ontario, Canada, to Mary A. MacIntosh and her husband, James A. Ellis, an architect. He attended school in Toronto, then graduated BSc with honours in forestry from the University of Toronto in 1911. From 1910 to 1915 he was an assistant superintendent and assistant forester for the Canadian Pacific Railway. He served in France with the Calgary Rifles and Canadian forestry corps in 1916–17, rising to the rank of acting captain. The forestry corps was responsible for supplying timber for military purposes. After his war service he worked for the Board of Agriculture for Scotland and the Forestry Commission in Scotland.

In 1919 Ellis was interviewed for the position of director of forests in New Zealand's newly created Forestry Department. With characteristic forthrightness he described his professional achievements as demonstrating 'creative ability, initiative, leadership and clean aggressiveness'. Accepting the £1,000 per annum position, he arrived in New Zealand in 1920. Before leaving he had married Ima Adele Dunn in Seattle, Washington, USA, on 20 February; they were to have two daughters and a son.

Ellis's immediate task was to provide professional expertise in forestry. He quickly prepared a report notable for its scope, incisiveness and bold recommendations; he described it as a practical policy designed for New Zealand needs. A comprehensive Forests Act (1921–22) and a new State Forest Service followed. This was achieved despite public service resistance to the creation of new government departments and the employment of specialists. Ellis, however, was on contract, making his position probably unique among senior public servants in New Zealand; this was a safeguard in case the experiment of setting up an autonomous forestry department failed. E. Phillips Turner, secretary of forestry, had responsibility for administrative matters and issued instructions in the director's name. Ellis was thus in charge of the department, but did not have a free hand.

He set out to persuade politicians and public alike that forestry was more than just tree planting. In his view, it also involved the sustained management of indigenous forests and should recognise recreation as a legitimate forest use. He introduced tenders for cutting standing forest – a move bitterly opposed by Joseph Butler on behalf of the sawmillers. He also commenced a forest inventory and instituted scientific investigations into forest growth-rates and regeneration, travelling widely throughout New Zealand to oversee the work. The national inventory of forest resources (1921–23) convinced Ellis that state plantation of exotic forests had a large role to play in providing wood to meet future timber demands; this would also gain time for the intricacies of indigenous forest regeneration to be understood.

In 1925 he announced a visionary plan for a 300,000-acre planting programme, amounting to a 10-fold annual increase in planting rates, to be accomplished within a decade in order to secure long-term timber supplies. This bold move ran counter to conventional wisdom about the cost of large-scale plantation forestry. Over time Ellis's view of the potential for plantations expanded, until in 1927 he expressed the hope of planting five million acres. His enthusiasm had been further whetted when a visiting British expert pointed out the potential of the plantations for supporting a pulp and paper industry.

Ellis was an active proponent of forestry, representing New Zealand at the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science congress in 1922 and at the British Empire Forestry Conference in Canada in 1923, and acting as examiner for the forestry degree at Auckland University College. He was a member of the New Zealand Forestry League and spoke vigorously for forestry in front of agricultural and commercial groups.

In January 1928 Ellis's contract was renewed for a further three years. However, two months later he suddenly and without explanation announced his resignation. From the first he had been unhappy with the travel expenses he could claim and with the reluctance of the government to increase his salary. His retirement cut short his term as foundation president of the New Zealand Institute of Foresters.

Ellis established himself as a forestry consultant in Sydney in order to capitalise on an afforestation boom in New South Wales. He then moved to Melbourne and eventually joined Australian Paper Manufacturers Limited. From Australia he vigorously protested the proposed amalgamation of the State Forest Service and the Department of Lands and Survey as an economy measure in 1931 and returned to New Zealand on several occasions. He appeared as a witness before the Commission of Inquiry into Company Promotion Methods in 1934.

Ellis achieved nearly all his objectives in forestry in New Zealand, and only his desire to bring wildlife and national parks under State Forest Service control completely eluded him. He possessed great energy and enthusiasm along with considerable organisational skills and the rare ability to boldly transcend professional orthodoxies. However, these attributes were balanced by a degree of opportunism, earthy coarseness and impatience, which created friction with other departments. He won only weak endorsement from the New Zealand government for his (unsuccessful) application for the position of forestry commissioner for New South Wales in 1935; the deputy public service commissioner labelled him as 'unduly optimistic impulsive and somewhat difficult to get on with'. He died at Melbourne on 25 November 1941 after a long illness, survived by his wife and children. He had transformed forestry in New Zealand, and his legacy was apparent in the extensive plantation forests of the central North Island and the esprit de corps of the State Forest Service.

How to cite this page:

Michael Roche. 'Ellis, Leon MacIntosh', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4e8/ellis-leon-macintosh (accessed 23 May 2019)