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Exotic forestry

by  Michael Roche

In the 1800s, New Zealand’s native forests seemed to provide a limitless source of timber, but by the early 1900s the supply was running out. To meet the demand for wood, vast forests of faster-growing introduced species – especially radiata pine – were planted.

Forestry in the 1800s

Native forests

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.

Hard labour

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.

The first planting boom, 1925–1935

The 10-year plan

Following a 1921–23 inventory of native and exotic forests, Forest Service director Leon MacIntosh Ellis estimated that the country faced a timber shortage by the early 1960s. To avoid this, in 1925 he began a 10-year programme to plant 300,000 acres (121,406 hectares) of exotic state forest.

Private planting

Entrepreneurs realised that, as exotic trees could be grown quickly, they were an attractive investment. Some two dozen companies purchased large areas of land and planted mainly radiata pine (Pinus radiata). The companies included New Zealand Perpetual Forests, Matea Forests, Afforestation Pty, Whakatane Board Mills and Pacific Forests. They funded their operations by selling bonds to the public, typically offering to plant an acre (0.4 hectare) of trees for £25, with the promise of a return of £500 in 25 years.

The activities of some of these companies came into disrepute (due to misrepresentation about investment returns and security) and in 1934 legislation effectively stopped further large-scale private planting. Despite this, by 1934 New Zealand Perpetual Forests had established about 186,000 acres (75,270 hectares) of exotic forest.

Planting the plains

Novelist Ruth Park’s father was one of many unemployed men who planted trees in appalling conditions on the Kāingaroa plains in the 1930s. She wrote: ‘My father, though he was a bushman hardened to heavy work and privation, was frostbitten on both hands. He said that as the long line of men stumbled across the plain, blinded by wind, the pumice squeaking under their feet, each with his hessian bag filled with infant pines around his waist, he’d often hear the men next to him crying with cold.’ 1

New forests

State and private forests were mainly in the central North Island. Although the Forest Service continued to plant sizeable areas to meet regional timber needs at Eyrewell and Balmoral in Canterbury, Karioi on the southern flanks of Mt Ruapehu, and Riverhead in Auckland, most effort was concentrated on the Kāingaroa plains.

The Kāingaroa plains were suited for planting because the land was flattish and covered in grass and scrub, so it was easier to plant than land that had previously been in native forest. More importantly, although the area would normally have been farmed, it was considered unsuitable because stock grazed there suffered from a mysterious wasting disease (called ‘bush sickness’). Agricultural scientists later identified the cause as a cobalt deficiency in the soil.

Radiata pine

By the 1920s radiata pine had become the favoured exotic for planting. A native of California – where it was known as Monterey pine – it had been introduced to New Zealand in the 1850s, although the timber was not highly regarded until the 1920s. Its advantages were the large quantities of seed available, its high level of successful germination and rapid growth.

The labour force

Under the Forest Service afforestation programme, the area newly planted each year soon increased from 3,000 to 30,000 acres (1,214 to 12,140 hectares). Unemployed men were engaged in planting from 1926, and in 1927 and 1928 their numbers exceeded the other labourers employed by the Forest Service.

The labour force was boosted in the depression of the early 1930s, and at times more than 1,500 men were on unemployment assistance schemes. Planting targets were exceeded, partly through their efforts. By 1935 the Kāingaroa State Forest alone had grown to 259,147 acres (104,873 hectares). In total, over 406,000 acres (164,300 hectares) of forest had been planted, a much greater area than Ellis had originally proposed.

  1. Ruth Park, A fence around the cuckoo. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin, 1993, p. 187 › Back

Research and education – to the 1940s

Growing and planting techniques

Nurseries had been established at Whakarewarewa (near Rotorua), Tapanui (Southland) and Eweburn (Otago) in 1898, and carried out germination and transplanting experiments. These trials were extended under the Forest Service in the 1920s. Concerns about the cost of planting led to the development of new techniques at Waiotapu, which lowered costs from £9 to £2 per acre (0.4 hectare).

The early stands of trees were not thinned or pruned. It was another 40 years before these techniques were used to produce higher-quality wood.

Paper chase

In the 1800s there were a few paper mills in New Zealand, which used waste paper, rags, sacking, rope, sails and flax to make paper pulp. By 1900 they were running out of raw material, and had to import timber for making wood pulp. Large quantities of paper were also imported. It was hoped, after the 1920s discovery that newsprint could be made from radiata pine pulp, that one day New Zealand could meet its own paper needs and develop an export industry.

Researching pulp and paper making

For radiata pine to be a financial success, the industry needed to learn how to make it into wood pulp and paper. In 1928 forest products engineer Pat Entrican was sent to the US Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, to study the wood’s pulping properties. Successful commercial tests were later carried out by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia.

Forestry education

Canterbury University College appointed a lecturer in forestry in 1921, and in 1924 forestry schools opened there and at Auckland University College. Forestry was then seen as a distinct science and it was thought necessary to train foresters who understood New Zealand conditions. The New Zealand Institute of Foresters was founded in 1927, indicating a growing sense of professionalism.

Many of the university forestry schools’ graduates found employment with the Forest Service. However, resources were thinly stretched across the two schools, and by 1934 both had been closed as part of depression economy measures. Until a forestry school was reopened at the University of Canterbury in 1970, New Zealand foresters had to go overseas to obtain professional qualifications.

Forest research

The organisation that later became known as the Forest Research Institute was set up at Rotorua in 1946. Its first task was a national survey of native forests. The institute’s research programmes broadened over time to include silviculture (forestry science), soils, pathology, genetics and forest products. Pest control research was also critical to combat threats such as the wood wasp Sirex noctilio, which was rife in the Kāingaroa State Forest during 1945 and 1946, before biological control methods were introduced.

Harvesting the forests, 1950s–1980s

By the 1950s the exotic plantation forests had matured and the harvest began. Both the state and private companies were involved in the felling and processing industries.

Pulp and paper mills

Two major pulp and paper mills came into operation in the mid-1950s. New Zealand Forest Products (which had been formed out of the bond-selling company New Zealand Perpetual Forests) built a sawmill and a pulp and paper mill at Kinleith, near Tokoroa, to process wood from its forests. At Kawerau, the Tasman Pulp and Paper mill was set up to use wood from the Kāingaroa State Forest and Bay of Plenty forests. Private building firm Fletcher Construction seized the opportunity to not only build the mill but become a part owner of the Tasman Pulp and Paper Company, with the government and other shareholders.

Timber towns

Timber towns, such as Kawerau, Murupara and Tokoroa, were established in the 1950s as harvesting and processing of the first forests began. The towns grew up initially to accommodate the families of men working in the logging industry or at the pulp and paper mills. Their populations included a high proportion of young Māori.

From Edinburgh to Tokoroa

New Zealand Forest Products helped develop the town of Tokoroa, which housed workers at the nearby Kinleith pulp and paper mill. The company opened subdivisions in the town and Kinleith’s Edinburgh-educated director, Sir David Henry, named many streets after places in Scotland, such as Kinross, Inveresk, St Andrews, Clyde, Tweed, Nevis and Lomond.

The second planting boom

A second phase of planting was initiated by the New Zealand Forest Service in 1959, with the goal of planting a further 485,600 hectares by 2000. The work was to be shared equally amongst the Forest Service and private growers.

Kāingaroa State Forest increased from 100,205 hectares in 1960 to 122,757 hectares by 1970, making it one of the largest plantation forests in the world.

Privately owned forests expanded from the 1970s, and increasingly high planting targets were set at a series of forestry development conferences. The Forest Service was often required to meet any regional shortfalls, leading to some forests being planted in locations where they would be difficult to harvest. Members of parliament in high-unemployment areas frequently lobbied for additional planting to create work in their electorates.

Priority planting regions agreed upon at the 1981 New Zealand Forestry Conference were Northland, Auckland, Rotorua, Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, Nelson and Otago. This resulted in companies buying and holding land for future planting – in 1981 New Zealand Forest Products had 53,000 hectares, and a further 118,000 hectares was land banked by other companies. This created anxiety and conflict in some rural communities, where farmers were concerned about potential changes in land use.

Forest owners

By the 1980s, there were three large private owners:

  • New Zealand Forest Products was the major owner, with 152,000 hectares in 1981.
  • Fletcher Challenge, formed by Fletcher Construction following a merger in 1981, was the second largest. It had 73,000 hectares in 1982.
  • Carter Holt Harvey (CHH), formed in 1985 after a series of mergers between the companies started by early saw millers James Holt and Francis Carter and another manufacturing firm, was a growing player in the industry. Although its forest lands in New Zealand were much less extensive than the other two companies, CHH also had forestry interests in Australia and Chile.

Government restructuring

Forest Service under attack

The second planting boom came to an end in the mid-1980s. At that time, the Forest Service was being severely criticised by environmentalists for its management of native forests, and by economic analysts and businesspeople who were disappointed with returns from exotic wood sales. These attacks came during a period of economic and social change following the election of a Labour government in 1984. Labour supported both environmental concerns and deregulation.

In 1987 the Forest Service was disestablished. Its regulatory, non-commercial functions were taken over by a small Ministry of Forestry, while virtually all publicly-owned native forests became the responsibility of the new Department of Conservation. The government’s plantation forests passed to a new state-owned enterprise, the Forestry Corporation of New Zealand.

Forest fire danger

Over 3,000 Forest Service employees lost their jobs when the department was abolished in 1987. The bitterness was intense. In some places, angry forest workers actually threatened to set the plantations alight.

Forest Corp

Forest Corp, as the Forestry Corporation became known, operated as a commercial log-seller domestically and overseas. It inherited 550,000 hectares of exotic forest planted by the Forest Service and a further 50,000 hectares on leased Māori land. Another 556,000 hectares of forest was privately owned, largely by New Zealand companies.


By 1989, the government decided to sell the plantation forests, though not the land they were on, and the first sales began in 1990. That year 22 forests, totalling 135,622 hectares, were sold for $588.6 billion. New Zealand firms bought the majority of the forests, with much of the rest purchased by companies from Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and China.

In 1992 a further 97,000 hectares were sold, mainly to the local subsidiary of US firm ITT Rayonier. The major forests of the central North Island were sold in 1996 to the Central North Island Forest Partnership, comprising Fletcher Challenge Forests and (until 1999) Brierley Investments.

Social costs

The timber towns, which were particularly vulnerable to downturns in wood prices, bore the brunt of both state-sector and private restructuring from the late 1980s to mid-1990s. The loss of jobs after the disestablishment of the Forest Service had a serious impact on towns such as Murupara, where the population declined from more than 3,000 in 1981 to 1,959 in 2001.

Ownership changes in the 2000s

Foreign investment

When government forests were sold between 1990 and 1996, about 10% passed to overseas companies. This percentage later increased as the former state forests and many privately owned forests were sold into overseas ownership.

Some major New Zealand companies lost their dominance. Central North Island Forest Partnership went into receivership in 2001, and the assets of Fletcher Challenge Forests passed to other companies following restructuring in 2003. Carter Holt Harvey bought the New Zealand Forest Products forests in 1991 but, burdened by debt, came under the control of US company International Paper in 1992.

A forestry sector based on exotic plantations, with a small labour force and very high levels of overseas ownership, is now a distinctive feature of the New Zealand economy.

The situation in 2004

In 2004, the exotic forests totalled 1,822,039 hectares. Of this, 26% was owned by registered public companies, 3% was Crown forest on Māori land, 2% was controlled by state-owned enterprise, and 3% was controlled by local government. The bulk of the area (66%) was owned by private companies.

The majority of the private-company forests were small, largely generated by a small-grower planting boom between 1990 and 2005.

The Kyoto Protocol

Named after the Japanese city where it was signed, the Kyoto Protocol was an attempt to combat global warming and climate change. As a signatory, New Zealand agreed to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2012, or take responsibility for failure to achieve this target. One way to offset continuing high emission levels is to plant or maintain forests, which absorb carbon dioxide.

Forest research

In the early 2000s the government was still involved in forest research, but the focus had changed. The Forestry Research Institute, which in 1992 became one of 10 Crown research institutes, was rebranded as Scion in 2005. One of its major projects was the development of biomaterials, using wood and other fibres combined with synthetics.

Forest products

In 2008 there were eight pulp and paper mills, all in the North Island, and a number of other wood processing mills. New Zealand exported wood and wood products such as panels, wood pulp, and paper and paper products. While quantities of these exports rose between 2003 and 2005, their value fell slightly.

From forest to farms

A 2007 article reported on the astonishing transformation of New Zealand’s landscape as exotic forests were replaced by more profitable dairy farms. In the Bay of Plenty, for instance, ‘mature trees are being felled and the stumps ground up, younger trees are being pulled out by their roots and chipped … The once-familiar view of the dark, almost foreboding Pinus radiata closing in on the road has been replaced by open vistas of pasture as neat as bowling greens’. 1

Converting forest land to agriculture

In the early 2000s, harvested forest land was being converted to other uses. Carter Holt Harvey sold about 400 hectares of forest land for small lifestyle blocks in Nelson in 2004. In 2006, in response to high land values and low log prices, forestry companies sold 9,000 hectares in Canterbury and 3,000 hectares in the central North Island for dairy farms. It was estimated that this cost the government $650 million in greenhouse-gas emission liabilities under the Kyoto Protocol.

To combat this, in 2007 the government announced a cap on the amount of land that could be converted from forestry to other land uses without financial penalty – a controversial decision.

    • Joanne Black, ‘Will dairying eat New Zealand?’ New Zealand Listener, no. 3514 (15 September 2007): p.19. › Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Michael Roche, 'Exotic forestry', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 December 2023)

He kōrero nā Michael Roche, i tāngia i te 24 Nov 2008