From the 1890s many feared the timber supply was running out. In 1921 the State Forest Service was established to bring state forests under expert control. Overseas-trained foresters filled the top positions, and a state forestry programme began.
Sustained yield management
Instead of cutting forests until they were exhausted, the new policy of sustained yield management aimed to keep them producing timber indefinitely. Parts of a forest were to be logged and then allowed to regenerate. Stands would be released onto the timber market in rotation. From the 1930s, forests in the North Island, south Westland and Southland were managed according to these principles.
Native forests alone could not meet the long-term demand. Planting of exotic trees (mainly pine), which had begun in the late 19th century, increased after 1921. The main plantings were in the central North Island, Canterbury and Otago, with others in North Auckland, the Coromandel Peninsula and Nelson.
A sawmillers’ federation, formed in 1917, lobbied government and often clashed with the Forest Service over its control of the industry. The economic depression of the 1930s spelled the end of many small logging and sawmilling companies. But the demand for timber revived during the Second World War.
After the war, new technology simplified logging and milling. Tractors and earthmoving machines allowed once inaccessible areas to be logged. Chainsaws were used to fell trees, and bandsaws made timber milling easier. However, these improvements also speeded up the destruction of native forest.
The government put price controls on timber after the Second World War, to encourage house building. But the low prices sometimes led to wasteful use. Before the controls were removed in 1980, woods such as rimu were sometimes used as boxing for concrete foundations.
A national survey in 1946–55 showed that native forests had not regenerated as expected, and the Forest Service decided to reduce the cutting of native trees. But there was a post-war building boom. Government price controls on timber and pressure from sawmillers made it difficult to limit logging. It expanded in the South Island, especially in Nelson and Westland. Total native timber production held steady throughout the 1950s.
As exotic forests matured in the 1950s, two large pulp and paper mills began production. By 1960, more exotic sawn timber was being produced than native timber, and a second exotics planting programme began. In spite of these developments, logging of native forests continued. In some cases the Forest Service chose to completely clear areas of native forest, which regenerated slowly, and plant faster-growing exotic forests in their place. They trialled felling strips of trees to encourage natural regeneration in Westland rimu forests from the 1950s, but this did not work.
The beech forests of the South Island had provided wood for structures in mines, but had escaped full-scale logging. Because beech was subject to rot, malformations and pinhole borer, it was largely unsuitable for timber, and other uses were explored.
In 1971, the Forest Service announced plans to log beech forests in Nelson, Westland and Southland. The logs would be made into chips for the Japanese pulp industry. Some areas would be allowed to regenerate, but others would be clearfelled and replanted with exotics.
Westland’s economy was in decline. Logging offered opportunities for regional growth, so the beech scheme gained government support. But it was fiercely opposed by a growing pressure group – conservationists.