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.
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 from 1250–1300 AD, 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.
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.
Traders from the Australian colonies began visiting in New Zealand harbours in the late 1700s. The first trading ship, the Fancy, arrived in the Hauraki Gulf in 1794. Its crew felled trees (probably kahikatea) beside the Waihou River with the help of Māori. Other ships visited between 1798 and 1801, taking kahikatea, but many logs rotted or were lost at sea.
Some traders struck trouble when Māori refused to haul felled logs out of the forest, or took offence because ships’ crews ignored their customs. Different views led to disaster in 1809 when the Boyd called at Whangaroa Harbour to get timber. Whangaroa Māori thought the captain had ill-treated the chief, Te Ara, who was travelling on board. They killed most of the crew and passengers, and burned the ship. The timber trade came to a halt.
The spar trade was risky because mast-makers were selective about the timber they bought. They judged the quality of a spar on various points including its colour and smell, and looked for signs of weakness or rot. Mast timbers had to be strong but light, and flexible enough not to snap in strong winds. The ideal proportion of a spar was one inch in diameter for every yard’s length, and a total length of at least 84 feet (25 metres). If these standards were not met, a spar, or even the entire cargo, could be rejected.
Missionary leader Samuel Marsden believed that the first step in converting Māori to Christianity was to ‘civilise’ them by teaching them to use the resources of their country. Missionaries including a carpenter, William Hall, were sent to the Bay of Islands in 1814, accompanied by three labourers and sawyers. They showed local Māori how to saw timber to European requirements. Timber and flax cargoes were sent to New South Wales to help fund the mission. Missionaries welcomed timber traders and interpreted with Māori for them.
British Royal Navy ships visiting in the early 1820s discovered kauri – ideal timber for spars – at Hokianga, Kaipara, Coromandel, Mānukau and Tauranga harbours. By 1827, navy tests had proved that kauri was stronger and lasted better than kahikatea. The British government began to encourage the timber trade.
As the Australian colonies grew from the 1830s, they needed timber for houses and ships. Soon building materials were being sent from New Zealand. Kauri was preferred, but woods such as kahikatea, rimu and tōtara were also used.
Skilled European tradesmen were needed to choose the correct trees and supervise felling and milling. Also required were Māori workers prepared to haul and load the trees in return for goods such as blankets, tools, tobacco and firearms. In the 1820s and 1830s, trading stations were founded at places like Hokianga where there were suitable trees and a keen workforce.
Māori tribes often wanted to attract timber trade, which they controlled by bargaining over cutting rights or labour. A few charged port fees for ships entering their harbours. Some Māori became skilled sawyers and traders.
In the mid-1830s, over 30% of the North Island’s European male population was involved in the timber trade – including all types of men, from ex-convicts to wealthy traders. Their reputation for lawless behaviour was one reason that a British Resident was appointed in 1833. British interest in New Zealand increased, and in 1840, New Zealand became a British colony under the Treaty of Waitangi.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Gangs of ‘bushmen’ felled trees using axes and two-man crosscut saws. A scarf (wedge-shaped cut) was chopped in the trunk, on the side where the tree was expected to fall. The tree was then sawn through from the other side. Usually trees were cut singly, but a skilled bushman could fell several at a time in a ‘drive’. He did this by chopping scarfs in a line of trees up a hill, and then felling the highest tree, which took down the others like a row of dominoes.
In 1911 travel writer W. H. Koebel described the New Zealand bushman: ‘Clad in blue “dungaree” trousers and coarse grey shirt, with clasp-knife in his belt, he plies his long-handled, keen-bladed axe with lithe, supple movements …He is of spare rather than of heavy build, but every muscle in his frame is of iron blended with elasticity. His arms and bearded face are tanned to dark mahogany, and his eye glows with the steady, keen light that only those who live their lives with nature possess.’ 1
Bushmen sometimes admired their beautiful surroundings, even though their work eventually destroyed many native forests. They learned bush lore, such as how to extract ‘mataī beer’ – drinkable sap – from mataī trees.
Trees were sawn into logs before being taken to the mill. During this process the logs were moved using the timber jack (a New Zealand adaptation of a screw jack). Teams of bullocks hauled logs to the mill, and in rugged areas, chutes, rolling and skidding roads and bush tramways were used. Driving dams helped float kauri, the only buoyant native timber, down rivers – when water was released from behind the dam, the logs cascaded downstream with it.
Close-knit teams of bushmen often lived in remote camps, working up to 12 hours a day, six days a week. Sunday jobs included sharpening tools and doing laundry. Alcohol was usually forbidden, but the men relaxed by smoking pipes, playing cards and holding men-only ‘buck dances’.
The all-important cook was up at 4 a.m. to prepare a huge breakfast of porridge and meat stew. The men had jam sandwiches for lunch, but expected a dinner of soup, meat and vegetables, and pudding. The cook announced meals by blowing on a bullock horn, which also raised the alarm if there was an accident. Injured men could face slow death or a painful trip to reach medical help.
Most bush camps were all-male, but sometimes the wife and children of the boss lived there too, the woman cooking for the men.
The hard wood of one native tree, the rātā, was used to help fell other trees. Early bushmen made strong axe handles from rātā, and it was also used to build sawmills and sawmilling machinery. The sleepers of tramways made to transport logs out of the bush were often rātā.
Some timber was milled near the logging site. Logs were jacked into position on a platform over a pit. They were then cut up by two men using a crosscut saw, one standing on top of the log and one beneath.
Pit-sawing could not keep up with the demand for timber, and from the 1840s, water-powered sawmills were built. After 1865 steam-powered mills appeared.
Sawmilling was skilled work. Sawyers had to judge how to cut a log to get the correct size and grade of timber. Like logging, milling was risky. Early machinery lacked safety guards, and there were some gruesome accidents. From the 1890s sawmill and timber workers’ unions helped improve conditions of work.
Towns grew up around the back-country sawmills. Often they were temporary, without piped water, sewers or sealed roads. Once the nearby bush had been cut, the town simply vanished. One that survived was the aptly named Woodville, sited at the centre of the Seventy Mile Bush in southern Hawke’s Bay. Between 1895 and 1910, Woodville sawmills produced great quantities of sawn timber and firewood.
Many of the men in mill towns were keen sportsmen who excelled in sawing and chopping competitions.
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.
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.
In the 19th century some people wanted to preserve native forest for its scenic and recreational value. Their influence grew from the 1890s, and conservation organisations were set up around the time of the First World War.
After the Second World War, more people took part in outdoor recreation and began to appreciate New Zealand’s forests. There was growing support for scenic reserves and national parks.
In 1952, after a long public campaign, Waipoua kauri forest in Northland was made a forest sanctuary, where logging was banned. In 1954 the Tararua State Forest Park was created. Supporting activities from logging to recreation, it was an attempt to please both conservationists and foresters. By 1970, the Forest Service managed six state forest parks and six forest sanctuaries.
In the mid-1970s, because of conservation concerns, the Forest Service announced a new native forest management policy that aimed at sustainability, using techniques to encourage steady regrowth such as selective logging – evenly thinning out a forest, cutting trees of all ages.
However, selective logging reduced the amount of timber that could be taken and the area of land that could be made available for exotic plantations. Treasury opposed the policy for economic reasons, and the Forest Service did not receive enough funding to carry out its plans. Also, because of the demand for wood, selective logging often went too far and resembled clearfelling.
Conservationists argued that trees could not be selectively logged without damaging the complex structure of the surrounding forest.
The Forest Service stopped logging kauri, but insisted that other native forests were still needed for timber. This led to a series of clashes in the 1970s, first over beech forests on the West Coast and in Southland, then over the central North Island podocarp forests at Pureora and Whirinaki. Public opposition to logging swelled. The Maruia Declaration, calling for the protection of native forests, had 341,159 signatures when it was presented to Parliament in 1977.
The conservationists’ ideals sometimes conflicted with social and economic interests. Many small sawmills still depended on native forests, and people in nearby villages relied on the mills for work. In 1976 it was estimated that native sawmills employed over 2,000 people in rural areas where there were few other job options. At Pureora and Whirinaki, there were confrontations between conservationists and forestry workers. When logging stopped at Pureora in 1982, the small King Country communities of Pureora and Barryville faded away.
The West Coast Forest Accord of 1986 aimed to ease the transition from logging native forest in the region. Some native forest was reserved, but clearfelling was to continue in North Westland and Buller until the exotic forests there had matured. This compromise was unacceptable to some conservationists, and there were more protests. In 1999, the government announced that logging would end by 31 March 2002. To compensate locals, a $120 million fund was set up to create other jobs, such as in ecotourism.
The Labour government elected in 1984 supported both conservation concerns and deregulation. It separated the commercial and non-commercial functions of several government departments, and in 1987 the Forest Service was disbanded. Exotic forests were managed by a state-owned Forestry Corporation until 1989, and were then gradually privatised. Most of the state’s native forests passed into the care of the new Department of Conservation (DOC). DOC was responsible for national parks, reserves and indigenous forests not intended for wood production.
From 1975 to 1987, production of native timber from publicly owned forests declined dramatically. Political changes put an end to the logging of most native forest on public land, and to a way of life for many people.
Stopping timber production from publicly owned forests put more pressure on privately owned forests, including those on Māori land. In 1993 the Forests Act 1949 was amended to stop unsustainable logging of native forest. Since then, a policy called sustainable management has been applied to privately owned native forests. Only single trees or small groups can be felled. However, not everyone cooperates and problems arise when owners decide to clearfell trees on their land.
Since the early 1980s, new logging techniques have been used to support sustainable management. Helicopters remove single trees, avoiding damage to the surrounding forest. Patch or ‘coupe’ clearfelling respects the natural mosaic growth pattern of rimu forest by taking out small patches of mature trees. Small bush mills using chainsaws are set up in the forest. These process single trees, and salvage tree stumps and crowns left behind by early logging operations. Timber is taken out of the forest by motorbikes with trailers, without harming other trees. But when the state-owned company Timberlands West Coast used such methods in beech forest in the 1990s, some conservationists claimed they threatened ecosystems.
As well as using its own timber resources, New Zealand has always imported timber. From the 1870s, American timber such as Oregon pine was imported to meet building demands. Now that New Zealand native woods are difficult to obtain, indigenous timbers from other countries are imported for furniture, flooring and other products.
In the 2000s, argument still rages about how publicly owned native forests should be managed. Some people want forestry techniques, including selective felling, to be used in some Department of Conservation reserves. They claim that this will improve the health of the forests, and help control animal and plant pests.
Most conservationists would reject any logging in reserves. They agree, however, that pests are a problem, and that more resources should be given to managing native forests.
A tiny quantity of native timber is still produced, and an even smaller amount is exported. However, most of New Zealand’s timber now comes from exotic plantations – mainly pine. The scarcity of native timber has led to kauri, rimu and other woods being recycled for furniture and crafts.
The traces of the once-thriving native timber industry have nearly disappeared. Remains include abandoned equipment and the ruins of some sawmills, kauri dams and tramways. Museums such as the Kauri Museum at Matakohe in Northland and the Putaruru Timber Museum help preserve New Zealand’s native timber industry heritage. They tell the stories of past generations who worked hard to make a living, getting wood from the trees.
Halkett, John. The native forests of New Zealand. Wellington: GP Publications, 1991.
Hayward, Bruce W. Kauaeranga kauri: a pictorial history of the kauri timber industry in the Kauaeranga Valley, Thames. Auckland: Lodestar, 1978.
Orwin, Joanna. Kauri: witness to a nation’s history. Auckland: New Holland, 2004.
Roche, Michael. History of New Zealand forestry. Wellington: New Zealand Forestry Corporation/GP Books, 1990.
Simpson, Philip. Pōhutukawa and rātā: New Zealand’s iron-hearted trees. Wellington: Te Papa, 2005.
Stott, Bob. Bush tram to the mill. Porirua: Southern Press, 1981.