Export log prices have climbed to their highest level in 25 years, reaching $135 a tonne, according to reports this week. It’s a boom which authorities believe will not be shortlived, because local mills are having to compete hard to secure supply for the domestic construction market against exporters seeking to meet strong demand from China.
Forestry may have had a bad rap as a result of recent floods which have deposited large quantities of wood on farms and beaches on the East Coast. It’s an industry, however, which employs 20,000 people and annually is worth about $5bn, or about 3% of GDP.
The industry’s future is being reappraised, partly because of the NZ First initiative to promote the planting of 1bn trees, but also partly because other pillars of the country’s export framework—dairying, for example—face the implications of reaching “peak cow” (as Primary Industries Minister Damian O’Connor puts it).
In seeking to regenerate enthusiasm for forestry, the Minister of Forests, Shane Jones, in effect has to start from scratch, re-establishing a ministry (in Rotorua) and rebuilding the expertise in silviculture for which NZ was once renowned.
Paradoxically it was a Labour government which abolished the Forestry Ministry that had been responsible for the development of the huge plantation forests — in Kaingaroa, the East Coast and Otago — which not only supported the initiation of the export log trade, but also the wood processing plants at Kawerau and Tokoroa, and sawmills elsewhere.
When the Rogernomes entrusted the industry to “market forces”, they in effect buried the NZ Forestry Service’s goal of making wood products NZ’s biggest export industry by 2020.
With the disbanding of the ministry NZ largely lost the fourth generation of foresters brought up by post- war figures like Bert Entrican and Lindsay Poole, who had helped make this country a world leader in forestry.
They lost, too, the institutional memory behind the planting of the Gisborne and Nelson forests on erodable land, knowing it should never have been clear-felled, an issue not in the minds of forest companies eager to make a buck.