New Zealand Forestry and California Dreaming


“We Californians are really not very good conservationists – we’re very good preservationists. Conservation means you use resources well and responsibly. Preservation means you are rich enough to set aside things you want and buy them from someone else.” – William Libby, Professor Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley

New Zealand harvests trees.

Today, with over four million acres (an area larger than Connecticut) of tree plantations, New Zealand is more than self-sufficient. Forest exports contribute over $(US) 1.8 billion to the New Zealand economy, roughly 3.5% of their gross domestic product (GDP). Wood is their number three export after meat and dairy.

To me, a California forester, it’s heaven with a lower case “H.” Mind you, they don’t cut native trees. They cut California trees: California’s Monterey pine(Pinus radiata) to be precise.


Radiata pine is the primary species grown for wood because it grows fast and straight there. Jeff Tombleson, of New Zealand’s Forest Research Institute says, “to paraphrase Henry Ford, we think any tree is fine as long as it’s radiata pine…it’s our ‘New Zealand mahogany.’”

The Kiwis have improved the crops both mechanically and genetically. They prune the trees to create clear, knot-free timber. They plant radiata pine from rooted cuttings rather than seedlings because the results are better. The cuttings are from well-formed trees selected over many years. They ship the wood all over the globe—even to California.

They work at meeting the world’s market demands of the world. And the market demands sustainable forestry. They need to meet the certification standards of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to classed as a ‘green producer’ by Home Depot and others.

FSC began in 1993. It is an independent, not for profit, non-governmental organization based in Germany. It promotes environmentally appropriate management of the world’s forests that is also socially beneficial and economically viable. FSC sets standards and accredits companies and organizations practicing responsible forestry.

California, and the United States, may have something to learn from New Zealand. Currently California could grow and produce all the wood it needs. Many people point to the native forests to meet the demand. There is enough timber now in our forests to provide what the state needs, and we could grow it in a sustainable way. Yet these same areas are also valued for old-growth and endangered-species habitat, recreation, or other values.

To protect these values, there are also those who promote replacing wood with other products such as plastics or hemp. Both of these options have negative costs. Plastics come from nonrenewable sources from unstable areas: either politically or environmentally (as in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – ANWAR). Hemp, straw (for straw bale building), and other annual crops are monocultures. Monocultures require frequent applications of chemical pesticides and fertilizers to keep down pests and stimulate growth. Those who argue that radiata pine plantations are monocultures only need to listen to the animal life and see the undergrowth to recognize the difference.

This is what a plantation looks like, it's hardly a monoculture

This is what a plantation looks like, it's hardly a monoculture

And, trees are the skyscrapers of the plant world. They put a huge amount of biomass in a smaller area of land than other plants.

We could replicate what the Kiwis have, that is, grow more wood on fewer acres. Forest geneticist William Libby, Ph.D. says increases of 40% in productivity are easily obtainable in American forests. Instead, California imports 75% of its wood, meanwhile New Zealand produces enough wood to take care of its own needs and exports the surplus.

I will return to New Zealand. It is a place of beauty with an undercurrent of optimism. David Young the author of Our Islands, Our Selves – A History of Conservation in New Zealand, sums it up this way, “we think we can; and therefore we do.”

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