Forestry reappraisal triggers memories of a time when NZ was a world leader

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.

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