Forest heroes: The men who did the most to preserve native trees

Book cover: Keeping New Zealand Green: Our Forests and their Future, by Elizabeth Orr. Steele Roberts Aotearoa, 2017, $44.99.
Steele Roberts Aotearoa

Book cover: Keeping New Zealand Green: Our Forests and their Future, by Elizabeth Orr. Steele Roberts Aotearoa, 2017, $44.99.

Elizabeth Orr's 254-page book Keeping New Zealand Green is not a Greenie tract. It explores the historical reputation of the New Zealand Forest Service. Half a dozen histories of New Zealand forestry have already been written so, one might ask, can anything new be said about it? Well, quite a lot.

The story turns on the Forest Service's role in shaping policies for managing native bush and pine plantations. We also learn about standoffs between the service and politicians, saw millers, the pulp and paper industry, and environmentalists.

In the 1800s, milling played an important part in developing the country, as native forests were indiscriminately felled to build the colony's houses, or used as fence posts, railway sleepers and firewood.

About 1913, our first director of forestry, MacIntosh Ellis, realised that the bush was not an inexhaustible resource, so looked overseas for faster-growing trees. By the 1920s, he settled on radiata pine, and set about planting vast plantations in both the North and South Islands, to reduce the demand on native timber.

Ellis retired in 1939 and was succeeded by Alexander Entrican, the father of author Elizabeth Orr. More on this later.

Entrican remained director of the Forest Service until 1961. During World War II, he suddenly had to find enough timber to build huts for 20,000 American troops and 19 military hospitals.

He later took a hand in setting up the huge pulp and paper industry, in convincing Australian millers to buy our radiata wood, in sending trainees to forestry schools in Australia, Europe, and America, in setting up the Forest Research Institute in Rotorua, and in establishing a forestry school at Canterbury University.

Above all, Entrican worked for the sustainability of native forests.

Driven by economic ideology ("the market must reign supreme"), the Labour Government in 1987 dis-established the Forest Service. "Concern for sustainability flew out the window" writes Orr.

A contributing factor to the service's demise was the misleading propaganda spread by urban conservationists who asserted that the Forest Service did little more than grow pine trees and mill native forests.

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Orr, a onetime chancellor of Victoria University, did a lot of legwork to write this book. She ransacked National Archives, with its mountain of committee minutes and departmental letters, accessed previously embargoed Treasury files, and interviewed over 40 former staff members of the Forest Service.

A recurring theme is the far-sighted vision of  Ellis and Entrican. Orr attempts to put right the many misconceptions and misunderstandings about their policy making.

The Forest Service did far more than grow pine trees and mill native forests. These directors and their lieutenants played a proud part in conserving native bush by limiting logging of state forests wherever possible, by slowing the sale of native timber overseas, by encouraging the establishment of national parks, and lowering the rate of forest burning.

"Without exception" Orr writes, " the directors of the Forest Service had done more than anybody else to preserve what remained of the state forests".

In her final chapter, the author makes practical suggestions about preserving the diversity of our remaining forests.

Keeping New Zealand Green: Our Forests and their Future, by Elizabeth Orr. Steele Roberts Aotearoa, 2017, $44.99.

 - Stuff

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