In 1840 around two thirds of New Zealand was still covered in forest and this provided the basis for a strong indigenous timber industry over the next 140 years. The timber industry was immediately challenged by the stronger political impetus to establish farms for settlers.
Large areas of valuable indigenous forest were wastefully clear felled, burned off, and pasture established, without even being logged. This resource conflict remained until around 1900 when the government accepted that the indigenous forests would run out and the systematic planting of exotic forests began.
Production of exotic timber, principally radiata pine, commenced in the 1930’s, and from 1953 it became dominant, and the indigenous industry faded away in the 1980’s. The success of the exotic timber industry helped to provide the political basis to protect of the last commercial indigenous forests following strong public protests against continued logging. The Department of Conservation (DOC) now manages these protected areas.
The socialist government policies supporting “the small man” concept meant that New Zealand sawmills were generally small size and sited close to the forest resource. The average enterprise employed 30 hands and the daily production was around eight cubic metres. Mills were powered by steam engines fired on waste wood. Employees and their families lived alongside the mill in a settlement of primitive, company owned houses and huts. Amenities were typically few and when the mill closed, after an average life of around 15 years, the settlement vanished too.
The principal species sawn were rimu, matai, kahikatea, totara, red beech and kauri. Logs came to the mill by bush tramway, typically 3km to 30km long, and worked by horses, steam locos or rail tractor. Often these trams were built in rugged terrain and featured sharp curves, steep grades and wooden viaducts. Their aggregate length exceeded that of the Government railway system. From 1940 roads and trucks were also used for logging. Sawn timber was transported to market principally by rail, with road and coastal shipping also playing a role. The timber industry was an arduous and hazardous working environment..
The important kauri timber industry of the northern North Island was distinctive in character. Kauri was a high value timber with an export market, the industry was dominated by a few big players, production was large scale, and flotation was the main basis of log transport; whether driving, floating or rafting. This industry faded away in the 1930’s.
Today little remains of the heritage of the indigenous timber industry. The principal site types are saw mill sites and bush tram routes, but subsequent land use has seen most of these modified or destroyed. Most of the lowland forest areas were converted to farm and many rugged forest areas were converted to pine plantations, in both cases with the heritage sites obliterated.
Today the principal sites surviving are those on lands managed by DOC.
- Kauri Bushmans Scenic Reserve and log trailer
- Kaiarara Driving Dams, Great Barrier Island, 1926
- Tramline Track, Great Barrier Island, 1925
- Whangaparapara Sawmill Site, Great Barrier Island, 1909
- Windy Canyon log hauler, 1924
- Kauaeranga Historic Sites, Joughin rail tractor, Billy Goat incline
- Ongarue Spiral, 1920
- Pureora Forest Park: village area, timber-worker's house, 1947, old store, 1949, crawler, 1924, Judd hauler, 1900, Robinson hauler, 1940, NZFS workshop, 1950
Bay of Plenty
- Waitawheta Track (Franklin Rd to Bluff Steam Junction), 1907
- Waitawheta Track (Bluff Steam Junction to Waitawheta Hut), 1907
- Upper Waitawheta Track, 1907
- Kaikawaka Villa, Tongariro Forest 1933
- Bruce Park Memorials, 1924
- RC Bruce Memorial, 1923
- Awaroa Steam Engine, 1850 (This is the date the engine was built. It was put on site in1909 – SB)
- Ransomes and Sims Engine 1895 (SB)
- Charming Creek, north of Westport
- Greymouth Mawheranui, Brownlees Steam Shovel, 1924
- Greymouth Mawheranui, Davidson Lokey, 1920
- Hokitika, Mananui Tramway Route and features, 1885
- Okarito, Blacks rail tractor, 1935
- Waitahu Waterpowered Sawmill
- Big River Sawmill
- Freehold Creek Track, Freehold Creek Bullock Snig Tracks, 1857
- North Canterbury, Balmoral Fire Lookout, 1939
- Peel Forest Park Conservation Area, Clarke’s Tramway embankment culvert, Mill Stream Tributary , 1894 and several saw pits
- Gallons Sawmill Site , Stewart Island , 1861
- Maori Beach Sawmill Site and Haulers, Stewart Island, 1913
- McIntyre Sawmill, Preservation Inlet, 1894
- More's Top Mill Site, More's Top Mill Site, Locomotive, & Boiler, Longwood Ranges, 1925
- Murihiku, Waipohatu Picnic Area, Waipohatu Diesel Hauler, 1950
- Port Craig , Edwin Burn Viaduct, 1916
- Port Craig , Francis Burn Viaduct, 1916
- Port Craig , Percy Burn Viaduct, 1916
- Port Craig , Sandhill Point Viaduct, 1916
- Port Craig Mill & Settlement, 1916
- Te Anau Downs Power Plant, 1883
- Walker Creek Sawpit, Milford Road, 1935.
Mahoney, P, (1998). The Era of the Bush Tram in New Zealand, IPL, Wellington.