In the 19th century, New Zealand’s extensive native forests were one of its most valuable resources. Trees were logged for domestic purposes, such as building and making furniture, and for export.
In many places, forests were felled to clear the land for farming.
Government and forestry
A desire to manage forests so they would provide a continuing supply of timber led to the Forests Acts of 1874 and 1885, and the establishment of the State Forests Department in 1885. However, these measures failed and the department was abolished in 1887 in a cost-cutting exercise. Some of its functions passed to the Lands Department.
Planting new forests
Small areas were privately planted in trees in the 1880s, and advocates for exotic forestry became more vocal in the 1890s. The Forestry Branch of the Lands Department was set up in 1897, beginning a major programme of afforestation (planting commercial forests) to meet future timber needs. The state remained the only large-scale planter until the mid-1920s.
At first the Forestry Branch concentrated on Waiotapu in the central North Island, where 3,726 hectares were planted from 1901 to 1920. Other planting took place at Dumgree in Marlborough, Hanmer in Canterbury and Conical Hill in Otago, on land unsuited for agriculture, to meet future regional timber needs.
Until 1920, much of the labour-intensive work of tree planting was done by prisoners. Special ‘tree-planting prisons’ were established at Waiotapu in 1901. First-time offenders were chosen for this work, to separate them from habitual criminals and to give them the chance to reform their ways.
More than 60 exotic species were planted – mainly eucalyptus species, larch, Corsican pine, ponderosa pine, Austrian pine and Douglas fir. They were chosen because they germinated more successfully than native species, and grew much more quickly.
The State Forest Service
In 1921 the State Forest Service was established to manage New Zealand’s native and exotic timber resources more rigorously. The service (renamed New Zealand Forest Service in 1949) was staffed by professionally trained foresters from overseas. Its first director, Canadian Leon MacIntosh Ellis, focused first on managing native forests so they would continue to produce timber indefinitely, but he soon realised that this approach would not prevent a future timber shortage.