The native timber of the Volcanic Plateau came mainly from massive conifers – tōtara, rimu, mataī and miro. The area’s native wood was first exploited by Europeans in the late 19th century, in the Mamaku Range and around the northern shores of Lakes Rotorua and Rotoiti.
The Taupo Totara Timber Company built the first of three timber mills at Mōkai in 1898. They completed a private railway to Putaruru in 1905. Until the late 1930s, the timber industry was probably the biggest employer in Rotorua, and there were about 30 mills around Taupō by the 1940s.
The Whakarewarewa nursery, near Rotorua, was set up in 1898 to provide timber trees to the Auckland district, and ornamental plants to Rotorua.
Non-native trees were first planted on a large scale at Whakarewarewa, then at Waiotapu, and from 1913 on the Kāingaroa plateau. The land was thought to be no good for farming. Pinus radiata (radiata pine) and Douglas fir were the most successful trees.
A fine send-off
Keepa Te Piki was killed in a logging accident in 1931. After the tangi (funeral), his coffin was placed on one of the timber barges. With almost 200 friends and relatives on board, flags at half-mast and a band playing appropriate music, a launch towed the boat on a circuit of the lake, eventually anchoring off Motutawa pā, where he was buried.
Planting the plateau
Pine planting gained impetus after the First World War. On the western margins of the plateau, two Sydney investors bought land and established Perpetual Forests (later New Zealand Forest Products).
The New Zealand Forest Service favoured planting exotic trees to counter the depletion of native timber. Leon McIntosh Ellis, its first head, noted that between 1900 and 1920, a million acres (over 400,000 hectares) of native trees had been felled but only 40,000 acres (almost 16,200 hectares) planted in non-natives. Forest plantings on the Kāingaroa Plateau, as far south as the Napier–Taupō road, rose steeply after 1925. In 1929–30, the peak year, almost 14,000 hectares were planted with 22 million trees.
A new industry
Partly for demonstration purposes, and partly to use Whakarewarewa and Kāingaroa timber, a mill was built at Waipā and had its first commercial run in June 1940. A training centre at Whakarewarewa became the Forestry Research Institute.
After the Second World War, the 1920s plantings started to reach maturity. Tasman Pulp and Paper built a plant at Kawerau, in the eastern Bay of Plenty, for which Murupara was the logging centre. New Zealand Forest Products set up a similar factory at Kinleith, near Tokoroa. The Forestry Research Institute expanded after 1960, when it became part of the New Zealand Forest Service.
For young and old
Cutting rights to the Kāingaroa Forest today are managed on behalf of two very different investors. Harvard Management is the investment arm of the $41 billion Harvard University endowment fund. The $10.5 billion NZ Superannuation Fund bought a minority interest in the forest in October 2006.
The industry changed rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s. The Forest Service was disbanded in 1987, and state-owned forests were sold to private interests.
In the early 2000s, Māori trusts own some forests, and others are the subject of tribal claims to the Waitangi Tribunal. Cutting rights to the Kāingaroa Forest are managed by a global investment management firm, and the Waipā mill is owned by a Rotorua investor.
Between 1986 and 1991, the number of forestry jobs in the region (including Tokoroa and Kawerau) fell by nearly a third, to around 2,500. In 2006 there were fewer trees than ten years earlier – logging can be more profitable than replanting – and the forestry labour force had fallen to 1,500.
The Forestry Research Institute is now SCION, a Crown research institute. The Radi Centre offers diplomas in wood manufacturing excellence, with the aim of building up skills to produce more forest-based industries.