Before human arrival
Before humans arrived, more than 80% of New Zealand was covered in trees. Most of the North Island and nearly all of the South Island – except Central Otago and the Mackenzie Basin – was forested.
Throughout the country there were conifer–broadleaf forests. The most common trees within them were kauri, rimu, tōtara, kahikatea and mataī. Kauri forests grew in the north of the North Island. Beech forests were found at high altitudes in the North Island’s mountain ranges, in Nelson and Marlborough, and on the South Island’s West Coast. Sometimes areas of forest were burnt out in fires started by volcanic eruptions or lightning, but they grew again.
A treasured tree
Māori valued trees that had many uses. Tōtara was the favourite. Not only did it provide good timber for canoes, houses and carvings, but its berries attracted birds, an important source of food. A tree that fed birds also fed the people.
When Māori began arriving in New Zealand around 1250–1300 CE, they built dwellings, forts, canoes and other structures from native woods. This level of use had little impact on the forests. But, deliberately or accidentally, Māori burnt large stands of forest on the North Island’s east coast and in Marlborough and Canterbury.
European explorers from the 18th century on soon saw the potential of New Zealand’s forests. Nations such as Britain relied on ships to extend their empires and wage wars, and for trade. Sea-going vessels needed spars, and New Zealand’s trees seemed ideal for this purpose.
Systematic tree felling began as traders arrived in search of logs and spars for ships. By 1840, when organised European settlement started, forest covered around half of New Zealand. Over the next 150 years, intensive logging reduced the remaining forests by about half.
Native forest today
In 2005 native forest covered nearly 66,000 square kilometres (24.8%) of New Zealand. Most was in reserves or parks. Beech forest was the most widespread, followed by conifer–broadleaf forest. Exotic forest – mainly pine – covered 7.7% of the land.