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Timberlands And Sustainable Management Of Native Forests
- Part 1

Dorothy - 12/3/99

A look at some of the facts behind this issue that arouses strong emotions.

Sustainable logging of native timbers is an issue that arouses strong emotions. In these articles I 'm going to write about only what I believe are established facts and what I myself have seen.

Part 1 will look briefly at the background to West Coast forestry and what is meant by sustainable management; Part 2 at the management of beech timber; Part 3 at the research Timberlands is conducting into the ecology of its forests and the measures it is taking to protect the native birds and the invertebrates of the forests; Parts 4 and 5 responses to the articles from Native Forest Action and the Maruia Society.

Some background information
What drew people to the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand?

The early explorers like Brunner suffered hardship reaching the area and with the difficulties of transport to the area and the lack of easily developed farmland it attracted few settlers until gold was discovered in 1863. This brought a huge influx of people and while some departed when richer sources of gold were found elsewhere others stayed to work in the timber industry or to farm the land as it was cleared.

The first commercial sawmill in the area was opened in 1865 in Hokitika. Timber was in great demand and farmers were eager to clear land so the timber industry grew rapidly.

At first silver pine and totara were the chosen timbers, but later the demand changed to kahikatea and rimu, and these timbers were the predominant product from the West Coast timber industry.

Government action
In 1919 the Government established the State Forest Service (later the New Zealand Forest Service) with the task of planting fast growing exotic trees such as radiata pine to satisfy some of the demand for timber and slow the felling of the native forests. The first of these forests on the West Coast was planted in 1928.

The timber industry was a large part of the West Coast economy, and with the reduction in the mining of coal it became even more important. Tourism ventures were increasing, but the area depended heavily on the timber industry for employment.

Concern and protest from environmental groups
As the New Zealand public became more aware of conservation issues saving the native forests became a matter of concern and protest.

The West Coast Accord
The Government took action to try to resolve the conflicts among the environmental groups, the local authorities and the timber industry, and these groups signed an agreement known as the West Coast Accord.

Aim of the Accord
The aim was to reduce the reliance of the timber industry on native timbers and to increase its reliance on the plantations of exotic timbers and to preserve a large area of forest in its untouched state.

Large forest areas to be placed under the Department of Conservation (DOC)
Under the Accord:
78% of the West Coast's forests was placed under permanent protection and became the responsibility of DOC.
8% was set aside for carefully managed timber production.
15% remained in private ownership.

The Kahurangi National Park was established from the land placed under the care of DOC.

Stability in the timber industry
To ensure stability in the industry during the period of change under the Accord a sufficient area of Crown forest was to be allocated for production purposes in Buller, North Westland and South Westland at the 1986 level of allowable cut until exotics became available in adequate quantity in each area.

The area of indigenous forest allocated should have sufficient beech and beech/podocarp forest to establish a sustained yield beech scheme (yielding initially a minimum of 150,000 m3/an, log production).

Dates were set for the quantity of timber that could be taken from each locality and for the cessation of unsustainable logging in that area.

Locality Average Annual Volume Cessation Date

North and South Westland 140,000m3 December 1994 Buller 17,200m3 December 2006

The bulk of the unsustainable harvesting ceased in December 1994.

Privately owned forests
These can be felled to increase pasture area on a farm if the wood is not sold, or the forests can be logged and the wood sold if the owners have presented a sustainable management plan and it has been approved.

Changes in Government forestry management
In 1987 the New Zealand Forest Service was replaced by a state-owned enterprise called the New Zealand Forestry Corporation with a subsidiary, New Zealand Timberlands Ltd, to manage all state-owned production forests.

The Government then sold many of the forests it had placed in the control of New Zealand Timberlands Ltd, but because of the special management needed for the West Coast Forests in 1990 it retained these and created a new state-owned enterprise (SOE), Timberlands West Coast Ltd, (TWC).

The mission statement of the company is:
Timberlands West Coast Ltd is a profitable forestry business with innnovative and environmentally sensitive management, a customer focus and cognisant of its role in the West Coast community.

To fulfil its mission it has developed new methods of sustainable forest management which aim to take no more timber from the forest than its growth can replace in the same time span.

It funds extensive research into silviculture and the ecology of the forest.

It seeks to sustain the West Coast community by providing employment for a sizable workforce on the West Coast, an area which has a serious problem with unemployment.

Change to the conditions of the Accord
Despite having agreed to the Accord some environmentalists mounted great pressure for the unsustainable logging in the Buller to cease before the agreed date. The Government gave way to the pressure and at the end of 1998 decreed that it cease at the end of 2000. This will create considerable difficulties for the timber industry as the cut of the exotic forest is not due to increase sufficiently to compensate for the reduced rimu volume until 2003. To harvest it earlier at twenty six years will reduce the quantity of high value wood which is critical to the West Coast timber industry given its existing infrastructure and isolation from markets. The bringing forward of the exotic cut will also result in a serious dip in log supply in approximately fifteen years time.

What is meant by sustainable management?
Sustainable management maintains the essential functioning of the complex forest ecosystems while allowing timber production by:

  • researching extensively the forest's values and maintaining them
  • copying what happens naturally in the forest
  • harvesting with technology that makes minimal impact
  • harvesting no more timber than will be replaced by natural growth.

Public consultation an important factor
Throughout the development of sustainable management TWC has communicated with the local communities, the regional authorities and conservation and other community groups, establishing a contact person and providing a field trip for representatives.

Concentrated research essential
TWC focuses research and gathers information on diverse aspects of the forest and the logging - wildlife, silviculture, growth measurements, aids to regeneration, low impact roading, timber selection.

Because TWC has not been volume driven it has had the luxury of time for the extensive and intensive research and has learnt valuable lessons which have elicited high praise from forestry experts visiting from around the world, in particular delegates to the 5th International Forest Industry Roundtable held in Rotorua in November 1998.

They have made a major transition from 1990 when all harvesting was done by skidders and haulers to the present system of helicopter removal of selected trees that have been felled.

Comparison of impact of harvesting systems
Comparison of impact of harvesting systems
Photo source TWC
(Click here for a larger version)

Interview with Rob Dalley, Operations Planning Manager

Sustainable rimu management

Rob Dalley
Rob Dalley
Photo source Peter Hunt
Rob explained that under TWC's sustainable rimu management limits based on in-depth research have been placed on the felling of native trees:
rimu felling limited to the equivalent of one tree per hectare every four years
beech felling limited to the equivalent of one tree per hectare per year.
The effective rotation length for rimu is 450 years.

The method used for their removal will be helicopter logging.

Helicopter in action over Saltwater Forest
Helicopter in action over Saltwater Forest, South Westland. Sustained yield rimu harvesting operations
Photo source TWC
(Click here for a larger version)

The different rate is because rimu trees grow much more slowly than beech. The rotation rate for rimu is 450 years whereas for beech it is 170 to 200 years. Beech trees are plentiful as far north as Karamea, but Rimu is more plentiful in the southern forests.

Management plans
Management plans are valid for fifteen years though they are reviewed and audited every five years. An audit is done of each forest every fifteen years to check on the growth of each species.

Changes in the marketing of rimu
Low prices lead to low cost methods.

Rob explained that when prices for rimu were low harvesting had to be done by low cost methods. These have a high impact on the forest. The high impact results in protests from conservationists and that leads to political uncertainty, and therefore low investment in the timber industry and production of low value products. Low value products lead to low log prices which in turn lead to low cost/high impact logging techniques - what we call "the environmental poverty cycle".

In 1986 the average price for rimu logs delivered to the mill was a mere $70 per cubic metre. This resulted in over 50% of the logs being cut into low value framing timber, and came nowhere near covering the high costs of low impact harvesting methods such as helicopters.

The prices were set by the Government and the mills and the government required the NZ Forest Service to make a profit.

Moratorium on rimu harvesting
TWC placed a moratorium on harvesting in designated Sustained Yield forests until it had perfected its management system and achieved sufficiently high log prices.

TWC understood that an increase in log price was a necessity before sustainable management could become a reality. A key part of the process of achieving higher prices was the introduction of a log grading system which meant that logs would, for the first time, be charged for on the basis of the amount of high quality heartwood that they contained.

Improved prices allow for high cost methods
The mills no longer cut rimu for framing. They sell to high value users for cost and a margin. With the gradual increase in price to an average of $250 cu metre helicopter logging has become a viable option financially.

Kahikitea and rata trees not touched
Because of their value to the native birds as a food source these trees are protected from all harvesting.

A replacement for rimu and kahikitea
As rimu is harvested only in very limited quantities and kahikitea is now a protected tree other timber is needed for quality furniture and for finishing in the building industry. To protect our trees at the expense of hardwoods taken from rainforests in other countries would be a selfish attitude. Instead Timberlands is developing a market for sustainably harvested beech, a timber largely overlooked in the past.

Read Timberlands Part 2 for some comment on the development of beech harvesting.

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