Radiata, prince of pines
With a shuddering jolt, a 30-year-old radiata pine bites the dust in Kinleith Forest, part of New Zealand’s largest plantation forest region-the vast volcanic plateau between Rotorua and Taupo. Pinus radiata, once an obscure botanical oddity clinging to existence on the California coast, has become New Zealand’s great timber tree, covering 1.3 million hectares of land and forming the basis of a billion-dollar-a-year export industry.
I’m standing in the South Kaingaroa forest beside a rough-looking bloke with a chainsaw, watching him drop trees. Three or four tonnes of timber hits the deck like a giant drumstick, producing the crack of a huge whip and an ankle-shaking shock. Impressive, but there is only a few seconds’ silence before Shane Yeele’s saw screams into the next trunk.
These trees would have been no more than saplings when I last swung an axe in a pine forest. Things look the same, but the pace in 1993 is hard out. Down on the cleared flat—the skid—where the trees are sorted, stacked and loaded on to trucks, the scene is hectic. The loader-driver has been working since before dawn. Money, money, money. New Zealand has struck green gold, and the pressure is on to turn those trees into logs for export, timber for a thousand uses, pulp for the paper mills, chips for the particle board.
Along the edge of the block which Alan Sinton and his gang are cutting out is a border of yellow plastic tape, running from tree to tree. Beyond lies a zone of peace.
“We’re not allowed to cut past that line,” says Alan. “There’s a big tree in there, tallest tree in the forest they reckon.”
We go looking for tree No. 73. Dense blackberry, koromiko, black-fruited five-finger, bracken fern and old tree ferns surround grey-barked trunks which draw the eye up and into the distant canopy. It smells delicious, the sharp top note of pine needles given body by the musty bass of decaying litter.
This is what they call “old growth,” planted before the second world war. A joke in international forestry terms, really. Most species around the world would be just starting to pack on their real timber at this age; after 60 years, this New Zealand-grown radiata pine has already peaked and settled into the slow, spreading years of maturity. Were it not for the genetic freak in their midst, these trunks would have long since rumbled down the pumice-dust roads to the mill.
Finally we find it—a couple of yellow paint stripes and the number “73”. From the ground, it doesn’t look too special, but apparently the crown of this spindly pine tree soars above its fellows. This is a genetic resource: known age, known growing conditions, protected, tagged and measured, its cones and seeds gathered and propagated in a national forestry operation sophisticated beyond the dreams of most traditional wood-harvesting countries.
The old pine forest seethes with life. Insects rustle and creep and chew, spider webs span the gaps, native and introduced birds forage and flutter—whiteheads, fantails, a blackbird and Californian quail turn up and go about their business within the space of a few minutes. Even as late as this April morning, a grey warbler’s cadence trills against the background of the distant chainsaw. Earlier on, I saw a kingfisher on the edge of the cut forest, eyeing the pickings among the newly-felled trees. If I came back at night I would hear morepork and kiwi.
This is the New Zealand pine forest.
I worked here once, for ten days in the late 1960s, until I heard one evening that the blokes thought I was too smart for my own good. The next day I was due for a ride on the skyline.
That might sound like fun if you’d never seen one. A skyline, or hauler, is a huge flying fox, stretched across a forest valley between two ridges. The felled trees are hooked on to it with chains and strops and dragged back to the skid. It is not designed as a human conveyance, and the one we were working on would have cleared the valley floor by 30 metres at its highest point.
Next stop, the pay clerk’s office.
He phlegmatically wrote out a cheque and organised me for the morning’s bus back to town. This sort of thing happened all the time. Every holiday, university students were recruited to boost the logging gangs. The recruiting officer had his methods of selection, and the gangs had theirs.
After 10 days on the job, I had been democratically sacked.
I was genuinely sorry, and, in the way of teenagers, deeply aggrieved. I rode the Railways bus back to Rotorua and Auckland the next morning, teeth gritted and head buried in a book. I didn’t want to look at another pine tree.
That made me pretty normal. After all, who looks at pine trees, except at Christmas? How many poems, how many songs are there about them? What’s the Maori word for pine? The only well-known cultural reference to pine trees I can think of is Colin Meads’ nickname.
And yet, from an economic standpoint, Pinus radiata is the most important single plant species growing in New Zealand.
I suspect that a lot of our collective disdain comes from the 1970s, when a dislike of pine forests became part and parcel of being a lover of nature. The clear-felling of regenerating native forest to plant pine was a national tragedy. Our heritage was being squandered to make way for potato chip timber. Evil pine barons appeared on television slagging off conservationists as hippies and wreckers of the economy.
Times have changed. Today’s pine barons on television are likely to be announcing their contribution to a new conservation initiative, while their one-time opponents might well have a patch of radiata pine coming on nicely as a superannuation investment.
Forestry is the boom land use of the ’90s. The world wants wood. It especially wants wood which doesn’t come from diminishing indigenous forest. We have lots of it, and are planting more. Last year we sold 2.3 billion dollars’ worth of it overseas. By the turn of the century, forestry will probably be New Zealand’s principal industry, earning more than meat, dairy products, tourism, wool or manufactured goods.
All because of this tree: Pinus radiata, the Monterey pine.
An obscure oddity, a once-despised junk tree has come to its glory, and its rise makes quite a tale.
The story starts in America. If it had a title, it might well be “The Ugly Duckling.”
Radiata’s home is in the Pacific North-West of the North American continent, the land of lumber, an immense dark green ocean of conifers—Douglas fir, sugar pine, incense cedar, bishop pine, redwood, ponderosa pine. The list is long, but it doesn’t normally include radiata. In its natural range, the King of the Kaingaroa is no more than a barnacle on the flank of a whale.
In the last centuries of its few million years of existence, Pinus radiata has just managed to sneak a living in three patches along the California coast and on two islands off Mexico. Total area of natural habitat: about 7000 hectares, the largest area consisting of a small forest on the Monterey Peninsula.
It occupies a tiny, highly specific environmental niche. Where the cold ocean currents nudge the continental land mass, a fog rolls in almost every day throughout summer, providing just enough water for radiata, but not quite enough for the Douglas fir, redwood and other species which take over where the fog is augmented by rain. In the Mexican stands, there is almost no rain, and without the sea fog the land would be just desert.
For its part, radiata cannot penetrate deeper inland because it cannot handle the climatic extremes: hot, dry summers and prolonged icy winters. Species such as Douglas fir can tolerate severe desiccation in summer, and “switch off” their metabolism in winter, going into a dormant no-grow state in which they are largely oblivious to all that the climate throws at them. The price such trees pay is slower growth, whereas radiata, which does not have the deep winter dormancy phase, can, given the right conditions of moisture and temperature, grow all year round.
At home, this botanical curiosity exhibits few of the qualities which might excite a miller’s interest. It is often a scrubby tree, well under 30 metres in height, whose branches leave large, resinous knots in the trunk—a serious vice in a timber species.
Perhaps this is just as well. The early Spanish colonists cut the best of it for spars, and then only because it was growing right down to the sea shore in the safe harbour of what is now the city of Monterey. In nearby Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties grew any quantity of the superior Douglas fir (called Oregon pine in the trade) and redwood. If radiata had shown the kind of potential it has manifested in New Zealand’s different conditions, the new settlers might well have milled it all before realising how little there was.
Cut to the Canterbury Plains, New Zealand, some 140 years ago. While large parts of the rest of the country were being laboriously cleared of forest to create land for agriculture, early settlers in Canterbury were wrestling with the opposite problem.
“I was oppressed by the dull monotony of a vast flat unbroken by a single visible undulation or a tree,” observed Henry Sewell in his journal in 1853, and the dreariness of the view was not the worst of it.
“We intended to return home the next day,” wrote Lady Barker in Station Life in New Zealand, “but a terrific ‘nor’wester’ came on in the night, and it was impossible to stir out of the house . . . it is hardly possible to give you a correct idea of the force and fury of the wind.”
Life (and agriculture) was almost impossible to sustain before the untempered force of the regular nor’westers. The dream of Canterbury was the dream of a tree, and thousands upon thousands were planted across the Plains to provide shelter for agriculture and settlement, and to create the now-green city of Christchurch.
It was a species free-for-all. Every tree that stood the ghost of a chance was given a go. Pioneers like William Adams, reputedly the first man to put a plough into the Plains, planted dozens of conifers. (Adams was also something of a Johnny Appleseed, cultivating 500 varieties of apple on his property at Green-dale.)
Another gentleman farmer, John Acland, planted one of the first recorded New Zealand radiata pine at Mt Peel Station in South Canterbury in 1859. He received his stock from England, originally sent in 1833 from the United States by the explorer David Douglas. In Europe, and initially in New Zealand, radiata was considered a collector’s specimen, a speciality piece for the conifer grove. Seedlings sold for as much as five pounds apiece.
But then the ugly duckling sprouted its plumage.
What the planters of shelter wanted was bulk and growth, and the Monterey pine proved the surprise star of the show. It tolerated a wide variety of conditions, and in most of them grew at an astounding speed. Within ten years, large quantities of seed were coming directly from California, and radiata became the standard Canterbury firewood and shelter tree. Its use in shelter belts and woodlots also caught on in the North Island, probably encouraged by the Forest Tree Planting Encouragement Act of 1871.
Shelter is one thing, timber another. In the latter part of last century, serious noises began to be made about the future of New Zealand’s timber resources. Prime Minister Julius Vogel, a keen forest man, made two unsuccessful attempts in the 1870s to get plantation forestry off the ground, both of them defeated by the short-sighted masses who could see only the still-abundant native forests in front of their noses. But by the 1890s it was plain that those forests could not keep taking the punishment, and the government took the first, tentative steps to finding exotic supplements. It planted experimental plots in Otago, Canterbury, and what was to become the Whakarewarewa Forest in Rotorua.
Naturally enough, attention was centred on known forestry species: Corsican pine, Douglas fir, larch and ponderosa pine along with poplar, ash and other slower-growing timbers. At Whakarewarewa, the only use for radiata was as a shelter tree, protecting the “real” trees in their infancy.
By 1913, the government decided it was time to take stock of the situation and plan for the future. A Royal Commission on Forestry was appointed, travelling the length of the country, looking at both native and exotic stands and receiving numerous submissions from wood users.
The widely expected outcome: a regime of native forest management, with recommendations as to supplementary plantings of recognised timber species.
But on that commission was our Canterbury farmer William Adams, who had himself planted a radiata in 1872, which by 1910 was already 40 metres tall and five metres in circumference.
Also on the commission was Leonard Cockayne, an English immigrant to Canterbury. He was one of the world’s pioneer plant ecologists and a forthright personality whose expertise would have a crucial influence on the commission.
Leonard’s son A. H. Cockayne became a radiata enthusiast, and while the commission was travelling and assessing, Cockayne junior was busy writing for the New Zealand Journal of Agriculture a paper entitled “The Monterey Pine, The Great Timber-Tree (sic) of the Future.”
Despite a widespread disdain for radiata’s timber qualities (traditional thinking equated fast growth with poor timber), in Canterbury it was already being extensively milled for box-wood, the construction of outhouses, rough farm buildings and even a few houses. In 1913, Cockayne noted that “these [dwellings] are still standing, and the timber, which has been kept painted, is in an excellent state of preservation.”
A.H. knew a thing or two about silviculture. He pointed out that the knotty nature of the wood could be reduced by close planting, which forces the tree to grow upwards with a minimum of branching. “There seems no doubt that when Pinus Radiata (sic) is planted for the express purpose of yielding building-timber (sic) excellent results will be obtained,” he wrote.
But the big future he saw for radiata was in “conveyance timber”—fruit and butter boxes and other types of packaging. Cockayne calculated the financial returns from growing radiata commercially, proving in pounds, shillings and pence his conclusion that “Pinus Radiata is probably the most payable crop that can be grown, provided the land is of low value and that transport facilities to the consuming centres are good.”
Forestry consultants in 1993 would tell you exactly the same thing, although, ironically, they would not advise you to plant your pines in Canterbury, which must be one of the worst places in New Zealand to grow radiata in solid plantations. In the “Big Blow” of 1975, the province lost 90 per cent of its standing volume of pine to wind. You can’t get lost in a Canterbury pine forest—all the trees have a distinct southeasterly lean, providing a sort of biological compass.
And so the commission came to some unexpected conclusions which were to have a profound effect on the future of New Zealand’s forestry, its economy, and on its native forests.
One was that “the natural forests belong . . . to a class which cannot regenerate sufficiently quickly to allow them to be kept as permanent forests yielding a succession of crops.”
Consequently, recommended the commission, the State should plant extensive exotic forests, with one of the main species being radiata pine. The result 60 years later is perhaps best summarised by an outsider, a man from radiata’s home territory, University of California tree geneticist William Libby:
“New Zealand is the outstanding example of native forest replacement in the world. Because you’ve got five or six per cent of your land in plantation forest, you can afford to set aside 25 per cent which is in native forest. In the western US, we’re at each other’s throats over the last 10 per cent in native forest.”
We have been living with pine forests for so long now, few of us appreciate what an extraordinary accomplishment this was.
Historically, forestry has been an industry of exploitation. A natural resource is either managed and maintained or, all too often, stripped for an immediate return—the track New Zealand travelled down with its own native forests. However, almost uniquely, and under the hand of a State which must in this instance be described as farsighted and energetic, New Zealand planned to create a huge, new national forest estate. It selected a species best suited to the conditions (a species virtually unknown to the rest of the world), it carried out its plan, and systematically and scientifically monitored and improved the forest.
As a result, we not only have large plantation forests, we also have the Forest Research Institute (FRI), and probably know as much about the cultivation, ecology and use of radiata pine as is known about any timber tree species in the world.
There was no precedent—no country had ever done such a thing.
The State Forest Service was created in 1922. It appeared to stumble briefly by appointing as its director a young Canadian forester, Captain L. Macintosh Ellis. All his experience in Canada and Europe had been with the management of indigenous forest, and within a year he published a report disagreeing with the commission and suggesting that most of New Zealand’s timber needs could be met by managing the native forests. Once he determined for himself how slowly those forests grew, however, the Overseas Expert changed tack completely, and the creation of the country’s exotic tree resource roared into top gear.
Contrary to general belief, the Kaingaroa and other State forests were not principally planted by the unemployed during the Depression. The “First Planting Boom” took place during the 1920s, and continued at a slower pace during the ’30s and ’40s.
It was an undertaking of historic proportions, driven by a huge government planting programme, and supplemented by a privately-funded investment rush not unlike the bull stock market of the 1980s. Carpetbaggers made easy money floating plant-and-run forestry schemes to an impetuous public. But a tree doesn’t care who plants it, and since virtually no silviculture was involved, the land was as good as free, and radiata is an extraordinarily forgiving species, a surprising percentage of the scams eventually showed acceptable returns.
Many of these companies were later agglomerated into New Zealand Forest Products Ltd, now part of Carter Holt Harvey, and form a major part of the country’s exotic forests.
A puzzling question is why New Zealand planted so many trees—far more than were necessary to meet the fairly accurate predictions of our domestic need.
The answer seems to be that no one believed that radiata could be growing as quickly as it was. It defied all explanation. Again, when Norwegian Arnold Hansson, then Assistant Director of Forests, predicted in the mid-1930s that we would be exporting timber by 1970, nobody ‘believed him. Who could imagine an export demand for radiata pine in a world full of Oregon, cedar and larch?
Still, some State planting went on through the ’30s and ’40s, and by the ’50s we had more timber than we knew what to do with. Although from the late ’30s through to the early ’60s the focus shifted to alternative species and even indigenous forest management, the plantings never stopped.
In the 1950s and early ’60s, Cockayne’s chickens came home to roost. The “timber tree of the future” became the multi-purpose tree of the present. Most of the traditional timber species planted 30 and 40 years earlier were felled, milled and found wanting. Generally, the Austrian pine, ponderosa, larch and others yielded poor timber when grown more rapidly in New Zealand conditions.
But radiata turned up trumps. It had good finishing qualities, pulped well, took preservatives better than any species known, had an acceptable strength for framing timber, nailed better than Douglas fir (which has a notorious tendency to spit nails at the carpenter) and made excellent plywood.
The list of uses grew, driven by feverish experimentation at FRI, and by the early ’60s New Zealand had developed building codes which made radiata pine the pre-eminent species for most common uses.
By the end of the ’60s, however, the government was starting to question its involvement in forestry. Leith Knowles of FRI relates how economist Bob Fenton was asked to do some work for Treasury.
“We had enough for our own needs, we were just starting to export, and Treasury wanted to know whether this government expenditure was economically justifiable. They said that they needed about 10 per cent return.
“Up till that time, no-one had taken that sort of thing seriously. Forestry was obviously a good thing. Around here, there was an attitude that the only time you used economics was to hoodwink Treasury.”
Fenton did take it seriously, and, helped by Wink Sutton, another man who was to have a great influence on postwar forestry in New Zealand, came up with some startling figures.
Comparing the then-current radiata management regimes with farming on some land near Tokoroa, they came up with a seven per cent return.
They then considered other possible radiata regimes, and concluded that by heavy early thinning of young trees to waste (thereby eliminating the growth delays incurred in the production thinning regime—thinning of older trees for timber), shortening the rotation and pruning the butt logs, it was possible to produce higher grade timber at a lower cost and yield 10.8 per cent. They called this the “direct saw-log regime.”
The really startling point was that 10.8 per cent was better than farming could achieve, even on land that was well within the criteria for good grassland management. This was the first indication of a trend that, 20 years later, is staring many New Zealand farmers in the face: that forestry might be a better, more profitable and more environmentally acceptable use of a good slice of New Zealand than its present grass-based agriculture.
Leith Knowles, who later worked with Sutton, is passionate on this subject and pulls no punches. “If you’re into farming, go on farming. But if you go broke and have to sell, don’t come complaining to me. You’ve been told. And if an investor buys the property next door and plants it in trees, don’t object—he’s probably doing a good thing.
“There are four or five million hectares throughout New Zealand that have erosion problems, with farmers clinging to them and saying, ‘This is good land use.’ Seventy per cent of them don’t even have a woodlot on their properties.”
The gap in Fenton and Sutton’s argument was that, although the direct saw-log regime would produce those returns in the then-current market, forestry is a long-term process, and no one knew for sure what future markets would want.
Sutton went to Oxford University to find out. He took up a scholarship to do his doctorate on world wood markets in the year 2000.
Wink Sutton is a living legend in the world of forestry. He is the holy roller of the radiata religion; the man who looked into a crystal ball, saw where wood demand was heading and, by force of persistence, scientific credibility and sheer salesmanship, took a whole industry along with him.
Sutton, who now works on secondment for Forestry Canada, is unquestionably in possession of the Big Picture; someone who looks at the world in a 70- to 100-year time frame—and what he sees brings him little comfort.
“I’m very optimistic about New Zealand, but I’m very pessimistic about the globe.
“A tree that’s planted in 1993 in Canada isn’t going to be harvested until 2063. In that year, the population of the planet might be 11 or 12 billion—that’s twice as many people as today. There is simply not enough wood being planted now to meet the needs of those people. It’s really scary.”
We go back to his time at Oxford.
“At that time, the forestry industry had three choices. The first school of thought said, grow structural timber. Another said, don’t even think about what you’re growing, just grow as much of it as you can, because technology’s developing so fast that all that will matter will be wood fibre. We’ll have machines that will take it all—bark, needles, even pull up the roots and shake the dirt off them—mix it up in a sort of milk shake and mould the fibres into any type of board you want.
“And the third was to grow clear wood.
“Well, fortuitously the oil shock came along and wiped out the second option. Stripping out wood fibres would require huge amounts of energy, and that was going to be a problem.
“So what about structural timber? Well, that didn’t make sense for a number of reasons.
“Our radiata pine wood is very knotty. By world standards, even the trees we grow as closely together as we can, with the smallest possible branches, still have big knots. It’s no accident—it’s the price we pay for our rapid growth in New Zealand. The tree has to have a very efficient factory to grab that sunlight and turn it into cellulose.
“By contrast, all the slower-growing timber that was coming on in the world’s existing and regenerating natural forests by the year 2000 would be suitable for framing, and better framing timber than ours.
“But for clear wood you need big logs. For most species, that means old trees, and they were going to be in increasingly short supply. But we could grow them in that time frame. Big trees with a good, clear butt-log.
“So I came back to New Zealand and said that’s the way we should be going.
“There was enormous opposition. I went up and down the country, and sawmillers said to me, “Prune as much as you like, we’ll never pay you a cent more for your pruned trees.” And we said, “We don’t mind if you do or you don’t. Somebody else will.”
“Now they’ve turned around and are saying, ‘Ban log exports.’ Essentially, they want the growers to subsidise their processing by selling them logs for less than what their overseas competitors will pay.”
Despite the opposition, Sutton and his people slowly convinced the key players: the forestry companies and investors. By the mid-’70s, a second planting boom was under way, with much of the new growth being managed in the direct saw-log regime.
Government came to the party—some would say they crashed through the front door blowing hooters and waving bags of money in the form of “encouragement grants.” At that time, you could pay yourself to plant your own trees and end up with cash in your pocket. Even if you burnt down native forest to clear the land . . . .
But that is raking over old wounds. The important outcome is that we have trees in the ground now. Eighty years after the Royal Commission filed its report, New Zealand is in the tree business to stay.
“If a building inspector found any pine, he’d give you half a day to get it off the site. Back in the ’30s they thought if you had any pine around, all the borer in the King Country would link arms and march towards it.”
“Radiate pine, in New Zealand, has come to be the general purpose timber par excellence. It is used wherever wood is used, except for the most demanding items.”
Soaring arches of laminated pine beams.Shiploads of logs bound for Asia. Offices finished and furnished in knot-free, straight-grained radiata. Out on the land, treated posts which have endured 30 years in the ground and have not yet begun to rot. Plus pulp and paper products too numerous to mention.
You can’t look at all this and not be impressed with what we have made of a tree originally planted for shelter and firewood.
A tour of Forestry Corporation’s Waipa Sawmill outside Rotorua provides a measure of just how valuable this former “industrial coleslaw” has become. The great Chicago meat works used to boast that they used every part of the pig except the squeal. The Waipa mill doesn’t have that problem, because trees don’t squeal. Over 300,000 cubic metres of logs a year go in the front end, and everything that comes out is used.
At the end of the timber processing line, which turns out a constantly shifting range of products in response to market demand, is a conveyor belt down which flows a stream of what would have once been called “off-cuts.” Each piece of wood, ranging down to 20 cm in length, is manually inspected, assessed according to 18 different criteria, cut if necessary and neatly hand-stacked in bins. The clean, apparently insignificant bits of wood are sent to the finger-jointing line or used as joinery components.
The very concept of an off-cut as an uneconomic piece of reject timber is vanishing. “The product isn’t weatherboards or pulp or joinery,” says Tony Williams, production manager at the mill. “It’s wood fibre. And it’s valuable stuff.”
Too valuable to throw away, too valuable to burn. And, until prices eased a couple of months ago, al‑most too valuable to use for construction timber on the local mar‑ket. If rocketing value creates opportunity, it can also wreak havoc in a milling industry used to shopping at leisure for an unlimited log supply.
Sawmills which had spent years cruising along, turning saw-logs in to the lower grades of timber, went into severe shock 18 months ago. Suddenly their log supply was in jeopardy, their traditional pricing and handling turned inside out. There were calls for quotas and taxes on export logs which fell on predictably deaf ears. So, have the mills gone out of business?
Tony Smith, of Hedley and Son in Wairoa: “We’ve faced the problem, and we’ve done something about it. You’ll find the ones who haven’t have been left behind.
“We’ve got contracts for our log supplies now. We pay the price and we use every bit of it, and we don’t have a problem getting the wood.
“One thing you do, you go through the logs and grade them a lot harder. We used to sell framing that was virtually clear timber. Well, no one’s going to do that when it’s worth six or seven dollars a metre.”
The Hedleys laminate beams on the premises, and periodically send off a load of off-cuts for finger‑jointing. Tony believes that most millers are recovering from the shock and are settling down to extract more return from a much more highly-valued log.
Meanwhile, back in the research labs, the value-added stakes are be‑ing raised another notch. In one of the FRI’s many workshops there is a coffee table made of radiata pine. As you would expect, it looks like pine, with a pleasant sheen which suggests a light coat of matt poly‑urethane. Strike it with a knuckle, however, and instead of the light ring of a dry softwood you hear the deep thunk of something more dense and substantial. Suspicions are confirmed by picking the table up; it is heavy.
“This wood is as hard as slow-grown oak,” announces a proud Keith Mackie, head of FRI’s wood materials division. “And, unlike comparable acrylic-impregnated wood, you can glue it, cut it, sand it, it turns nicely and it costs about one-sixteenth as much as the acrylic stuff to make.”
The secret—and it is a closely-kept secret—lies in impregnation with a “natural aqueous-based polymer” which forms cross-links once inside the wood. Normal radiata pine has a density of about 400 kilograms per cubic metre. The new treatment raises this to 600-700 kilograms, and the product is expected to sell for $1,800 to $2,400, depending on market acceptability.
There are other, simpler ways to add value. Forestry Corporation, the company formed to own and manage the 13 per cent of New Zealand’s plantation forests which remain in state ownership, has come up with perhaps the most ingenious of all. By taking the same old timber and packaging it up with a new brand name, they have added between 5 and 25 US dollars per cubic metre to its value in international markets.
The “Red Stag” brand was launched in August last year, after a development programme which marketing manager Geoff Hipkins says cost “something less than $100,000.” Their timber, now slickly packaged and stamped with a leaping red stag (bursting with connotations of natural vigour), sells for around five per cent more than the same wood without the stamp. That’s an added income of some $8m per year from the Japanese market alone.
Essentially, what Forestry Corporation is doing with its branding is keeping up with the times, promoting but also following a changing attitude to pine softwood which is driven on the one hand by scarcity and on the other by product development.
It has taken 40 years to turn radiata pine from Cockayne’s “conveyance timber” and pulp feedstock into a high-quality, high-value, multipurpose wood. What the next 40 years hold is anybody’s guess. What is sure is that if anyone can make more and better out of Pinus radiata, we can.
Botanists count about „OP Al” 100 species of Pinus, with radiata belonging ‘to a closely related group known as the Californian closed-cone pines.
Pines are conifers, an ancient class of trees which includes the firs, spruces, cypresses, larches and cedars as well as our own kauri, rimu, tōtara and kahikatea, to mention just some of the best-known.
As timbers, the conifers are all classed as softwoods, as opposed to the broadleaf trees—teak, oak, puriri, tawa, etc—which produce hardwood. This is only a broad distinction; slow-growing conifers may produce samples of wood harder than many so-called hardwoods, and balsa, the softest of all commercial timbers, is technically a hardwood.
Nor is it a distinction with any connotation of “superior” or “inferior” timber.
It is a fine thing to run your hand down a length of beautifully finished mahogany or oak, and pass the judgment that this is a really superior piece of wood. But even if it were available in unlimited quantities, you would not want to frame a house or make packing cases out of it. It fights the saw, the nail and the chisel and if you drop a decent bit of it on your toes it really hurts.
By far the great majority of timber used in the world is coniferous softwood.
As a species, radiata possesses a high degree of genetic variability—a great advantage when breeding trees for specific purposes. The five original populations in coastal California are quite different from each other, and within each population there is great tree-to-tree variability for the breeder to work with.
In New Zealand, radiata pine will grow just about anywhere, in anything. The once-barren sand dunes along Ninety Mile Beach now support the Aupouri State Forest, a thriving plantation in arguably the world’s least hospitable forest environment. Harsh, salt-laden winds roar in from all directions, with no hills to deflect them. Beneath the stumps, sand provides very meagre rations. Stabilising bare, shifting dunes with a sequence of marram grass, lupins and finally pines over just three to four years has been a noteworthy achievement in a world where desertification devours vast tracts of land each year.
At the other end of the country, in parts of Otago and Southland, radiata grows more slowly in the cooler conditions, but produces timber of outstanding quality. And, of course, there is all that forbidding pumice supporting Kaingaroa—the largest man-made forest in the country.
Beyond New Zealand, radiata has been widely planted in Chile (which now has more hectares of pine than New Zealand does), Australia, South Africa and Spain. And, ironically, it is now one of California’s most planted trees, doing well in its irrigated soils and Mediterranean climate and supplying Los Angeles and San Francisco with their Christmas trees.
Yet despite its success from North Cape to Bluff, radiata has not become the Coca Cola of the timber industry, spreading itself around the world. In fact, less than two per cent of the successful plantings are outside latitudes 32° and 46°. Some marginal plantations do exist at high altitudes around the equator, but the species much prefers a mild oceanic climate with cool night temperatures. Radiata cannot stand really severe or prolonged frost, particularly with drying winds, and the damp heat of tropical climes leads to disease problems. Drought is no good for it, either.
It is primarily because New Zealand is surrounded by sea, and the steadying temperature influence of sea breezes, that Pinus radiata does so well here. We don’t know how lucky we are.
Conifers are defined by the fact that they produce cones—the Model A Ford of plant reproduction. Cone-bearing plants employ the energy-intensive but reliable method of dispersing bulk quantities of pollen on the wind as a method of fertilisation. Further down the evolutionary trail are the flowering plants, which recruit members of the animal kingdom as couriers for smaller, targeted quantities of reproductive material.
Flowers are more efficient than cones, but the continued success of conifers shows that their reproductive disadvantage is often outweighed by other adaptive advantages. The closed-cone pines, for instance, are well adapted to survive fire. The ripe cone remains shut even in intense heat, opening to release its seed as the cone cools.
Pinus radiate bears both sexes on the one tree, with female cones on the upper part of the tree and male pollen-producing parts on lower branches—to reduce the likelihood of the tree pollinating itself.
Sometime between July and October, the male cones pump out dense clouds of pollen. The new female cones are open at this point; as they mature they enclose the pollen, which will only fertilise the seed a year later. Not until the spring of the year after that will the cone be ripe. Fertile cones may remain closed and on the branches for several years particularly in cooler conditions.
That, at least, is how it goes in nature. Obviously, plant breeders require something a little more precise than an open field with pollen from thousands of trees drifting everywhere. Controlled pollination, a sort of “condoms for trees” programme, has been the main tool of genetic improvement until recently. The cones of selected trees in seed orchards are sealed in plastic bags and pollen of known origin is introduced by hand. After two years, the seed is harvested and sown, but it will take eight to ten years before the qualities of the resulting trees can be assessed.
Radiata pine is not a prolific seed producer. The trees don’t start to make cones until six to eight years of age, at which age the average select seed orchard tree yields only ten cones per year, with a hundred seeds per cone. You need about 20 trees to get a kilogram of seeds.
Occasionally, an individual tree may defy the averages and produce cones by the dozens, but such individuals seem to have no energy left for growing wood, so are not desirable anyway. And this is the heart of the matter: propagating trees with the right properties for the end user.
Several decades of examining the characteristics of millions of pine trees and breeding from top specimens has led to trees that are far superior in forestry terms to their predecessors.
Foresters look for various traits in their trees. Those with superior growth and form (abbreviated to GF) have been bred over the longest time, and improved stocks are denoted by a number: the higher the number the better the seed. In this scheme GFO is unimproved stock and GF28 the best that is commercially available.
Purchasing GF28 stock allows a forester to plant far fewer trees, because almost every seedling will yield a good timber tree if cultivated correctly, and those trees will grow taller, more quickly, and produce more wood than their unimproved ancestors.
Thirty years ago, 1500 to 2000 trees per hectare were needed to ensure 300 good harvestable trees. Now only 600-900 per hectare are planted. The “extras” are still needed to provide a level of crowding that suppresses the size of side branches and gives insurance against animal and wind damage when the trees are young.
Growth and form are not the only attributes foresters are interested in. Other useful (and genetically selectable) qualities include wide spacing between branches (giving more knot-free timber without pruning), resistance to the fungus Dothistroma (which attacks pine needles), high wood density (for furniture products) and low wood density (requires less energy for mechanical pulping).
If, in the future, some other trait should become commercially important, scientists would simply need to search the records of progeny results from the myriad crosses already performed to identify suitable parent trees, then breed from them.
This rich genetic resource—the result of decades of painstaking science—represents a major competitive advantage for New Zealand’s forestry industry, and, not unnaturally, everyone now wants to plant genetically superior seedlings. The problem is, there are just not enough GF28 seeds to satisfy the demand—indeed, down to GF16, stocks are in short supply.
A planting boom over the last couple of years has exacerbated the situation. Sharp price rises for pine lumber, increasing the allure of forestry, have been partly responsible, but more important have been tax changes.
In the late 1980s, the Labour government altered forestry tax laws in such a way that expenses incurred in establishing and tending a forest could not be claimed until the forest was harvested—some 25-30 years later. Forestry plantings collapsed and seed production facilities were scaled down.
In the early 1990s, National amended the law to again make forest establishment costs tax deductible when incurred, and plantings skyrocketed.
To help boost the supply of seedlings, a number of technologies of varying complexity are being employed.
The simplest approach is to sow valuable seed (GF28 seed currently costs $8000 per kilogram) in beds and take cuttings from the young trees during the first years of life. Unfortunately, it becomes difficult to establish cuttings from pines over four or five years of age, and virtually impossible from adult trees.
For forestry companies who count their trees in millions, something more than cuttings is needed. Tasman Forestry’s 30-year-old nursery at Te Teko has this year been rechristened “The Centre for Advanced Forest Biotechnology,” signalling the arrival of large-scale tissue culture. This year, about a third of Tasman’s 10 million seedlings will be produced by this technique.
Seeds from controlled pollinations are removed from the cone, the plant embryos dissected out and grown on an agar-like growth medium in clear plastic pots.
When they reach 40 mm in size, the plantlets are cut into ten 4 mm slices, which are grown in turn to 40 mm plantlets, and the process repeated.
Over 18 months, each seed can give rise to about 30,000 identical plantlets which are cultivated and eventually planted in the forest. These trees are all genetically identical and are referred to as a single clone.
At present, Tasman is producing 90,000 plants from each of 32 clones per year using this organogenesis method. Many more clones are generated, but most are not in production yet. These extras are planted into forest sites and tested intensively over several years, while samples are held in suspended animation in cold storage. If a particular clone proves superior, its stored sister plants can be quickly multiplied to produce hundreds of thousands of trees over a five to ten-year period.
An even greater yield of clonal plants than can be generated by Te Teko’s organogenesis is envisaged at Carter Holt Harvey’s laboratory in Rotorua, where scientists are developing an embryogenesis procedure.
Here, embryo tissue is grown from a single pine seed in a culture medium containing special nutrients which result in the continuous production of multiple embryos. The advantage of this procedure (which is not yet in full production) is that many more individuals can be produced per clone than with organogenesis—a single Petri dish may contain 20,000 embryos.
A further possibility for embryogenesis is the encasing of tissue cultured embryos in a protective coating to create an artificial seed.
Genetic engineering is also being explored as a method of imbuing pine trees with desirable attributes.
“Something we are interested in is stopping pine trees producing pollen and cones,” says Kathy Horgan of FRI. “It would be great if we could produce trees that didn’t expend all that energy each year on reproduction, but put all their effort into growing big and fat.”
This result would be achieved by transferring something called a sterility factor from the DNA of another species into the pine tree DNA. One method of transfer involves shooting minute gold particles coated with the transfer DNA into the recipient plant.
In nature, when a fertilised pine seed lands on the earth in favourable conditions, a seedling will develop, thrusting a tap root down to find the water supply. If successful, the seedling will spread a net of secondary roots closer to the surface.
Soon, a mysterious partnership will develop between the roots of the tree and a range of fungi which occur naturally in soil. The fungi form a rough sheath over the pine roots, but far from producing disease, the association, called a mycorrhiza, is beneficial to both organisms.
The fungi extract sugars from the pine roots; exactly what benefit the tree derives in return is not clear. It may be that the roots’ feeding surface area is increased, or it may be that the moist fungi facilitate uptake of certain key nutrients, particularly phosphorus. Whatever the mechanism, it is known that in most soil conditions the tree will not thrive without mycorrhizal assistance, and commercial pine nurseries inoculate the soil with fungi to give the trees a good start.
The fruiting bodies of some of pine’s mycorrhizal friends are edible—the precious matsutake and the “sticky bun” or pine bolete, for example [see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 181.
One of the most common, the familiar red-and-white fly agaric toadstool, is fairly poisonous, but also has a colourful history as the “madman’s mushroom.” It is believed to have been the fuel for the berserkers, Icelandic warriors who went unarmoured into battle (berserk = bare shirt) and reputedly killed everything in sight, friend and foe alike.
It is also said to have been one of the components in soma, the ancient Indian drug of enlightenment mentioned in the Vedas. If so, the Indians must have possessed means of eliminating the ingredient muscarin, the natural insecticide which induces convulsions in humans.
Within a year, commercially grown seedlings are ready to plant out. This is a winter job, and it is done by hand. A stab at the soil with a sharp spade, a wrench sideways, bend over and put another one in. Times sixty million—the number of trees planted this year.
If grown for clear wood, the trees will be pruned to a height of up to six metres, creating a fine, knot-free butt log.
The work of thinning and pruning the trees will keep the undergrowth down for the first 10 years. After that, the forest will usually develop an understorey of tree ferns, native shrub hardwoods such as pate, five-finger and kohuhu, and introduced plants such as blackberry, buddleia and foxgloves.
Botanically, a radiata forest is a pleasant but unexciting environment. The successional development of New Zealand’s native flora is a slow process, and the initial colonising phase is barely under way when the loggers arrive.
Pleasant they may be. Profitable they certainly are. But are pine forests good land use from an environmental point of view?
Since the early days of the environmental movement, New Zealand’s pine plantations have had a rough ride. Opposition reached a crescendo in the late ’70s and early ’80s when subsidies encouraged indiscriminate land clearance and the establishment of forests with little regard to sustainability, economic viability or existing land use.
Now, environmentalists and exotic foresters are in the early but promising stages of a mutually supportive relationship, with most New Zealand environmental organisations endorsing exotic forestry.
Their support is enshrined in the New Zealand Forest Accord, a contract between the New Zealand Forest Owners Association and the environmental movement which formally ended the clearance of native forest by all the major and most of the minor players. In exchange, the environmental signatories endorse the marketing of pine and other plantation timber as a clean, renewable resource.
Royal Forest and Bird Society president Kevin Smith speaks highly of today’s industry heads.
“We were used to forestry leaders who believed in head-butting conservationists. They didn’t care to talk to them and certainly wouldn’t change any of their practices to accommodate them.
“Now we have people like Bryce Heard (managing director of Tasman Forestry), who negotiated the Tasman Accord, became president of the Forest Owners Association and brought the rest of them along with him.
“Of course, they’re there for commercial reasons, and good on them. New Zealand is one of the few countries in the world whose forest exports are non-controversial. They go out with a stamp on the pack saying the New Zealand environmental movement endorses the use of this timber, and that’s a huge advantage.”
But what about pine forests as a habitat? Conservationists in the past have tended to label pine plantations as biological deserts, devoid of the rich diversity of plants and animals to be found in native forests. To a degree, says Smith, this stance was a reaction against forest owners who were trying to promote exotic forests as good native wildlife habitats, in order to justify cutting down native forest. Now that that issue is laid to rest, Smith willingly acknowledges that there are some habitat benefits.
Pine forests have more insects but less fruit and nectar than do native forests. Consequently, birds such as kaka, parakeets and pigeons are rarely found there. Other birds, including the endangered kokako, use exotic forests as an extension of their natural habitat, feeding on invertebrates and travelling from one native stand to another along the exotic corridors.
Some native birds positively thrive in pine forests. Kiwi love the deep pine litter, the thick undergrowth and the quickly rotting branches full of worms and insects. The densest population of kiwi ever recorded was in a radiata pine forest at Waitangi—a population tragically decimated by a single dog.
Surveys of the Kaingaroa Forest in 1948 and 1949 found an abundance of grey warbler, pied tit, robin, fantail, whitehead, silvereye, the two native cuckoos, and lesser numbers of morepork and the New Zealand falcon.
In addition there are the introduced birds: quail, thrushes, blackbirds, chaffinches, ducks, starlings. Lots of them, and all more common in conifers than in native forest. It is a delicate point what value you put on their presence, but you don’t have to stay long in a pine forest to realise that, in sheer terms of numbers and activity, it is a busier place than the average mainland native forest.
Naturally, if vast contiguous areas of forest are clear-felled, any wildlife benefits are only temporary, and the next step for the forestry industry, according to Kevin Smith, is to take a patchwork approach to felling, along with amenity planting of native species in and around the exotic stands.
Another tick on radiata’s scorecard both environmentally and commercially is that possums don’t much care for it, though a goodly muster of introduced mammals do make their homes in radiata forests: rats, mice, rabbits, hares, red deer, pigs and occasionally horses. And, in some parts of the country, sheep and cattle: not feral escapees from a farmer’s poorly-fenced herd, but animals deliberately grazed within the pine plantation.
This concept, known as agroforestry, was introduced as a way to get the maximum return from a given piece of land. Trials which correlated timber yield against tree spacing indicated that 100-150 stems per hectare gave good yields of clear wood, while still allowing plenty of light for grass growth. At that spacing, there was 9-10 metres between each tree and the forest was almost parklike.
Agroforestry is an appealing idea. Animals graze beneath the canopy, trampling rubbish down, generously fertilising the trees and, most importantly, providing a cash flow while the forest grows, while at the end there is still the big bonanza from harvesting the timber.
As with most dreams, fleshing out the concept raised problems. While grass under trees looks green and lush, animals tend to despise it. In farming parlance, the grass has got no guts, and animals do poorly on it. Stocking rates have to be reduced to half, a quarter or lower of what they would be in a regular field.
There are problems for the trees, too. Above that fine, fat pruned trunk, the high fertility and comparatively large distance to neighbouring trees allows branches to grow big. Acting like large sails, they catch the wind and break more readily than do finer branches in a conventional forest. Knots in the unpruned upper trunks (called the top logs) of these trees are correspondingly large, weakening the wood and lowering the value of that part of the tree.
Because of these difficulties, many foresters have gone back to denser tree plantings where branch size is suppressed and the burden of wind is shared. Nevertheless, it is possible to get some grazing between trees from years 3 to 12. Be‑fore age 3, stock will damage the trees, and after age 12 there is too little light left for much grass to grow.
Proponents of agroforestry are now more optimistic about the potential of grazing under eucalypts, with their sparser foliage and need for wide tree spacing.
A more unexpected environmental benefit of pine forests is their contribution to the atmosphere. A hectare of New Zealand exotic forest absorbs an average of seven tonnes of atmospheric carbon each year and turns it into timber. This is better than any native forest, including the Amazon rain forest.
A mature forest’s intake of carbon dioxide is more or less balanced by the carbon released by decay. To the extent that the wood from the forest is bound up in long-term usage, this is a clear win for the environment, and if those wood products replace more energy-intensive concrete, metal and plastic, it also represents a huge energy saving.
Even so, it’s a case of every little bit counting. New Zealand supplies about one per cent of the world’s wood. If the human race is determined to choke itself with carbon dioxide, we are not going to make much difference in terms of volume.
Where we might make a difference, says Greenpeace’s forestry campaigner Gordon Jackman, is by showing the world what can be done.
“What we decide on here can have a flow-on influence around the world, so it’s important to get it right.”
For Jackman, getting it right means planting a variety of trees, not hundreds of thousands of hectares of pure radiata pine, and paying attention to the environmental health of downstream processing activities such as pulp mills and preservation treatment plants.
Preservative treatment is simultaneously one of radiata pine timber’s greatest assets and its outstanding environmental liability.
The wood is particularly well suited to treatment by chemicals, sucking them up like a sponge and binding them tightly to its cellular surfaces.
Pine, like most softwoods, is dipped in a chemical bath immediately after milling to prevent the fungal bloom known as sapstain. Next, timber destined for indoor use will usually be treated with boron, which protects against fungal and insect attack as long as the wood is dry. Copper-chrome-arsenic (CCA), commonly known by the brand name “tanalising,” is used for most exterior applications, where the timber must be protected from rotting.
Then there is PCP, pentachlorophenol, cousin of Agent Orange, which was used for four decades in New Zealand and elsewhere as a pesticide and a timber treatment, mainly as a water-based antisapstain bath, but also as an oil-based injectate for railway sleepers and power poles. Contamination from its use has been described as New Zealand’s largest toxic waste problem—a problem which is only now being addressed by regional councils and timber processors.
The discovery of PCP residues from a Hanmer Forest treatment site has already led to the closure of a children’s holiday camp in Canterbury, and more such cases will inevitably emerge as other sites are investigated.
But what of CCA? Copper, chromium and arsenic are not substances you would put in the baby’s bottle, and we all come into contact with tanalised pine. It’s everywhere.
Are we at risk?
In the short to medium term, apparently not. Not unless we burn it and inhale the smoke, or somehow ingest it.
In the 60 years since CCA’s invention in India by Sonti Kamesan, many tests have been carried out on treated wood, all indicating that the leaching rates are very low. In one experiment, a treated wood deck was immersed for twelve months in a chlorinated swimming pool. In another, timber which had been used for up to eleven years in electricity cooling towers was assessed. Leaching rates were either zero or insignificant. Disposal in landfills is generally considered a satisfactory solution for CCA-treated timber.
The risk that the 100,000 tonnes of CCA which are used internationally every year might eventually come back to haunt us as an environmental problem has to be weighed against the very measurable immediate consequences of switching to alternatives. Tropical hardwoods, plastics, metals, concrete—all place much heavier demands on natural resources, energy, or both. For this reason most environmental groups (Greenpeace is a notable exception) don’t make an issue of the principle of using CCA, concentrating on the safe and efficient use of treatment chemicals.
The other persistent objection to radiata forests is the belief that successive rotations ruin the soil. Cockayne addressed the issue in his 1914 paper: “There is a widespread belief that Pinus radiata is a great soil exhauster and that ground once occupied by this tree becomes very infertile.”
It’s a myth. Graham Will, now retired, spent his entire working life in soil science, a good deal of it researching the real nutrient economies of forestry soils.
“Poor and decreasing tree growth is recorded from European countries as far back as the last century,” he wrote in a 1992 paper. “Pines and other conifers were planted on the less fertile soils and, once a litter layer of needles had formed under the trees, it was regularly collected to be used as bedding for farm animals. The nutrients in the conifer litter found their way onto the farm land. This . . . was like cropping a hay paddock year after year and never feeding out or applying fertiliser.
“You have people claiming that, after three crops of pine you have an ecological desert. That’s absolute rubbish. Around Rotorua we have pines into their third and even fourth crop, and the soils are fine.”
Pine litter, like that of all conifers, is acidic, but radiata pine is well down the scale compared with rimu or kauri, two of the most powerful soil acidifiers known. The pumice soils of the volcanic plateau are naturally mildly acidic, with a pH of around 5 to 5.5. After 60 years of growing pines, they are still at the same level. As with any agricultural crop, constant cropping will reduce the available nutrients, but it is a relatively simple matter to replace them.
Putting aside the environmental status of the pine forests, or what we do with the products, there is still a valid concern about how much Pin us radiata we grow, and how little of anything else.
–We’re one pathogen off forestry disaster in New Zealand.”
“Put all your eggs in one basket, and watch that basket.”
It’s called monoculture: the cultivation of a single plant species over large areas. Any ecologist will tell you, with graphic examples drawn from history, that it is a dangerous business to be in.
Most-quoted case: the Irish Potato Famine. For various reasons associated with the process of English colonisation, by the middle of last century Ireland had become dependent on a single cultivar of the potato as its staple food, replacing the people’s previous broad grain-based diet.
The strain in use was a sturdy, productive plant, forgiving of variations in climate and cultivation. Not unlike, you might say, radiata pine. Then one day a new strain of fungus found its Achilles’ heel. Irish agriculture virtually collapsed overnight. One tenth of the population perished, and half as many more emigrated.
Critics of the pine industry argue that tying up five per cent of our land area and ninety per cent of our plantation forestry in a single species poses an unacceptable risk.
“If we have 90 different species of trees, and one of them gets bowled, we’ve lost only that fraction of the resource,” says Graeme Platt, a well-known Albany nurseryman and keen proponent of native plants. “We know it can happen; look at the chestnut blight that hit the eastern United States around the turn of the century. They used to say that a squirrel could have gone the whole distance from New York to the Mississippi without climbing out of a chestnut tree. Now the only surviving examples of that strain are outside of its natural range.”
Counsel for the defence, not surprisingly, is found at the Forest Research Institute, in the heart of radiata country.
It is a strong defence.
John Kininmonth, former director of the FRI: “There are diseases to which a species is completely susceptible, and which will affect every tree which comes in contact with them. But there is no known disease anywhere in the world which affects radiata pine like this, nor even the pines in general.”
Brave words and true, but the New Zealand pine industry has already had one serious fright. In 1946, foresters could only stand back and watch in horror as the population of the wood-boring wasp Sirex noctilio exploded on the volcanic plateau. Within three years, up to two thirds of the trees in New Zealand’s prime radiata stands were dead.
Yet this apparent disaster produced beneficial effects.
As it happened, the forests affected by the Sirex epidemic had never been thinned, due to a Second World War shortage of both labour and a market for the thinnings. Quite simply, Sirex did an excellent thinning job, attacking a crop weakened by overcrowding and destroying exactly those trees which would have been culled by good management.
Sirex was subsequently controlled by introduced parasites and has ceased to be a problem, but the industry nevertheless went into “monoculture shock” throughout the 1950s, reducing plantings, focusing its efforts on other pine species (most of which did not do well) and looking again at indigenous forest management. Large-scale planting of radiata did not get going again until the late 1960s.
In 1962, the pine needle blight Dothistroma pini arrived in New Zealand. Dothistroma, however, appears to be a problem only in areas of high rainfall and humidity, and blight-resistant strains of radiata have now been developed for planting in risky climates.
Most foresters and scientists take a “steady as she goes” approach to the threat of pathogens, though no one denies the hammering the industry could take if the pine shoot moth that is currently making a mess of Chile’s radiata stands or the Asian gypsy moth should become established here.
They point out that, although by no means immune to “sneezes and diseases,” radiata compares very favourably with most forestry species. Add tolerance for a wide range of sites and ease of propagation, the huge amount of expertise in radiata management which New Zealand has ac‑cumulated, plus
growing demand for the timber and its derivatives, and you have a tree which foresters are understandably reluctant to replace with any of the other contenders.
Leith Knowles, an FRI specialist in the economics and practice of agroforestry, scorns any suggestion that New Zealand should take so much as a single step away from its dependence on radiata. “Arrogance . . . sentimental garbage . . . the way to judge forestry is as a net value over time, discounted back to present cost . . . If you look at it that way, radiata leaves everything else in the dust.”
He asserts that single-species cultivation is the norm for modern forestry. “They’ve got a million hectares of Pinus pinaster in the south of France. Go to the Pacific Northwest—it’s Douglas fir wall to wall. It’s the nature of the game.
“OK, if something terrible happened to pine, if something weird came in and zapped it, you could say ‘Serves you right, you were asking for it,’ and we’d have to agree, it was a mistake.
“But if you try to guard against that by not growing it the way we do, you’ve got a large economic penalty to pay. If you looked at it as insurance, you’d say it’s far too high a premium for the risk.
“We’ve been growing it for 140 years. It’s had a couple of things which it’s brushed off. So far, so good.”
He cites the short rotation of radiata as a mechanism of protection. There would be, at most, 30 years of growth invested in a newly infected stand of trees. Diseases and pests don’t affect all stands and all ages of trees at the same time; affected trees can usually be harvested.
“But if you’ve got 80 years invested in one of the slower-growing crops, and a disease comes along and knocks it—now that’s a catastrophe.”
The economic argument, which is virtually the party line at the FRI—”Show us a species which can compete and we’ll plant it”—does have strong scientific support.
Bill Libby, for instance, points out that there are degrees of monoculture.
“Yes, a radiata pine forest is a monoculture, but only for a while. By the time it gets to be a few years old it’s got a pretty nice mixture of native and introduced species. You compare the degree of monoculture there to what you’ve got in the corn and wheat fields of the mid-Westwell, it’s a simplified ecosystem, but it’s not the same thing as an agronomic monoculture.
“You think of those as single-species plantings, but they’re really single-clone plantings. That’s very tight genetically.”
Just down the corridor from where Libby is working on his book brother of Trade and Industry minister Philip Burdon.
He is the senior tree improvement geneticist at the FRI, and a world authority on radiata pine—its origin, genetic variation within its natural range, its botany, cultivation, nutrition, plus a whole string of etceteras.
Comedian Shelley Berman once defined an intellectual as someone who, when asked how they are feeling, replies “Relative to what?”
That’s Rowland Burdon. He is the layman’s idea of a scientist writ very bold. He speaks slowly, he never answers a question in haste, and never with a simple yes or no.
This is not to suggest a ponderous mentality. The lively eyes behind the glasses bespeak an extremely busy brain, and his enthusiasm for his nurseries and separate stands of radiata from their different natural provenances is unmistakable and infectious.
He and his colleagues monitor the performance of thousands of individual pine trees, keeping a close record of their ancestry, and recommending controlled crosses for particular purposes.
Libby makes the point that one pine tree might look pretty much like another, but at the cellular level there is a healthy level of genetic diversity. It is one of Burdon’s main responsibilities to see that it stays that way. Burdon is one of radiata pine’s genetic bankers—proud of the top performers, acquisitive of new genetic stock and keenly protective of the existing investment.
Both Tasman Forestry and Carter Holt Harvey either already have or are building large-scale laboratories to produce millions of seedlings with highly selected characteristics. They could, if they wished, plant out large areas in a single, super-performing clone tree. Fortunately, there is virtually no chance that they will do so.
All the major planters of pine in New Zealand belong to the national breeding co-operative. There are some Australian members, and in the interests of diversity Burdon would like to see the Chilean genetic stock in the pool, although commercial considerations make that unlikely. The co-operative shares breeding material, partly funds the work done at FRI, and thus helps to ensure that the genetic base of the plantation forest remains sufficiently broad to sustain healthy variability.
“It becomes a question of having your cake and eating it,” says Burdon. “Eating it by cashing in on improvements, and having it by maintaining genetic variability. The current plantings in any one crop are likely to be from around 20 parents. But different groups of parents are used in different situations.
“In our breeding collections we maintain a large number of unrelated individuals, which gives us a wide genetic base and a good chance of selecting resistance to a new disease. And the propagation technology complements the gene resource work.”
With radiata’s short reproduction cycle and a breeding programme in a constant state of readiness, the industry is permanently in the starting blocks for a race to breed its way around a new pest. It is a race Burdon believes they would win.
“If we need to change direction quickly, we certainly have the means to do so. We are in a very strong position, but we can’t be too complacent.”
The summation, again, from Bill Libby: “The question is, how many species can a country the size of New Zealand effectively grow. My answer, as an outsider, since I don’t have to worry about it, is more than one. One is too few.”
The discussion may be academic. The fact is we no longer have a mechanism to strategically diversify our forests, because we no longer have the Forest Service. If we did, and it went looking for alternatives, it wouldn’t be short of trees to choose from. All over the country there are Graeme Platts, green-minded townies with 10 or 20 hectares, farmers who fancy a dabble, you name it, growing eucalypts, cypresses, blackwood, paulownia, even natives, with an eye to a commercial return. There is also a lot of accumulated knowledge from the numerous species which have been tried out in state forests over the last century.
In 1979, the Forest Service convened a workshop to look at all the species growing throughout the plantation forests. The aim was to narrow the focus to a few which might be better than radiata pine for some uses. Ian Nicholas, head of the Special Purpose Species Group at FRI, was there.
“They selected some speciality timbers—some eucalypts, cypresses, Tasmanian blackwood and black walnut. Some more research was done, and they concluded that we knew enough about those species to grow them at a forestry level.
“They weren’t particularly longterm species—the cut-off point was 40 years.
“With the demise of the Forest Service, all that went out the window.”
A distinction has to be drawn between growing trees for certain end uses on the local market and supplying timber for export.
“If you’re looking beyond Australia and New Zealand at the world market,” warns Wink Sutton, “you have to have big companies spending millions of dollars to penetrate and establish markets. It’s no good having a beautiful stand of nonradiata trees and not be able to sustain the supply beyond a couple of weeks.
“Whatever you do, you’ve got to do it in a very big way. You have to plant a very large area over a long time, like ten or twenty years. There has to be a large volume of a consistent quality of wood, so that someone can develop the processing skills and, above all, the marketing.”
In short, it’s not going to happen. There are too many disincentives for a market-driven forestry company to even think seriously about it. All the alternatives have longer rotations, less is known about their silviculture, most require different plant and techniques for processing, most are more susceptible to climate, pest and disease damage and, most importantly, all lack the genetic improvement available in radiata.
On its own, the possible vulnerability of a single-species industry just isn’t enough of an argument for our big forestry companies.
The only other exotic species currently grown in quantity in New Zealand is Douglas fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii. Although it takes longer to grow (a minimum rotation of 45 years) its high value and ready markets have led to steady, widespread plantings throughout the country since before the turn of the century. It tolerates snow and higher winds and rainfall than does radiata, and is usually planted where such conditions might be a problem.
Douglas fir also has the advantage of being able to be put straight through a mill set up for pine.
Fortuitously, a lot of New Zealand Douglas fir has matured at a time when indigenous supplies are becoming a problem in the Pacific North-West, causing price rises which bring the economics of the species closer to those of radiata.
At present, about five per cent of our plantation forests are in Douglas fir, with Japanese investors (traditionally more long-sighted than most) planting significant quantities.
Then there are the rest—a handful of species which, if we could turn the clock back to the 1913 Commission, if we had a Forest Service and a MacIntosh Ellis, we might be planting out in huge areas to ensure the continuity and security of our forest industry through the next century.
Front-running softwoods would have to be three cypresses: Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa), most commonly known as macrocarpa, Mexican cypress (C. lusitanica) and the hybrid group of Leyland cypresses. They need more pruning and care, but if economic fashion were to change back in favour of long-term state planning, the potential for silviculture to soak up the pool of unskilled unemployed might be seen as a plus.
They grow to harvest in 40 years or less, they yield durable timber which doesn’t need preservative treatment, and the timber has excellent dressing, milling and construction qualities. Anyone who has built with it loves it; it even gives off an exquisite aroma when you cut it with a skilsaw. In fact, some “kauri” furniture is actually macrocarpa—with a coat of polyurethane, only an expert can tell the difference.
If Wink Sutton in the early 1970s was able to look forward to the year 2000 and come up with the magic words “clear wood,” it takes even less of a crystal ball to look forward another 25 years and come up with the magic word “hardwood.” Durable, fine finishing hardwood is going to be a high-demand product for the foreseeable future, and yes, we can grow it in New Zealand do profitable, short rotations.
Northland forestry consultant Peter Davies-Collies: “Most of the high-quality floors going down in Auckland at the moment are New Zealand-grown eucalypts. The woods aren’t new—they’re products which have been traded on international markets for ever and a day. We know we can grow a big log in 20 to 25 years, but we don’t know about growing hectare after hectare of it.
“The trouble is, because we’ve done so brilliantly with radiata, everyone wants to grow trees the same way. Eucalypts aren’t like that.”
Like many hardwoods, they are trickier to grow. Davies-Collies recommends at least three species in different parts of the same plantation, depending on factors like wind exposure, frost in shaded areas, or higher humidity in sheltered valleys.
The bulk of his plantings, though, are still radiata pine. He is one of many consultants around the country to whom city investors are turning for an attractive alternative superannuation. As Ken Shirley, former cabinet minister and now Executive Director of the NZ Forest Owners Association is keen to point out, the current forestry environment offers an enticing superannuation opportunity. “The time-frame is perfect: 30 years. If you’re 40 now, you’re going to need it when you’re 70. You can claim your development costs as a tax write-off, and forestry has shown a better return over the last 10 years than the property market, the share market or superannuation schemes.”
He has no need to preach. There is already a stampede into forestry investment, with smaller investors responsible for 60 per cent of the new land planted in trees in 1993. The problems are all about meeting demand. Land is in short supply. Joint ventures between a farmer with land and an investor with money have been popular, but now the farmers are so keen that they are tending to do it all themselves, even if they have to borrow to pay for it.
Although the mood among the new forest owners has been euphoric with the high prices seen this year, there are uncertainties. Thirty years is a long time—forests can burn and blow over, an Asian moth could change the picture overnight, while governments can and almost certainly will reshuffle the tax deck. International wood supply, also, is perhaps more variable than industry promoters like to think.
Many tropical countries are experimenting with short-rotation hardwoods; the main ingredients in trees, after all, are sunlight and water, and they are most abundant in the tropics. Twenty-five cubic metres per hectare per year is considered an Olympian performance in New Zealand. There are plantations in Brazil producing 70 to 100 cubic metres a year.
Even so, the feeling among the flock of new entrants to the New Zealand pine industry is predominantly a wish that they had done it sooner.
Learning against a bit of a blue concrete block wall, the only visible remnant of his former life as a dairy farmer, Les Ward squints at the hills behind the Coromandel farm at his father’s legacy to himself and his twin brother Roy. Thirty hectares of pine trees, now expanded to two hundred since “the boys” got seriously into the timber.
That wall was once part of a herringbone cowshed. The trough which Les and Roy used to patrol twice a day, dawn and dusk, slipping nozzles on to udders, now catches and contains the occasional drip from a long steel cylinder in which they treat their timber.
“Dad was a POW in Italy during the war, and that started him thinking about things. When he got home, he wanted to use every bit of land. Up the back wasn’t much use for farming, but it suited the trees. Good climate for it.”
The year the twins were born, 1947, Robert Ward got into his truck and collected pine seedlings from a nursery at Whangapoua. It wasn’t part of a plan, seemingly just a compulsion not to have land going to waste. As the boys grew up, they would help him plant. There was no cultivation, no pruning or thinning.
In the meantime, they got on with the business the Ward family has been in for 100 years around the Port Jackson area—dairy farming. Then, in 1980, increasing transport costs and sagging dairy prices brought the Colville cream run to an end. Roy and Les put Herefords on the farm, and started converting the milking shed to a timber mill and treatment plant. Les took to the hills, becoming the family lumberjack and saw doctor while Roy ran the mill. Now they have a farm manager to look after the cattle while they run their thriving timber business.
They go about it just the way they went about their farming, planting and learning as they go. “We talk to people, you know. Just sort of pick up things. Roy went to a course on timber treatment once . . .”
That thirty hectares of virtually free trees has put the Wards in a luxurious position, compared to someone who has to finance their forestry out of current income.
After 13 years, they are just coming to the end of their father’s first block. They have no idea how much they put through the mill each year, cutting to order and delivering anywhere on the peninsula. They simply have no need to know—years of hard work have given them more timber than they are ever going to use, with some good stands of pruned clear wood coming on in the next few years.
They do know that the mill is worth almost half a million dollars and has all been paid for out of income.
As much as the money, it’s the lifestyle. After years of going to work at dawn and being tied to the constant demands of animal husbandry, the Ward twins now get up at reasonable hours and take holidays.
“I don’t like cattle much,” says Les, with a grin. “I’m in the timber business now.”