Story: Logging native forests

Page 3. The timber industry, 1840–1920

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Using native timber

As European settlers arrived in New Zealand from 1840, they needed wood for houses, fencing and firewood, and soon for railway sleepers. Harder woods such as tōtara and beech made sturdy posts, and tōtara and rātā were also used for wharfs. Rātā, mānuka and mataī became fuel for cooking, heating and, later, industrial use. Kahikatea was chosen for housing and roof shingles.

Rimu, which became the most popular timber from the 1920s, was seldom used at first. Instead, honey-coloured kauri was the favourite for building houses and boats, and making furniture. It was light and strong, with a straight grain, and did not warp or shrink.

Clearing the bush

The settlers used trees on their land, took up cheap licences to cut them on Crown-owned land, or felled them illegally. In many places the forest (or ‘bush’, as it was called) blocked the development of towns and farms. Settlers cleared it with fire as well as axe. Charred stumps were a stark backdrop to many settlements before the land was covered by pasture.

Timber towns

Because wood was so freely available, it was popular for building houses – especially in the heavily forested North Island. The new settlements looked completely different from the European towns the colonists had left behind, which were built mainly from stone and brick.

The timber industry develops

A timber industry grew and sawmills sprang up near forests and in coastal towns. As railways were built, operations moved inland from the rivers and harbours. Logging increased during the 1860s gold rushes, and remained high into the early 1880s. It declined during the economic depression of the late 1880s and early 1890s, but soon recovered.

By March 1907, there were 411 sawmills, and over 7,000 people worked in logging and milling. Many small timber companies had farmer shareholders with a special interest in clearing forest to create farmland.

Exporting timber

Most timber was shipped around New Zealand to be sold on the local market. However an export market developed after 1840. Shipments of wood, mainly kauri from Northland and the Coromandel Peninsula, went to Australia, Britain and California. In 1853 timber made up 31% of New Zealand’s exports, but it was soon overtaken by gold and then farm produce. Between 1890 and 1920, 15–25% of all native timber was exported. The United Kingdom, Australia, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa were major markets.

Government policy

The government wanted native forests to be used wisely, to ensure a constant supply of wood, and to control soil erosion and flooding. It passed the Forests Acts of 1874 and 1885. The 1885 Act established a State Forests Department, which set aside state forests to protect timber resources. But clearing land for farming remained more important than conserving forest. In 1887 the department was abolished and the Lands Department became responsible for forestry as well as farm settlement. Settlers received government incentives to clear bush on their land.

Kauri forests

Kauri was the most sought-after wood until the early 1900s. A Melbourne-based syndicate, the Kauri Timber Company, dominated the industry from 1888. It bought the rights to hundreds of thousands of acres of kauri forest, along with many sawmills. The kauri timber industry peaked about 1905, but as kauri became scarce its rising value made it even more desirable.

Other native forests

From the 1870s a vast area of forest was cleared in the lower North Island, on both sides of the Tararua and Ruahine ranges. The rimu, tōtara and kahikatea forest of the Seventy Mile Bush, between Wairarapa and Hawke’s Bay, was felled by about 1910. The completion of the North Island’s main trunk railway line in 1908 made inland forests accessible. Loggers moved to Rangitīkei, Waimarino and west Taupō to fell rimu, miro and mataī. As forests were cut in Southland and Marlborough, rimu and kahikatea logging on the West Coast of the South Island gained pace. From the 1890s, rimu went to Wellington and Christchurch from the West Coast, while kahikatea was shipped to Australia to be made into butter boxes. Only the forests at high altitudes or in rugged country escaped logging.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Logging native forests - The timber industry, 1840–1920', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/logging-native-forests/page-3 (accessed 18 November 2018)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 24 Sep 2007