I liked New Zealand the moment I arrived.
I arrived in early 2005 for a forester’s tour intent on “learning about forest ecology, biodiversity, conservation policy, the forest economy, and intensive plantation management.” I spent my first night there in Wellington, which felt like a smaller version of San Francisco. It had hills, Victorian houses, and spectacular views of the ocean.
New Zealand’s like California in many ways. It is only slightly smaller than California with a similar climate. Like California, New Zealand is part of the ‘ring of fire’ and has frequent earthquakes. And, the people radiate a pioneer vibrancy. They come from Polynesia, and the United Kingdom and its former British colonies. The ‘Kiwis’ have an independent can-do streak. New Zealand even had a gold rush complete with placer mining.
While the land area is near in size to California’s, the population size is closer to Los Angeles. Sheep outnumber people by ten to one. The largest city, Auckland, has one-tenth the population of LA. Another big difference for me, an LA kid familiar with LA freeways – they drive on the wrong side of the road.
Though the land area is near in size to California’s, the population size is closer just over one-tenth of California’s. Sheep outnumber people by ten to one. Perhaps as a result, Kiwis are intimate with the land. Their livelihoods derive from it.
The Kiwis still harvest trees. Wood is their number-three export after meat and dairy. While California imports 75% of its wood, New Zealand produces enough wood to take care of its own needs and even exports the surplus. To me, a California forester, it’s heaven with a lower case “H.” They even cut California trees: California’s Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) to be precise.
New Zealand and Australia as well, had planted radiata pine in a big way. They were growing pines that would qualify in California as “Heritage” tree size and harvesting them in only 25 years. In fact, one-acre of Monterey pine in New Zealand produces almost ten times more wood than our most productive natural forest.
Their love for radiata pine started around the mid 19th century when wool was the high-end commodity: ‘a pound for a pound’ meaning a pound sterling for a pound of wool. Follow the money, they cleared the native forests and converted the land to pasture for sheep.
In 1905, their annual timber cut peaked and began to decline. The 1913 Royal Commission sounded the alarm: New Zealand needed more wood than remaining native forests could provide. The commission recommended an aggressive program of intensive forest plantations. They believed the native tree species would be too slow growing to provide for their domestic wood needs. They planted many different types of trees to replace the bush that they had cleared: ponderosa pine, black pine, larch, coast redwood, Douglas-fir, and Monterey pine to name a few. They succeeded. New Zealand saved ten acres of native forest for every one-acre planted.
In the 1960’s, the Kiwis really got serious.