In the silence of the valley every sound is distinct — a jagged birdcall, the fall to earth of a golden branch, the muffled hiss of river water.
I am in Northland’s Waima Forest, somewhere above the Waiotemarama Stream, surrounded by a stand of kauri which stretch away up the ridge in tiers. Underpinned with kauri grass, tree ferns and ribbed spears of lancewood, they dominate the landscape, giving the impression that there is a lesser forest growing beneath the ruins of some otherworldly architecture.
Looking directly up towards the crown, the oyster-flaked trunks ripple and twist with pent-up strength. Their sheer size seems to scorn the natural forces which play havoc with other living things.
Shakespeare’s lines about Julius Caesar “bestriding the narrow world like a Colossus” seem made for the kauri. But, like Caesar, most of the forest giants have fallen, victims of the sudden blade.
The world of the kauri, one of the biggest and most majestic timber trees in existence, has shrunk pitifully since the human colonisation of New Zealand.
A tragic mix of ignorance, greed and necessity decimated their numbers within a single lifetime. Now pockets lie scattered in the least accessible parts of Northland’s ranges and across open farmland remnants of the vast rainforests which grew north of a line stretching from Kawhia to Tauranga.
The early Maori, struck by the kauri’s imposing stature, told how the whale once wanted the huge tree to live in the ocean as a brother, but failing to persuade him, managed to swap skins. Which is why, they said, the kauri’s bark is so thin and full of resin.
Uses were quickly found for the tree, which ranked second in importance only to the totara, with its regal red timber. Kauri gum torches were manufactured for night fishing, gum smoke used as an insect repellant and soot as the pigmentation in intricately tattooed moko.
Softened by soaking in water, and mixed with the milk of the puha, the honey-coloured gum even became an aromatic chewing gum.
Where the durable totara was not available, northern tribes felled and hollowed out suitable kauri for their canoes, some of which reached 20 or more metres in length.
In Maori tradition humans, birds and trees had a common origin; the sense of being in the company of distant kin helped ensure their reverence for the natural world. Without that respect, which included elaborate tree-felling ceremonies, remarked one early writer, the kauri would long since have disappeared.
Nevertheless, considerable damage was done over the centuries, through land clearance and accidental burn-off, as the Maori came to terms with their new environment. European settlers described the panoramas of scrub which greeted their arrival in areas like Russell in the Bay of Islands, and tales of uncontrolled forest infernoes multiplied as the pace of land clearing increased.
It was into the Bay of Islands that Frenchman Marion du Fresne sailed for repairs in 1772. His second in command, Crozet, has left us, in tragic circumstances, the first written description of kauri. Oddly, neither Cook nor his botanists had been moved to mention it when in these latitudes. They had found kauri gum in Whitianga, though, mistakenly believing it to have come from the surrounding mangroves.
“The tree which prevails most of all in the forests is the olive-leafed cedar,” wrote Crozet. “Its wood is elastic and I judged it very suitable for making ships’ masts.” The French set about felling two trees, but possibly ignored some tapu in their eagerness to have the timber. For whatever reason, the local Maori turned against them; du Fresne and 25 others were killed and the unfinished spars were abandoned.
Over the next half century the trade in spars was uneven. Kahikatea, mistakenly shipped as kauri, damaged the reputation of the timber for a time, and the extraction was slowed through initial nervousness in entering the Kaipara Harbour, where large trees were known to grow.
However, the light, straight-grained “cowrie” soon proved itself unrivalled on board ship and became indispensable to the British navy. The story still persists that Nelson’s flagship at the battle of Trafalgar carried New Zealand kauri aloft.
The impact on the forest of this hunt for spars was not great. Suitable young trees (rickers) were not common on the coast, and the volume taken out was small. Soldiers and sailors cleared their own roads through the dense growth, labouring to remove sawn logs with block and tackle.
Anyone familiar with the strenuousness of ridge climbing will appreciate what discouraging work the felling of inland stands must have been.
A team of bullocks — giant pakeha “dogs” to the Maori — was brought over from Australia to make the job less arduous. These docile and intelligent animals were to become a powerhouse of the kauri harvest in future years.
Gumdigging, and later the bleeding of living trees, progressed hand in hand with the felling of kauris. Unscrupulous diggers caused great damage through illegal burnoffs and excessive bleeding, which often amounted to ringbarking. Neverthe‑less, their zeal turned kauri gum into a major export commodity, reaching 2,500 tonnes by 1857 and not dropping below 2,000 tonnes until 1940.
By the time Auckland became the country’s capital in 1840, kauri planking was being exported and coastal mills were cutting on both shores of Northland.
The cumbersome pitsaws could not keep up with demand as new immigrants swelled the ranks of the colony and pressed the timber into service for roof shingles, factory churns, boatbuilding, housing, bridge stringers, palings . . . the list was endless.
Auckland became a pump, sucking timber from the carcass of the land. Cut in increasingly remote regions and flushed down rivers and tributaries through a network of driving dams, the logs were collected by coastal booms. Here they were either milled on-site, trimmed, for shipping overseas, or lashed together herringbone-fashion and towed to Auckland.
They came from Great Barrier Island, from Waiheke, from Coromandel, from the whole of Northland, to the mills and timberyards of a city which used them as a shellfish uses calcium — to create itself.
As early as 1861 close on nine out of ten houses built in Auckland were made of kauri. And not just the weatherboards. They could almost have been hollowed out of the sweetly scented trees, for the quantities each building consumed. Ceilings, wall linings, shingles, doors, skirtings, furniture, butter churns, mantelpieces — almost anything used could be, and was, manufactured from the timber.
No one, in 1900, wanted a house built from rimu. Kauri was the prestigious timber, and then only heart kauri. A house built from sap kauri was considered a very poor substitute. Resistance to wood borer influenced the decision, as villa owners today will appreciate.
Looking across the red tin mosaic of Auckland’s older suburbs from a volcanic cone like Mt Eden (Maungawhau) the vastness, if not the compelling necessity, of the devastation becomes apparent.
And it was a cause which the local Maori often threw themselves into with gusto. The hauling of a log for the barque Delhi from Waiheke Island, which John Logan Campbell watched last century, gives an idea of just how painfully the timber was won.
“Every available man of the tribe had been mustered to drag the spar out . . . and on it stood the oldest chief . . . High overhead he brandished his weapon, imparting to it the peculiar Maori quivering motion . . . Every moment his voice became louder until almost reaching a scream; then he grasped the weapon with both hands, sprang into the air and came down as if smiting the enemy to the earth . . . As one man they simultaneously stamped on the ground and then gave one fearful pull on the rope . . . Again and again this was done . . . and after each tug the spar advanced several feet.”
Nineteenth century sailors contributed one piece of equipment to the harvesting arsenal which bush-men modified and made their own. The ship’s jack, originally used to clean beached sailing ships, was so successfully modified that it is still in use.
Standing in the Otamatea Kauri and Pioneer Museum, surrounded by solidly built bullock wagons, bush trams and steam engines, the visitor is hit by the physical reality of life in the bush. This unique collection of raw machinery was built to drag the big logs across rough country, using muscle power and not much more.
The museum appropriately overlooks the upper reaches of the Kaipara Harbour, a body of water which, in its heyday, was jammed with ships loading kauri. The museum’s director, Mery Sterling, one time gumdigger and elder statesman of kauri lore, has presided over the assembly of an extraordinary range of kauri relics.
“Kauri varnish is the best in the world for musical instruments,” he says, delighted to dwell on some of the tree’s lesser known uses. “The gum was used for lacquers, paint and linoleum. In India they used it to make impressions for false teeth.”
Not unnaturally, for someone who has salvaged so much of the kauri’s past, his chief concern is with the tree’s disappearance from the land.
“All the trees round here have gone in the last three years, some quite big ones too,” he says, surveying the rolling pastures which drop down to the harbour. “One of the biggest enemies of the remaining stands is the boat-builders. Anyone who can afford a boat worth a quarter of a million dollars isn’t too concerned about the price tag on the timber — it’s as simple as that.”
The museum, he suggests, is unwittingly helping to destroy the last of the privately owned kauri. “We are preserving the past, but we are also making people aware of what a glorious timber it is. And for that, it gets cut down”.
We are talking in a fire-resistant store room attached to the museum, sifting through a bewildering archive of early photographs, many taken by the photographic pioneer and late personal friend of Mery Sterling, Tudor Collins.
Collins, a bushman himself, was well placed to chronicle the era of the bushmen.
Theirs was an austere life, with six ten-hour work days a week in the heart of the forest, and a seventh sharpening tools and washing clothes.
Some were attracted by the camaraderie and the highly skilled jobs; others were more intent on evading the law or avoiding irksome responsibilities.
The Waitakere Ranges, Auckland city’s nearest major source of kauri, were remote enough in the late nineteenth century to accumulate their share of social misfits. Criminals, deserters, militiamen avoiding service in the Waikato Wars, unemployed men dogged by the depression of the 1880s — all went west.
Such was the exodus, so one story goes, that a craggy local, tired of being woken in the night for directions, erected an arrow outside his house with the words “Waitakeres, that way!”
Shipwrecks added men like Black Harry, American Joe and Mississippi Jim to the bush crew. These three were from the Orpheus, lost off the Manukau Heads in one of New Zeal and’s most notorious disasters.
John Diamond, an historian who has lived and breathed kauri for much of his life, lives on the fringe of the Waitakeres. Papers and index cards are stacked neatly under his study table, the visible tip of an attic-load of notes and interviews with bushmen, the oldest born in 1864.
In the mid-1920s, when the local kauri industry was still alive, he often pushbiked out to Bethells Beach, west of Auckland, stopping off at the small mills with their networks of tramlines, steam engines and half a dozen men.
“Bushmen liked the bush, but they still cut it down,” he says. “It was their job. They knew it would all be exhausted, just as we know oil will run out. But what would happen if we were asked to forego the car even once a week to preserve oil supplies?” He says Auckland’s lack of building stone and patchy clay deposits for brickworks made kauri the natural choice for construction. “Immigrants didn’t want to live in the Albert Barracks for too long — the bushmen were fulfilling a housing need.”
And, he says, contrary to popular belief, timbermen didn’t grow rich from kauri. “Matthew Henry Rowe went bankrupt, and others closed down. The Kauri Timber Company didn’t make much.”
Nevertheless, waste was on a scale which would leave today’s petrol guzzlers pale. Prime heart kauri was shipped across the Tasman as paving for Melbourne streets; thousands of tonnes were consumed in the construction of driving dams and many thousands more were pulverised on their way downstream. Incalculable quantities were left to rot in the forest as sap and crown timber because only the clean trunks were valued.
Diamond speaks of men forcing picks into 12 inch deep holes in kauri logs after a drive, in order to detect imbedded river rocks before the saw blades did. Conglomerate rocks, particularly, could badly damage the timber and drastically reduce its worth.
“The first logs in a drive would be worst affected, but they could reduce the loss rate to 2 per cent in a good run,” says Diamond. Some of the drives, for which logs had been stockpiled for many years, held up to 10,000 logs and several flushes were needed to clear the river. The frequent jams were either jacked free or broken up with dynamite.
In the photographic records of the open season on native timbers, with all its local colour and variety, one image recurs: figures in a demolished landscape — tram lines sweeping through razed valleys, horses pulling sleds to barren landings, trees collapsing into denuded clearings . . .
Of the total volume of kauri growing in the north before logging began, it has been estimated that less than half was brought to market. The rest was lost by an age which had neither the technology nor the will to do otherwise.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, everything has been stood on its head. Loggers can call on sophisticated machinery, unheard of by their forebears, guided and restrained by a consideration for the environment which, even fifty years ago, would have been inexplicable.
But now there is little timber. At least, not in the quantities which will allow kauri to be used widely and without guilt. For the next one, two, or even three hundred years kauri could be destined to follow the life of royalty: to be talked about, vigorously protected, much loved and rarely seen.
Northland Kauri, run by the Bergman brothers at Pakaraka, is one of a handful of companies still felling kauri commercially. Manager Chris Bergman is disappointed I hadn’t arrived a few weeks earlier. “We cut out a stand on private land in Hikurangi. Three good-sized trees and half a dozen small ones,” he says. “The biggest was two metres wide.”
Contracts like that account for three-quarters of his work. Puriri,rimu and kahikatea, largely for wall panels, make up the rest.
Kauri felling is better in winter, he says. The timber dries slowly in the cooler season, and nagging problems like sapstain and borer are avoided.
Bergman uses Alaskan milling techniques, flying in a lightweight chainsaw mill, making camp and slabbing the timber up in the bush, before flying it out. The technique, he says, causes no more damage than a falling kauri would. “We don’t have to push roads in, and all we leave is sawdust.”
Behind these easy words lies a difficult job, demanding stamina, independence, a knowledge of the bush and a high degree of skill. It is also a trade which spans the centuries. Bergman mixes $1000 an hour helicopters with timber jacks unchanged from pioneering days. Unlike newer hydraulic versions, he explains, the old timber jacks can be used at any angle — an attribute very useful in his calling.
Bergman claims to have been the first to mill swamp kauri. “It can smell like rotten eggs when the saw gets into it.” Most timber sold is from the other end of the time scale, though — cut when still green. “When I’ve got it they have to grab it pretty smartly,” he says, slapping some impressively sized planks.
Prices range from $3.00 to $8.00 a board foot (a pre-metric measure — 1 inch by 12 inches by 12 inches — still favoured in the kauri timber industry and used interchangeably with the term “super foot”).
To buy a 12 inch by 4 inch plank 20 feet long in pine would cost around $150. For heart kauri the same size Chris Bergman would ask, and get, $500, or more.
The price, inflated by dwindling supplies, attracts an endless jangle of phone calls from farmers eager to sell. “There’s never a shortage of work up here,” says Bergman, who employs seven others. “One farmer rang two years ago and we still haven’t got to his trees.”
The farmer who sold the Hikurangi stand to Northland Kauri was handed a staggering $25,000 in payment (about $500 per cubic metre).
“Another cow-cockie in trouble,” says Bergman philosophically. “The sad thing is the trees are gone forever, but even at that price they didn’t get him out of debt.”
Most kauri he mills comes from small blocks of bush being cut not for pasture clearing but for cash, and the trend is likely to continue. With farming in recession, a bad spate of natural disasters and unemployment burgeoning, many farmers in the north cannot resist a high price for their trees.
Much of the demand is fuelled by boatbuilders. They are the major buyers of top quality kauri, and they come to timber yards with full wallets. It is a neat turn of history that the industry which first recognised and used this exceptional timber tree 200 years ago is now once again its chief consumer.
Why do boatbuilders esteem kauri so highly?
Although the wood has a number of good general properties (straight grain, no knots, light, strong, superb finishing qualities, available in long lengths and the heart wood resistant to borer) the thing that really sets it apart for boats is its behaviour when wet: kauri doesn’t swell, shrink or distort.
Only teak and one or two other hardwoods share this property, but they are much more difficult to work. Boat construction with kauri is easier and the boat will stay fair and strong.
Ashby’s boatyard, nestled in the Bay of Islands port of Opua, is a typical user of kauri. Every three years or so Jim Ashby clears a shed and lays the keel of a yacht which is far from run-of-the-mill — though, unlike the modern plastic boats, very much a “product of the mill”.
Built with devotion by Jim and his apprentices, they are a diversion from the yard’s normal repair and servicing work. Special project at the moment is a 46-foot, 14-tonne cutter, built from laminated kauri.
Traditionally, he says, they had single skins, but the bonded triple skins are lighter and stronger.
“A boat like this is an art form today,” says Jim. “In the past no one bothered about looks, but these days people like to see kauri, so we make a feature of it.”
He estimates the cutter’s hull cost $150,000 all up, compared with $70,000 for a moulded fibreglass hull. Although $30,000 of timber will have gone into it when finished, this represents perhaps 6 per cent of the total cost. In other words, kauri has by no means priced itself off that luxury market.
One Auckland company is tackling the problem of supply from a different angle — recycling the product of past forest destruction. Sixty per cent of the Kauri Timber Company’s business is kauri retrieved from the demolition of old buildings.
“There are big volumes out there at the moment,” says manager Barry Brown. “It will drop again, but over the last few years supply has been fairly constant.”
With one building yielding up to 70,000 board feet of timber, it is not hard to see how the company has built up its stockpiles: 250 tonnes of kauri and 160 tonnes of rimu.
“We try to buy big, clean beams, but there is also a place for nail-damaged timber — it tends to get used for period furniture.” An efficient scavenger, Kauri Timber even sells green timber, though Brown admits the asking price from the owners is becoming unrealistically high.
He says boatbuilders, who use only the highest grade of straight-grained kauri because of its strength, are now turning to sap kauri. Long dismissed because of its susceptibility to decay, it now has new life on the water thanks to modern chemical treatments. The drawback lies in the discoloration tanalising causes. Heart kauri, with its attractive silvery fleck, is still the preferred decorative timber.
Builders of traditional boats also express doubts about the strength and hardness of treated sapwood.
“Heart kauri planking,” says fourth generation sawmiller Stephen Lane of Lane and Sons, Totara North, “is sound for at least 100 years.” He is in a good position to know, as his family business built scores of ships of up to 350 tonnes between 1870 and 1910.
“In the United States kauri has always been recognised as the premium timber for wooden boats, commanding a premium price,” Lane continues. “We can’t get enough good [heart] timber to meet the boat-building demand.”
Barry Brown and Chris Bergman both believe that giving access to dead trees in the former state forests would greatly help the supply of kauri. Says Brown, “There are colossal volumes of dead trees which could supply the whole of New Zealand. I’ve seen 80 dead trees in Warawara Forest which could be taken for a start.”
He adds that controlled extraction could mean an end to the felling of green trees on private land. Tax relief or rates relief have also been suggested as an incentive for farmers to leave their kauri stands untouched.
Stephen Lane is less convinced as to the value of such extraction.
“The wood in dry trees isn’t as good, and you can’t be as certain of its strength and quality. After all, it may have already been sitting there for the best part of a hundred years. If you were going to pay a million dollars for a high class yacht, and your life might depend on its strength, would you like me to substitute unproven wood?”
The point is well made. Lanes’ is the firm which used to carry out selective logging in Puketi Forest until 1980, and they would like to see some small scale logging continue in such forests.
“Puketi contains 7000 hectares of kauri and in 10 years we removed a quarter of the larger trees from no more than 100 hectares. A large tree provides 20-30 cubic metres of wood and taking 10 large trees a year would provide sufficient kauri to undergird a $25 million-a-year luxury boat-building trade with the US.
“Shutting up forests in perpetuity will lead to trees becoming over-mature. They will die and their timber will be wasted.”
Chris Bergman, 75km south, only partly agrees with Stephen Lane. “The forests should be opened up in some places for timber extraction by thinning dense stands, but mature trees should be left.”
The divergence in views between the two men reflects their back grounds and business needs. Lane is committed to supplying a traditional, proven product (heart kauri) for boatbuilding. Bergman favours alternatives such as dead wood and thinnings, as his clientele includes more craftspeople and furniture makers, whose requirements are less stringent.
Both favour very limited utilisation of publicly owned forests and oppose the readmission of large timber companies to the kauri niche.
Stephen Lane’s view that closing up mature kauri forests will lead to their eventual demise is one that is not just restricted to mill owners and boatbuilders. Genocide seems to be in the nature of the forests themselves.
Botanists have long noted that mature kauri stands contain few young trees and seedlings to repopulate the forest once the giants die. There is just not enough light in the shadow of the big trees, and the harsh, acid leaf litter overlying a ransacked clay soil is simply too inhospitable for kauri seedlings to flourish.
Furthermore, kauri seed is relatively heavy and depends on wind alone to disperse it, and the viability of the seed diminishes quickly once the cones break open — none of which seems especially helpful in perpetuating the species.
However, as Dr John Ogden, a forest ecologist at Auckland University points out, kauri forests have perpetuated themselves quite successfully for 60 million years. Determining the processes by which the forests survive has been a puzzle which Ogden has spent ten years addressing.
He argues that the trees live so long that eventually some natural disaster (fire, cyclone, volcano, etc) will devastate a section of mature forest. A quick-growing “nurse crop” such as manuka will colonise this decimated area and occasional remaining kauri or residual viable seed will spawn a new generation of young trees.
Maximum growth in a kauri forest occurs at an adolescent (for kauri) 160 years of age and maturity approaches at about 600 years.
Most trees of over 1000 years deteriorate. The hearts rot out to leave giant living pipes, and the crowns atrophy (as can be seen in most of the big trees today.) The amount of usable timber also plummets, much to the anguish of timber lovers. These trees are termed over-mature and un less the forests in which they occur have “windows” of light carved into them in short order, their kauri component will be supplanted by other tree species with more vigorous offspring.
Professor Tim Whitmore of Oxford University, an internationally recognised expert on all Agathis species, recently described Waipoua Forest as a “deteriorating grove of moribund old kauri” in urgent need of a big shakeout!
Such an event occurred in 1959 when a hurricane toppled an estimated 10 per cent of large kauri in Puketi and damaged many others in nearby forests as well. It is this sort of wastage that some loggers and forest managers seek to pre-empt by selective logging.
Selective logging is anathema to many of the conservation groups, who vehemently oppose any sort of logging in native forests.
A common conservation viewpoint is that kauri require so long to reach giant proportions that they really do represent a non-renewable resource. Many would argue that since man has destroyed all but five per cent of the unique forest that was, isn’t it a moral imperative to preserve the last harassed remnants in primeval peace?
Debate over the management of kauri forests is nothing new. It started with a fiery confrontation over Waipoua Forest, south of Hokianga Harbour, and has smouldered ever since.
Waipoua, now the country’s largest kauri remnant, was originally gazetted as “waste lands” when it was purchased from the Maori in 1876. It came under fire in 1913 when the Royal Commission on Forestry reported that its 9100 hectares was too large for a reserve, and could comfortably be reduced to 80 hectares. Following logging, the report noted, the major part of the land would be suitable for settlement.
It is daunting to realise that the rainforest which nurtured giants like Tane Mahuta and Te Matua Ngahere, and which now attracts upwards of 60,000 visitors a year, was credited with no intrinsic value whatsoever.
Miraculously, the forest survived both the recommendations and a state highway cut in 1928 through its entire length. In the 1940s, however, selective logging was introduced into Waipoua in the guise of providing “essential war materials”. The move caused widespread unease, and popular opinion was given an eloquent voice through the writings of Professor Barney McGregor, a zoologist at the University of Auckland.
“Nature does many things only once,” he wrote. “Only once did she make a kauri forest, and this was one of the most sublime of all her noble works. By chance .the kauri forests were entrusted to our care and we have destroyed them almost completely, all but this last and pitiful remnant.”
He described Waipoua as “A remnant of an incredibly ancient garden… set in the midst of a vast dimaisled cathedral that entombs an eternal silence.”
The Forest Service supported selective logging, as did most local interests. However, the strongly organised Waipoua Preservation Society vigorously opposed the policy, la belling it “state-controlled vandalism”, and a petition to save the forest attracted 50,000 signatures one of the largest of the time. Public opinion triumphed over bureaucracy and in 1952 Waipoua was proclaimed a forest sanctuary.
The action over Waipoua became a benchmark against which the treatment of kauri in other publicly owned forests was measured. With an increasing awareness of the intricacy of the kauri forest ecosystem, official policy gradually evolved from management of kauri as a species to protection of the broader rainforest environment.
The concept of sustained yield logging of mature forests, which if originally carried out sensitively would have ensured a continuing timber supply from the enormous pre-European forests, came to be regarded as impractical and damaging in the relatively small publicly owned blocks which remained.
Rei Hamon, a popular artist and former bushman, criticised renewed logging in the Coromandel in 1972 with the words, “How can one conserve on one hand and deliberately destroy with the other? Such a policy reminds me of showing a goose a handful of corn in an outstretched hand while the other hand is behind one’s back, holding an axe to behead the goose.”
The following year Professor McGregor was describing as “butchery” the logging of Warawara Forest — a pronouncement which press photographs and even present-day loggers attest was accurate.
Although selective logging in Warawara ended dramatically in 1974 it was not until March 1985 that the chainsaws finally quit state kauri forests altogether.
These last kauri citadels, protected from early logging by their majestic isolation, and later by a wakening concern over their future, are now under the aegis of the Department of Conservation (DOC). The only extraction permissible is for “traditional Maori purposes”. Under this dispensation four trees are to be felled from Herekino forest south of Kaitaia to build two canoes for the 1990 celebrations marking the sesquicentennial of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.
Ironically, in safeguarding the remaining kauri conservationists may have shot themselves in the foot, perhaps even in both feet. By cutting off supplies of publicly owned kauri, a domino effect has been triggered. With demand for the timber unchecked, and prices high, felling on private land has rocketed. Choice trees, that even the millers concede should be preserved, are being felled.
A second repercussion, this one only now becoming apparent, is Pacific-wide.
Fijian kauri (dakua makadre or Agathis macrophylla), its timber almost indistinguishable from New Zealand’s Agathis australis, is being shipped across the Pacific in increasing quantities to fill the vacuum in New Zealand. Says John Halkett, a Forest Service principal forester now with DOC, “Compared with New Zealand’s efforts, logging in Fiji is a rape and pillage affair. Some logged areas look like the other side of the moon.”
Fijian forestry sources deny that this is the case, saying that only 20 per cent of the standing volume of dakua is being felled, and that many areas are being replanted with mahogany seedlings, thus preserving the islands’ forest cover.
Nevertheless, the wider ethical question remains: should Western countries which have protected environments use developing countries as “supply catchments”, plundering them for raw materials?
Halkett: “In essence we have exported our supply problem and are hastening the extermination of someone else’s forest instead of our own.”
The depletion of Fiji’s forests highlights the neglect of native silvicultural research in New Zealand. Given the questions surrounding our use of substitute tropical timber, and the prohibition on extraction of kauri from DOC-administered forests, the only responsible supply long-term would seem to be from commercial plantations.
Surprisingly, none exist.
However, there are large areas of regenerating kauri. The burning and slaughter perpetrated by our forebears has, ironically, reinitiated the forests. Extensive areas of natural regeneration (probably 25,000 ha) are a tempting target for foresters, who baulk at the idea of establishing plantations from seedlings, which grow slowly and need intensive management.
In the 1950s research was begun to find out how growth rates of existing young trees could be improved by management practices such as various levels of thinning and fertiliser application.
The results were striking. Whereas crowded trees put on a centimetre in diameter every 8-10 years, thinned trees achieved the same growth increment in a single year.
However, since the state forests were “locked up”, even this research (mostly publicly funded) has shrivelled. Perhaps there is a fear that any successfully managed forest may end up being “sanctified”, and foresters don’t seem interested in producing tree museums.
Government emphasis is now on research of immediate relevance. Long-term research — the only way to study kauri — is increasingly being laid aside.
Even well-managed kauri are unlikely to be ready for harvest in less than 80-120 years, whereas pines are prime at 25 years.
Graeme Platt, a nurseryman specialising in the raising of native plants, is adamant that the potential of kauri as a commercial timber has not been fully understood.
“Pin us radiate has spoilt us. All our expertise has developed around fast-maturing exotics, and when we have applied those techniques to other trees we have failed.”
The kauri’s yield of millable timber per year of growth, he adds, is quite respectable — up to 10m3/ha/yr. “But in New Zealand we haven’t learned to assign forests a standing value, as they have, for example, in Europe. Northern hemisphere forests are thought of as an investment to be enjoyed by future generations. We work with pine, a tree which reaches maturity in a single lifetime. That sort of harvest mentality has to go before kauri can be seen to be commercially viable.”
A final difficulty with commercial plantations of kauri is that, in spite of all the passion and patriotism aroused by the trees, the markets that really want kauri — where no other timber will suffice — are small.
Boatbuilding — the glamour market — has swung substantially to aluminium and fibreglass for hull construction. So, no great fortunes are there to be made, and commercial interest is not that high.
The kauri forests may now be safe from logging, but other threats remain. Lisa Forrester, a DOC officer from Kaikohe, comments: “Reserving areas like Puketi gives a false sense of security. It slows down human damage, but other things are at work in these forests.”
Once she points out the symptoms, how could I have thought that the forest was healthy? Looking across Puketi from above the Waihoanga Stream, dead ratas stand out as cobwebs of bleached timber against the vibrant green.
Possums are the problem, she says. Having developed a taste for rata, in particular, they are chewing them to death. Lisa estimates that more than 50 per cent of the rata in Puketi are already dead, and the possums (and goats) are spreading slowly north.
All is not gloom, however, for McGregor’s “vast dim-aisled cathedrals”. From the ceaseless rasp of saws and nick of bleeders’ knives, from the very ashes of the kauri past, a phoenix is about to rise. A national park embracing all Crown kauri forests north of Auckland is edging towards birth.
In total, 92,000 hectares, including important non-kauri natural features such as the Kai Iwi Lakes, towering Maunganui Bluff and impressive Kahakaroa, Hokianga Harbour’s big dune, have been earmarked for inclusion. This makes the proposed park larger than others like Abel Tasman, Mount Cook and Tongariro National Parks, and when created will correct a nagging anomaly. Until now there has been no subtropical equivalent of the subantarctic zones represented by beech and podocarp forests in southern National Parks.
Much of the land under discussion is subject to Maori land claims — a process to which the Northland National Parks and Reserves Board is committed. Board member Tupi Puriri, himself paramount rangatira of Northland’s Ngapuhi tribe, says individual Maori tribes are likely to support the park concept once their land claims are recognised.
“It depends how the old people view things. If the Waitangi Tribunal rules in their favour I am confident they will want their land protected as part of the national park,” he says.
No one pretends that the park will, even primarily, consist of mature kauri stands. “The kauri is a symbol around which the subtropical flora of Northland can be gathered,” says Gordon Ell, another Parks Board member. Such plants include the familiar pohutukawa, with its blazing red summer flowers, and the mud-bound mangrove.
Additional areas have been included because they are unique environments in their own right: the Ahipara gumfields, for example, where diggers once prodded the claypans for hard-earned nuggets. Waipoua, with its thousand-year-old stands, will be incorporated along with the southernmost reserve, Pukekarora. A small sugarloaf of young rickers, it will be “gateway” to the park for northbound travellers.
There are human ruins too: stone walls in Waipoua dating back 700 years, and signs of pioneer milling. “This park is also about preserving cultural landscapes — the traditions of Maori and pakeha associated with the tree. Without preserving those things,” says Ell, “we only have half the kauri story.”
Years ago, beyond the memory of most of us, destruction visited the northern rainforests like a plague, attracted by the incomparable riches of the kauri. How fitting if that same massive tree became through this new park the instrument of the forests’ salvation…
As I leave the forests behind and edge into Auckland’s evening traffic, the vision lingers of those hammered trunks, still holding the earth from the sky.