1918 19th Century On the Land Electricity Iron Sands to Steel Think Big

A Plea for Forestry Research

The need for research as a basis for development was a message widely preached by technologists in the years following World War I.  One such was L. MacIntosh Ellis the talented first Director of Forestry who pleaded in his report to Parliament in 1920: 

"The formation of a strong research division is absolutely necessary if we are to make any advance in the solution of the forest problems of New Zealand. This cannot be urged too strongly. 

One has only to review past achievements of forestry in New Zealand to see that the one great vital thing lacking has been systematic observation and study.  During the past twenty-five years 300,000 pounds has been spent - earnestly and sincerely, it is true - but the sum total of all that expenditure is 35 000 acres of planted forest. 

No investigations have been made as to the fundamental requirements of forestry as applied to the great indigenous forests.  Today we must start from zero and gradually build up a knowledge upon which our programme may be based.  In forestry we are dealing with nature and time, therefore the study of nature's modus operandi must be begun at once, so that by the time the State forests are demarcated it will be definitely possible to prescribe the finer details necessary for their management."

Pinus Radiata

Too often overseas experts have been called into New Zealand to provide advice, which could be better gained from specialists within the country.  Forestry provides a good example of this. 

A Royal Commission on Forestry had been held in 1913, and its findings were reviewed by Sir William Schlich FRS, a man who had never visited the country.  His paper, "Forestry in the Dominion of New Zealand", appeared in Vol 1 of the New Zealand Journal of Science & Technology .

The Royal Commission had been established because of concern that future growth of the forests would not keep up with expected demand.  Sir William was struck by the fact that in the Commission's recommendations the natural forests had practically been thrown overboard because of their slow growth and that future supplies were to be provided by plantations of exotic trees. 

Heading the list of exotics recommended for planting was Monterey pine (Pinus Radiata).  This was in Sir William's view a "very bold measure", and he questioned whether the indigenous species really grew as slowly as was believed in New Zealand, whether exotic species could yield timber of sufficient quality and yet grow faster, and whether it was safe to introduce exotic species on a large scale without risking the development of disease which might in the end lead to disastrous results.  He was also sceptical of the yields quoted for Monterey pine. 

Ill-informed "Overseas" Expertise

Not for the last time an "overseas expert" gave poor advice because of his lack of appreciation of the New Zealand scene and his willingness to extrapolate from his own experience to it.

Early plantings of a wide range of species dating from the end of the nineteenth century had provided the information which led to an appreciation of the value of Monterey pine.  It would grow in many situations and, on good or even moderate sites, produced a phenomenal amount of wood.  It was attractive to the forester, producing abundant seed, and seedlings, which were easy to raise, transplanted easily and grew rapidly.

Valuable materials for Man

In the new post-war scientific age wood was seen as a "structure with countless cells filled with valuable materials for the use of man".  MacIntosh Ellis identified a number of problems of prime importance for his proposed Forest Products Laboratory. One was the need to investigate and study the relative pulping values of native woods, and another to look at the possibilities of securing a cheap motor fuel by distillation of waste wood to produce alcohol.  The latter proposal arose because of "the high price of petrol, together with the early exhaustion of the big oil fields."

MacIntosh Ellis failed to persuade the Government to establish a forest products laboratory but pulp and paper making tests were made at the Imperial Institute in 1921 and in conjunction with a London paper machinery company in 1923, demonstrating the value of rimu and of white pine for the manufacture of the higher classes of papers.  Attempts were made to interest local capital in a paper-pulp mill in Westland to use slabs of these woods and mill wastes but to no avail.

A Forestry Boom

Meanwhile the planting of exotic forests had begun to boom, not only as a State enterprise but also as a result of commercial interest arising from publicity given to the remarkable way pinus radiata grew, together with the idea that a wood famine was in prospect.  The scene was set for one of New Zealand's more interesting financial debacles, as well as for early "Think Big" projects and the establishment of a world-scale forest products industry.

Pinus Radiata was the main species planted.  Plantings took place principally in the North Island's central volcanic region where "bush sickness", later to be shown to be a result of a cobalt deficiency, had prevented pastoral development. 

An Uncertain Investment

The State and private plantings took place in parallel, with those of the state outstripping those of the private sector.  The people sponsoring the private sector plantings varied in their probity but the bond system adopted was basically unsound whatever the honesty of those promoting it.  Sales of bonds were made around the world, chiefly in Australia but also in India and other places.  Gradually the bondholders who had fallen for the tales of the riches they might expect when the trees matured began to realise the uncertainty of their investment.  After 20 years they would receive title to a block of mature trees for which no clear market existed. 

As one Indian gentleman who came to see for himself discovered, the trees were there, row upon row of them and clearly a national asset had been created but New Zealand wages were so high that once they and the cost of land and sea transport had been taken into account there would be little left for the bondholder, even if sales of timber could be made overseas.

Many bond purchasers had been led to believe the schemes were in some way government-backed and as the uncertainties about the future came home, many bondholders wrote to the Prime Minister and to government departments.  Eventually it became necessary to establish a Commission of Inquiry.  The Commissioners carried out their investigations in private and, after initiating legal proceedings where fraud was evident, proposed that bondholders should be made into shareholders in the sponsoring companies, with equal rights to the existing shareholders.  Thus 17 000 bondholders of the first and largest of the forestry companies, Perpetual Forests, were incorporated into New Zealand Forest Products (Now Carter Holt Harvey) in December 1935.  The new company would not pay a dividend until 1960. 

The basic fact remained, of course: trees and particularly pinus radiata did grow well in New Zealand. The big question became: how should they be utilised.  Just as occurred with the Maui natural gas field forty years later, a large resource existed - what should be done with it?

Entrican's Answer

An engineer employed in the Forest Service supervised pulping trials in North America on various woods, including insignis pine (now known as Pinus Radiata).  He was A.E. Entrican, who would later become a dominant Director-General of Forestry and the architect of the major project based on the State Forest plantings, which would become the Tasman Pulp and Paper Company ( subsequently Fletcher Forests and Fletcher Paper.) 

Reporting on the trials, Entrican wrote in the New Zealand Journal of Science & Technology in 1929:

"Paper pulp is chiefly cellulose fibres.  It follows that, since cellulose is the basic structure of all woody plants, some kind of pulp can be made from every species of wood.  The practical question is whether any pulp can be made cheaply in sufficient quantities and of a quality, which will enable it to compete with other papermaking materials.  Under existing conditions, it is true, there are few, if any, localities in New Zealand where the necessary raw materials may be procured either in quantity or at such a price as would enable a pulp and paper mill to compete with foreign producers.  But, as foreign wood-supplies become scarce, large volumes of intermediate products will become available from the manmade forests in various regions. These will create favourable conditions for the operation of all classes of pulp-mills, whose main source of raw materials requires to be in the form of round products.  Supplementary supplies of logging and mill waste will then be useable from adjacent native forests.

Indeed it is possible that New Zealand may become eventually a large exporter of forest produce, including both pulp and  paper.

A.E. Entrican. "Paper Pulp from New Zealand-grown woods” NZJ of S&T Vol XI August 1929

A Government Research Establishment.

MacIntosh Ellis's plea was finally answered in 1947 when the Forest Research Institute (now Forest Research) was formed as part of the Forest Service.

The Pulp and Paper Projects

The large-scale forestry based pulp and paper projects, using imported technology at Kinleith and Kawerau, were put in place in the 1950s.  Their development is a story in itself.  However there are some interesting facets of it worth relating .
(refs are "A Hundred Million Trees" and Appendices to the Journal of the House of Representatives C-3 1949).

Entrican, displaying all the optimism of "Think Big" promoters, gave his justification for what was called the Murupara project in his report to Parliament in 1950.  Here among other things he wrote of the large number of jobs it would provide (2,000) and the exchange it would save the sterling area (at least 16 million pounds).

The latter would arise because of the expenditure at that time of this sum on pulp and paper from North America. 

"The project can compete at world parity for these products on the Australian markets and achieve these results.  Who will gainsay that it cannot be to New Zealand what Broken Hill is to Australia?" 

Nevertheless Entrican was sensitive to the conservatism of his countrymen, and their likely reaction to the large scale of the enterprise.  In a section entitled "Prejudice Against Large-Scale Enterprises" he wrote:  

"The Forest Service fully appreciates the inherent pyschological difficulties hindering public acceptance of the scheme.  New Zealand is essentially a country of individualists.  Even large-scale co-operatives are suspect.  How much more so must be a company, which will have an output of sawn timber alone equal to the production of one hundred existing sawmills?  The natural thought, if not instinct, is not merely to suspect but to resist.

The unpleasant truth to the individualist is that only by this large-scale production will New Zealand be able to reduce costs sufficiently to compete at world parity in Australia so that in either event there will be no one hundred millers - merely unused forest!  The Forest Service hopes that the same type of enterprise which gave New Zealand the largest co-operative dairy company in the world will likewise give it the largest integrated sawmill and pulp and paper company in the Southern Hemisphere."                      

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next page

Think Big

The Path to Think Big

A Plea for Forestry Research
A Belief in Technology
Think Big Intro
A Path to Think Big I
A Path to Think Big II
Methanol
A Path to Think Big III
The Ammonia/Urea Plant
A Path to Think Big IV
The Big Decisions

Pinus Radiata
Valuable Materials for Man
A Forestry Boom
An Uncertain Investment
Entrican's Answer
The Pulp & Paper Projects
Previous Page
The Story of New Zealand Forest Products Ltd, Hodder & Stoughton, 1982.