Forestry commentary: Kaingaroa forest

Kaingaroa forest is the jewel in the crown of New Zealand forest, with 190,000 hectares of plant-able land covering approximately 2900km2

Stretching from south of Taupo and north to Kawerau made this one of the largest hand-planted forests in the world.

The formation for a number of New Zealand forest was taken before parliament early as 1908 State Forest Act that had no teeth. In 1913, the Sitting Government convened a royal commission on forestry, the concern being the continued removal of native timbers and how long they would last.

The First World War would stimulate demand for timber and interest in forestry. Prime minister William Massey announced his government’s intention to form a forestry department. Political toing and froing saw the formation of the State Forest Service operations on 1 September 1919.

Logging crew 1981 Kaingaroa: Peter Omundsen, Jim Booth, Nicky Mansfield, Ashly Mansfield, Stephen Ellis, and Tony Ellis on the Kaingaroa plains
Logging crew 1981 Kaingaroa: Peter Omundsen, Jim Booth, Nicky Mansfield, Ashly Mansfield, Stephen Ellis, and Tony Ellis on the Kaingaroa plains

Leon Macintosh Ellis, a Canadian forest graduate with extensive worldwide experience in forestry, was appointed the inaugural director of forestry. Also, at the same time, 31-year-old Norwegian Arnold Hansson was appointed to the position of secretary.

Ellis quickly became familiar with existing legislation and policies and reported back to parliament on existing forest conditions and proposals for change. He had ascertained the longevity of sustainable native logging and the need to increase the state-owned forest to five million hectares. Ellis also drafted a new statute; this was piloted through parliament by Sir Francis Bell. The Forest Act 1921/2 continued in force with little amendment until 1949.

Kaingaroa was pretty much a desert of tussock grass and pumice as a result of the great Taupo eruption 2000 years ago. Planting started approximately in 1923. Ellis was adamant if New Zealand was to remain self-sufficient in timber supplies, a further timber resource had to be created and a programme arising out of another report was for planting 120,000 hectares of exotic pines by 1935.

By 1928, Ellis resigned from the Forest Service and disappeared to Australia, but the momentum he had created remained. The annual planting programme exceeded 13,500 hectares and was several years ahead of predictions.

One man who was the driving force behind the planting of Kaingaroa was Roderick MacRae, a scot who came to New Zealand in 1901. A trained forester in his homeland, he joined the lands department and supervised work at Conical Hill and Waiotapu when most planting was done by good conduct prisoners. In 1920, he was appointed forest ranger in charge of Kaingaroa Forest.

Old Mac, as he was known, supervised the bulk of the planting through the depression years, using a labour force of unemployed who thought they had been sent to hell with poor roading, limited transport, and dammed cold up on the Rangitikei plains off the Napier Taupo road living in a tent camp.

Tent camp Kaingaroa, 1923
Tent camp Kaingaroa, 1923

In one of the logging blocks I logged in the ’80s, I recall coming across an old site in the block of what looked like the old dunnies, just a big long trench in the ground, all sharing a newspaper when taking care of morning ablutions. Privacy was not a prerequisite.

Old Mac’s driving force transformed the desert of the Kaingaroa plains into one of the largest, most productive plantation forests in the world. When logging those blocks in later years, all were planted in rows, north/south.

When hunting a block, if you got a little disorientated because everything out there was so flat, you only had to find the rows and you could find you way out. Old Mac retired in 1931. He was personally responsible for planting more than 200,000 acres of trees.

The planting of Kaingaroa continued through the Great Depression, ending in 1933/34. What a lot of loggers don’t realise is the variety of trees planted and I will try and remember a few that I’ve logged in Kaingaroa.

Strobus grew like wheat, pulpwood, and very light. There was not a lot but it was hard work to make logging pay. Ponderosa, stunted heavy branches, reasonable butts but tapering off very quickly; Green Contorta, another wheat tree, numerous stocking reasonably tall and very light; Yellow Contorta, similar to green and a weed, making a big percentage of our wilding pines; Douglas fir great blocks of these, good size trees, clean under the canopy; Corsican pine, dense straight and very heavy, great to log; and Radiata pine, the king of the forest trees in Kaingaroa.

We logged a small block of radiata close to Murupara in the mid-’80s with the 668 D Clark Grapple skidder. We had to cut a tree to length to move it as one measured length from one tree weighed 22 tonnes.

Logging in Kaingaroa is the cream of logging—mostly all flat pumice country. Logging all year round, rubber tyred loaders on the skid were the norm. Forming roads and skid site is easy with just the removal of stumps required and level of the pumice, with little topsoil to cause mud. Even though it’s mostly flat, two main roads run south to north, high level and low level, and both end up in Murupara. In the ’70s, dry fly road was still open tussock country.

The Forest Service transformed the New Zealand logging industry and it was a sad day for the forest industry when it was bought to an end by the Labour Government in the late ’80s. The disappearance of the village at Wairapakau and 60/8 with its own school and single men’s camp was an end of a long history and dedication by government foresters who helped develop the forest industry into what it has become today. The ghost of many float over the treetops.

I will finish with a few words from Reg Packer, a planter who was sent to 60/8 in 1934. It was early May that we landed in camp; the weather was bleak, and we were issued with blankets, two enamel plates, cutlery, and an ablution basin. We joined with 80 others in orderly rows of canvas tents, behind a massive manuka windbreak, paid 10 shillings a week, ($1), two to a tent, sacking bunks, board floor, and a corrugated iron fireplace.

"Tough men built our industry."

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