Early Forest Legislation
The treeless Canterbury Plains proved to be one of the most desirable places for early settlement, in spite of the lack of shelter for stock and of wood for building material. This lack, in fact, led to the first piece of forestry legislation in the country, a simple Planting of Forest Trees Ordinance which was passed by the Canterbury Provincial Government at the early date of 1858. In other districts, too, it was not long before attention was turned to the need for shelter trees and for local timber supplies as forests receded before the advance of agriculture. In 1871 a Forest Tree Planting Encouragement Act was therefore passed. Any province could proclaim this to be in operation.
These tree-planting Acts were only the forerunners to the first general Act, the New Zealand Forests Act, which quickly followed in 1874. The great conflagrations of timber-bearing forests and the difficulty of supervising and regulating logging and milling had led to widespread public criticism, hence the remarkable feature that only 34 years after the founding of the colony politicians were prepared to do something. The Act dealt principally with the regulation of sales of native timber, the basis of which was to be the setting aside of State forest. It also prescribed the formation of a separate State Forest Account and the appointment of a Minister of the Crown as Commissioner of State Forests. The following year a Captain Campbell-Walker of the highly organised Indian Forest Service was appointed the first Conservator of Forests. He reported to Government on the formation of a State Forest Department and read to the Otago Philosophical Society in 1876 what seems to have been the first forestry paper in New Zealand – “State Forestry; its Aims and Object”.
This well-intentioned and, one must note, well-designed start, did not survive the vicissitudes of adverse economic times and of antagonistic vested interests. Nevertheless, the germ was there and it sprouted again in 1885 in the form of the New Zealand State Forest Act. The scope of this Act was along previous lines but in addition it directed that the “Minister may establish a school of forestry and agriculture at Whangarei”, a prescription that was never finally acted upon. But at least the noted botanist, Thomas Kirk, was appointed Chief Conservator of the State Forests Branch of Crown Lands Department. Adverse economic conditions again checked the development of plans. Much of the lack of progress can also be attributed to the fact that the attempted formation and management of State forests remained under the general administration of the Lands Department which, apart from its survey responsibilities, was deeply engaged in forest and land clearance and in planning settlement for agriculture.
Various other events in the forestry field did achieve some success. In particular a timber conference called by the Prime Minister, the Right Hon. R. J. Seddon, in 1896 paved the way for the commencement of afforestation with exotic forest trees by the Lands Department. In 1897 restricted planting began in Auckland, Canterbury, Otago, and Southland, and a Chief Forester was appointed. A Royal Commission on the Timber and Timber-building Industries in 1909 again focused attention on the rapid inroads into native timbers, and reported that indigenous forests would be depleted of their timber supplies in 40 years' time. The event of greatest moment, however, and the one which paved the way to most subsequent forest policy, was the inquiry and report of a Royal Commission on Forestry in 1913. Before commenting on this commission, it is necessary to say something about the forests of the country at the time.