In the 200–300 years after New Zealand was first settled, Māori burnt about 6.7 million hectares of forest. Another 8 million were logged or burnt by European settlers between 1820 and 1920. Today about 6.2 million hectares (23% of the country) is covered in native forest. Less than half is conifer–broadleaf forest.
The fires of Māori
Before people arrived in New Zealand, occasional fires were started by lightning or volcanic eruption, but the forests grew back soon after. This changed after the Polynesian ancestors of Māori arrived in the 13th century. Fires became more frequent on the dry eastern coasts. Forests which had been burnt repeatedly did not regenerate, and were replaced by grassland or bracken fern.
When Europeans reached the Canterbury Plains they found short tussock grasses, drought-resistant shrubs and herbaceous plants. They assumed that this was the natural cover, because of the drier climate. Later, when ploughing, they found charcoal, and blackened logs and tree stumps in most places. Several different trees were identified. It is clear that in pre-human times, the plains and foothills were covered with conifer–broadleaf forests of mataī and tōtara, with understorey species such as kāpuka and southern rātā.
Māori fires also destroyed kānuka and mountain tōtara forests in Central Otago, and upland conifer forests of kaikawaka (Libocedrus bidwillii) in the Kaimanawa Mountains.
The North Island’s wetter western forests did not burn as easily as the east coast forests. Deforestation by Māori was restricted to coastal strips between Taranaki and Horowhenua, the Auckland area, and the Aupōuri peninsula at the island’s northern tip.
Houses were built from kauri and rimu timber. Mataī was used for flooring, and tōtara for piles. Durable tōtara and pūriri became railway sleepers, fence posts and telegraph poles. Kahikatea was used for butter boxes, and rātā and black maire for firewood.
Clearance by Europeans
Europeans started to log and clear kauri forests at the start of the 19th century. At first they used kauri for ships’ spars. Later they logged the trees to get timber for housing, and to clear land for farming. Settlers began clearing forest from coastal areas in the mid-19th century. They worked their way inland as rail and roads developed.
Some timber was used for bridges, houses and heating, but much was wasted. Millers usually felled the most accessible timber trees. Settler farmers followed and burned the remaining forest, then sowed grass. By the end of the 1920s most of the North Island’s kauri and kahikatea forests were gone, and much lowland conifer–broadleaf forest had been turned into pasture.