In Northland, $1 million dollars, partly funded by the Provincial Growth Fund, is being spent to investigate the feasibility of a tōtara timber industry.

There’s little cause to dust off the anti-native tree logging placards of the 1970s though. The Tōtara Industry Steering Group, which is running the pilot project, is quick to point out it is not clear-felling trees or cutting down the few original tōtara left in New Zealand. The pilot is focused on selective felling of tōtara trees which have regenerated in abundance on Northland’s farms.  

The steering group which includes representatives from Scion, the Ministry for Primary Industries, Northland Tōtara Working group, Tai Tokerau Māori Forests and Northland Inc. aims to investigate whether barriers to establishing a sustainable industry are surmountable and if they are, it hopes to facilitate the development of the industry.

If successful the pilot could pave the way for sustainable native forestry in New Zealand. With last week’s announcement two thirds of the One Billion Trees programme would be native trees and a focus on better ways to manage land prone to erosion, the steering group feel like the “stars are aligning” for their project.

It’s estimated the tōtara industry has the potential to produce $7.5 million per year in three years. Eventually if the wood is processed into higher value products, the industry could be worth up to $60 million per year.

“The Tōtara Industry Pilot project is quite focused on making sure this is not business as usual, but a new and different model. Something better than we have ever seen before.”

Steering group member, Paul Quinlan, hopes the pilot will change the way timber is produced.

“The Tōtara Industry Pilot project is quite focused on making sure this is not business as usual, but a new and different model. Something better than we have ever seen before.

“That’s the lofty ideals. Whether it can achieve that will be very interesting.”

Tōtara’s history

Philip Simpson, botanist and author of Tōtara: A Natural and Cultural History said tōtara has been one of the country’s most important trees for hundreds of years.

Its timber has been used by Māori for waka, carvings, and homes, and later by Europeans. Tōtara is durable to weather and its uses ranged from piles and shingles on houses to bridges, wharves and fence posts.

“Sadly, what that meant was most original tōtara in New Zealand was milled,” said Simpson

The estimated 200,000 hectares of Tōtara in Northland is made up of regenerated trees, not original. In fact, the tree regenerates so prolifically it is sometimes viewed as a weed by farmers.

Simpson said the seeds of the tree are dispersed by birds. When they germinate in farm paddocks the tōtara’s spiky leaves make them unpalatable to stock.

“If you get part of a farm which doesn’t have much stock or trampling then tōtara can regenerate very densely and very quickly. In just a few years and you can get hundreds of seedlings.”

Without other trees competing with them, farm-grown tōtara grows quicker than it does in forests. Trees around 80 years old can be harvested. 

Simpson said currently farmers are unable to get income from the land the trees grow on. If successful, the pilot programme could change this.

“Generally speaking after a while someone comes along and chops it all down, so this concept of sustaining the timber and managing [this] naturally occurring secondary growth is a way of actually protecting them.”

The pilot

Northland Tōtara Working Group’s Paul Quinlan doesn’t like to use the word logging in relation to the pilot.

“The amount taken is less of an annual increment than the forest grows at,” he said.

Quinlan describes harvesting for timber as “taking a tree from here there and everywhere from the forest” in what is referred to as continuous cover forestry.

“I look for the best trees in the stand and do the opposite to what was done in the past. Instead of taking them, think about keeping them and look around and think about what would help those trees grow in the future.”

Quinlan removes the shorter, fatter trees to give younger thinner trees space. It’s something he has been experimenting with on his own farm since 1998. Thinning and pruning leads to faster growth and a better tree for milling.

Scion’s general manager of research and investment Russell Burton said the taboo around cutting native trees came from the historical approach of mining trees.

“When you are taking trees out you are actually putting more trees back in. We want to see the amount of native forest increase.”

Scion and Northland Inc are providing $550,000 of funding for the project between them.

“Scarily enough we know the genetic fingerprint of radiata pine, yet we know so little about our native species. Hopefully this will help us understand a lot more.”

Burton hopes the project will spark the beginning of a sustainable source of income for Northland.

Burton said in order for the industry to be viable the cost of harvest needs to come down. Currently the forestry industry is set up to clear-fell large areas of pine. Creating an infrastructure which supports selective harvesting is a vital part of the project: “That means people being better-trained and having better equipment to be able to do that.”

The wood from farm-grown tōtara does not have the same weather durability as slower grown original trees. It’s likely to be used in high-end products where tropical timber is currently used, such as furniture or cabinetry rather than as fence posts or house piles. 

Burton describes tōtara’s look as “rather beautiful”: “You can get a very high level of grain in it as well. If you choose you can end up with some stunning looking timber.”

Mixed grades of Tōtara used in bathroom cabinets. Photo: Paul Marley

Another challenge the pilot project hopes to overcome is developing an efficient way of drying the timber. Ideally, it wants to reduce drying time down to one or two months.

Burton acknowledges the challenges are significant but thinks the payoff is worth it.

“What we would like to see is the beginnings of a whole new industry built on sustainably-grown tōtara. We would like to see more employment, we would like to see high quality jobs in Northland.”

The steering group sees potential for Northland businesses including plant nurseries, specialist tree-fellers, trucking firms, mills and builders and say timber is “just a vehicle to achieve” a sustainable local economy.

Northland’s abundance of tōtara and the range of ages of trees mean if managed well, income would be sustainable for years to come.

The group also hopes farmers will see value in fencing less productive land off from cattle and allowing native trees to grow.

“What does a good healthy, diverse forest look like? If we can address more selective logging and we can make it financially viable then we have the ability to see greater diversity of our forests.

“Scarily enough we know the genetic fingerprint of radiata pine, yet we know so little about our native species. Hopefully this will help us understand a lot more,” said Burton.

Quinlan sees tōtara as a trailblazer for other native tree projects.

“Now with the Government’s interest in forestry and One Billion Trees and the right tree in the right place, it’s almost as though the stars are aligning. This is the best opportunity native forests have had for as long as I have been interested in them.

“I’m really hopeful for the country that something positive comes out of it all.”

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