The 10-year plan
Following a 1921–23 inventory of native and exotic forests, Forest Service director Leon MacIntosh Ellis estimated that the country faced a timber shortage by the early 1960s. To avoid this, in 1925 he began a 10-year programme to plant 300,000 acres (121,406 hectares) of exotic state forest.
Entrepreneurs realised that, as exotic trees could be grown quickly, they were an attractive investment. Some two dozen companies purchased large areas of land and planted mainly radiata pine (Pinus radiata). The companies included New Zealand Perpetual Forests, Matea Forests, Afforestation Pty, Whakatane Board Mills and Pacific Forests. They funded their operations by selling bonds to the public, typically offering to plant an acre (0.4 hectare) of trees for £25, with the promise of a return of £500 in 25 years.
The activities of some of these companies came into disrepute (due to misrepresentation about investment returns and security) and in 1934 legislation effectively stopped further large-scale private planting. Despite this, by 1934 New Zealand Perpetual Forests had established about 186,000 acres (75,270 hectares) of exotic forest.
Planting the plains
Novelist Ruth Park’s father was one of many unemployed men who planted trees in appalling conditions on the Kāingaroa plains in the 1930s. She wrote: ‘My father, though he was a bushman hardened to heavy work and privation, was frostbitten on both hands. He said that as the long line of men stumbled across the plain, blinded by wind, the pumice squeaking under their feet, each with his hessian bag filled with infant pines around his waist, he’d often hear the men next to him crying with cold.’ 1
State and private forests were mainly in the central North Island. Although the Forest Service continued to plant sizeable areas to meet regional timber needs at Eyrewell and Balmoral in Canterbury, Karioi on the southern flanks of Mt Ruapehu, and Riverhead in Auckland, most effort was concentrated on the Kāingaroa plains.
The Kāingaroa plains were suited for planting because the land was flattish and covered in grass and scrub, so it was easier to plant than land that had previously been in native forest. More importantly, although the area would normally have been farmed, it was considered unsuitable because stock grazed there suffered from a mysterious wasting disease (called ‘bush sickness’). Agricultural scientists later identified the cause as a cobalt deficiency in the soil.
By the 1920s radiata pine had become the favoured exotic for planting. A native of California – where it was known as Monterey pine – it had been introduced to New Zealand in the 1850s, although the timber was not highly regarded until the 1920s. Its advantages were the large quantities of seed available, its high level of successful germination and rapid growth.
The labour force
Under the Forest Service afforestation programme, the area newly planted each year soon increased from 3,000 to 30,000 acres (1,214 to 12,140 hectares). Unemployed men were engaged in planting from 1926, and in 1927 and 1928 their numbers exceeded the other labourers employed by the Forest Service.
The labour force was boosted in the depression of the early 1930s, and at times more than 1,500 men were on unemployment assistance schemes. Planting targets were exceeded, partly through their efforts. By 1935 the Kāingaroa State Forest alone had grown to 259,147 acres (104,873 hectares). In total, over 406,000 acres (164,300 hectares) of forest had been planted, a much greater area than Ellis had originally proposed.