Science, policy, and sustainable indigenous forestry in New Zealand

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Matt S. McGlone
Peter J. Bellingham
Sarah J. Richardson


indigenous forest, logging, silviculture, sustainability, conservation


Background: Over 80% of New Zealand’s indigenous forests are in public ownership with logging prohibited, and logging of private indigenous forests is restricted to sustainable harvesting only. Such limitations are highly unusual globally and were imposed only in the last few decades of the 20th century. Previously, the national goal had been indigenous wood production in perpetuity. Here we review the role of forestry science in this outcome, and in particular in relation to the policies and practices adopted by the New Zealand Forest Service.

Methods: Literature review

Results: As early as 1900, it was recognised that economically viable management of indigenous forests for timber production was marginal at best. Nevertheless, the Forest Service, from its formation in 1919 to its abolition in 1987, advocated sustainable commercial management of indigenous forests. However, it failed to bring any significant areas under such management nor prevented conversion of substantial tracts of old-growth forest to exotic plantations or agriculture. Indigenous forest logging would have continued until commercial exhaustion of tall conifer species if a confluence of factors (urbanization, political upheaval, rise of an assertive conservation movement, and declining economic contribution) had not weakened the influence of provincial logging advocacy. Forestry research played a minor role in this saga as it focused on the technical issues of indigenous silviculture (e.g., coupe vs group vs single-tree harvesting methods) while the main drivers of change were economic, social, and cultural.

Conclusions: Commercially valuable indigenous forests were protected only when the political cost of continuing logging was greater than that of halting it. However, it is an open question if the current policy settings will remain. Changes in governance (including increased Māori participation), land use change, planted indigenous forests and formation of exotic-indigenous forest communities will affect public attitudes as regards their use. If indigenous forestry science is to be of more consequence than in the past, New Zealand will need clear forestry goals and policies to deal with these changed circumstances, and the will to implement them.

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