Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Right Honourable Sir Francis H. D. Bell, P.C., G.C.M.G., K.C.,: His Life and Times

Chapter XX. — He Initiates a New Forest Policy

page 190

Chapter XX.
He Initiates a New Forest Policy.

Outlines of his policy—Commissioner of State Forests—Conflict with sawmillers—Bell threatens to resign—Results of his policy.


"If we can keep a supply of timber for our children's children and their children's children, that will effect my aim. You must remember this, that the majority of the people of New Zealand, and perhaps the majority of the House, do not care anything about forestry, but look upon it as one of those efforts to promote the regeneration of the human race which are to be regarded as subjects to talk about but not find money for. We have got to be missionaries. We have got to show and prove that the principle of maintaining and establishing, controlling, and managing our forests is a matter of public concern."*

For some years there was no problem in which Bell was more deeply interested than that of forestry. In dealing with it he displayed that boldness and originality which was characteristic of all his work.

The central aim of his policy was "to make provision for a constant supply of timber for the people of New Zealand for their own purposes both now and in the

* Bell speaking to the Conservators of Forests in 1921.

page 191future." This seems a simple and straightforward policy, but it brought him into conflict with various vested interests, and with political opposition that had to be overcome.

In most new countries the supply of land available for settlement usually exceeds the demand, and in such cases it is easy to mark off the forest lands without coming into conflict with the demand of the farmers for land. On the other hand, Bell realized that in New Zealand, owing to the constant demand for land for settlement, it has always been difficult to define and mark off the boundaries of land that should be kept for forestry. The result is that the land which ought to be reserved for forestry purposes is continually being eaten into by the demand for farm lands.

"One of my misfortunes," said Bell, "is that most of the valuable timber trees stand on good soil rather than on poor soil, and the demand for land for returned soldiers is so keen as to make it impossible to conserve all such forest lands for forest purposes."

With great ingenuity he therefore persuaded Parliament to legislate, so as to provide that any Crown lands could be proclaimed as provisional State Forests, leaving it to be agreed on later between the Forestry Department and the Lands Department as to whether part of such provisional forests should go into agricultural purposes. By this means he threw the onus on the Lands Department of proving that any particular area was more suitable for farming than for forestry, instead of compelling the advocates of State forestry to plead with the Lands Department, usually with little success, for its reservation as forests.

page 192

"I do not know," he said, "if there is any precedent for this method, but I am satisfied that in this respect alone the legislation of last session has laid the foundation of a policy of forest conservation, which if adopted by future Governments will ensure the consideration by forest authorities of every case where land covered with forest is proposed by the Lands Department to be used wholly for land settlement purposes."

To give reality to this reform, he separated the office of Commissioner of State Forests from that of Minister of Lands, and he himself in November, 1918, was appointed the first Commissioner of State Forests.

In the next place, he realized that so long as the export of timber was allowed without restriction, there were two great dangers; first, an actual shortage for New Zealand's wants, and, secondly, that high prices received overseas would inflate the cost of timber in New Zealand beyond reason for local consumption. He therefore laid it down that timber could only be exported under license, and these exports were to be regulated in such a way that the requirements of the people of New Zealand should always take precedence. Another striking feature of his policy was that he regarded the conservation for regeneration of the existing native forest areas as the main essential, and the plantation of poor land with exotic trees as only a subsidiary feature.

"The forestry I want to initiate consists, first and foremost, of conservation and use of existing forests, and, secondly, and far behind, plantation."

page 193

In this view, he was supported both by his own experts and other men who had spent many years in the study of forestry.

Captain MacIntosh Ellis, Director of State Forests, to Bell, July, 1921.

"Ever since Sir Julius Vogel wrote 'Forestry' into the New Zealand Parliamentary records, the one serious objective of New Zealand forestry advocates has been to form a national forestry estate by the planting of exotic trees.

"Many excellent State indigenous forests have been created, apparently for the one end, that is to obtain revenue for the furtherance of afforestation operations, while the wonderful native timberlands have been cast aside as of no potential rejuvenative value. This attitude has been broadly entertained until 1918 when you, Sir, had the courage to cast aside the muddling and forced premises of by-gone generations, and to assume that nature, aided by man, should be given a chance to establish New Zealand's national forest estate. Consequent upon your decision, several million acres of virgin wood-land have been saved for conservation and legitimate use."*

But Ellis went on to complain that the Lands Department were still pursuing a blocking obstructive policy, and that there was too much divided control. Moreover, revenue from the sale of Crown forests was paid into the Consolidated Fund, whereas it should have been regarded as capital and reinvested as productive capital.

* In 1921 Bell said, "In three or four years the forest lands of this country have been increased from 1,000,000 acres to more than 5,000,000 acres."

page 194

Sir Edwin Mitchelson, who had spent forty years in the timber industry, wrote to Bell on August 23, 1918:

"There is a general impression abroad that it is only wasting time to attempt to reproduce any of our native timbers. This is all moonshine, for my own experience in planting native trees has proved to me that if they are given the same treatment as is given to exotics, while the growth of the native trees is slower in the early stages of growth, as years go by their growth will be equal to and, in the later stages, greater than the imported timbers. It is only an absurd prejudice that has so far prevented the experiment of native tree planting on a large scale. You are the first Minister of Forestry in New Zealand, and it is up to you as a native of the country to prove to the world that it will not be any fault of yours if a serious attempt is not made to reproduce kauri and useful native timbers" (of which he gives a list).

Finally, Bell urged the preservation of bush in the headquarters of the sources of rivers to avoid serious floods, and to conserve a constant flow in navigable rivers. To secure all these objects he appointed a properly qualified Director of Forestry.

In laying down these principles he did not overlook the fact that where timber was ripe for milling it ought to be cut before it deteriorated. But the milling of the ripe trees should be done in such a way that no unnecessary injury would be done to the growing trees, and it ought to be provided that the milled area should be replanted for future forest operations.

page 195

"If the sawmillers are not prepared to observe these conditions, then in my opinion only State sawmills should be allowed to operate."


His policy aroused great enthusiasm on the part of all those who knew the danger of a world-shortage of timber and the immense value of our forests as a national asset.

Although Bell was correct in stating that few people took any real interest in the subject, there have always been a few thoughtful people who have ardently emphasized the disastrous consequences that must follow from the wilful neglect of this most valuable national source of wealth. As far back as 1909 a Royal Commission examined hundreds of witnesses and issued a portentous volume, filling nine hundred printed pages. Another Royal Commission sat in 1913, and warning after warning has been issued against the exhaustion of our timber supplies. But Bell was the first Minister who grasped the whole problem in a statesman-like manner and took effective action to initiate a proper forestry policy. It is not surprising that Bell came to be known as the "Father of Forestry" in New Zealand.

His policy brought him into conflict with the sawmillers who fought fiercely against his efforts to control exports. Although he was prepared to recognize export contracts that were still running, he made it clear that exports must be systematically regulated. His colleagues, including Mr. Massey, became alarmed at the political storm that was raised by the powerful opposition of the millers, and Bell had to fight hard to avoid the page 196whittling-away of his policy. The local authorities also, who derived royalties from State timber, protested violently, but Bell said: "It would be absurd to contend that the forests of New Zealand are to be destroyed to provide revenue for local authorities." Further conflict arose in the mining districts where the Wardens were allowed to grant timber-cutting licenses, and these licenses were granted without much regard to whether the timber was to be used for mining purposes or not. Bell laid it down that the cutting of timber in these areas must be for mining purposes pure and simple.

Perhaps only on one occasion did a powerful organization urge the prohibition of export, and by a curious irony in that case Bell could not see his way to help them.

In 1924 the National Dairy Association pleaded with him to prohibit the export of white-pine (kahikatea) as they predicted that in fifteen years it would all be cut out and there was no other timber so suitable for butter-boxes and cheese-crates. In reply Bell reluctantly pointed out that white-pine grows on good land suitable for settlement, and it is impossible to save it; in fact, it was being burnt off in the far North, and so he had been forced to allow its export, and he could see no means of avoiding the difficulty. Other classes of timber he could protect because they were not being cut faster than they could be used. But it was impossible to stop settlement on white-pine land.

"Human nature is human nature, and, if I myself had an area of land in white-pine, I would have the forest down because I would want to keep dairy cows. page 197The timber would have to be milled or burnt. If milled, some must be exported because it will not keep long in our climate after being cut."

In the first stages of his work he was hampered by want of funds:

Bell to Mitchelson, August 28, 1918.

"Perhaps I did not make it sufficiently clear to you that at present I have no money for any real purpose of forestry. Until I get a vote, apart from the plantation business at the various nurseries, I cannot spend any money or do anything. You remember Busby who was 'a man-of-war without guns' in 1839. I can plan and scheme for the future and am doing so. Plans and schemes are useless without the means to give effect to them."

He found it difficult to press for money during the War for even such an important purpose as forestry.

"I shall be abused for doing nothing. I shall not care two pins for the abuse. If the reason is to be given it must be given by the Finance Minister or the Prime Minister, but you are not at liberty to excuse me to any one."

But the financial problem was soon solved by the help of Sir Joseph Ward, and ten years later, on Ward's death in 1929, Bell said:

"I have every reason to be grateful to him, for he alone among my colleagues of both parties (in the National Government) gave his support to my project for the establishment of scientific Forestry in New Zealand."

page 198


Bell ceased to be Commissioner of State Forests in 1922. But he watched with anxious eyes the repeated attempts to make inroads on his policy. In 1921 he threatened to resign if his export regulations were ignored. Again in 1928 he tendered his resignation from the Ministry when he saw that the restrictions on the export of New Zealand timber had been removed.

Bell to Coates, May 6, 1928.

"Restrictions were first imposed during my tenure of the office of Commissioner of State Forests. They were imposed by my advice as an essential part of the policy I had advocated, and had been privileged to initiate. That policy had regard to the world-wide increasing scarcity of timber, and was expressed by me in one sentence—The forests of New Zealand must supply timber for the use only of the people of New Zealand.

"I cannot and must not be associated with reversal of that policy. Even a temporary suspension without rigid limiting conditions means a renewal of the position existing at the initiation of the policy of restriction where large contracts by New Zealand millers for the continuous supply to the Australian market could not be ignored by myself in settling the terms of the regulations. My immediate resignation from the Executive cannot be avoided."

But after some correspondence and mutual explanations he was persuaded to remain in the Cabinet. The Minister of Forestry, Mr. Hawken, made a public statement to the effect that Bell's policy was still the policy of the Government, and that the removal of the restric-page 199tions was merely a temporary expedient to enable a large accumulation of timber to be disposed of and to assist in coping with the unemployment amongst the saw-mill workers.


The only point in Bell's policy that has not been given permanent effect to is his proposal to establish a National School of Forestry. Some steps were taken in this direction at the University Colleges of Auckland and Canterbury, but political rivalry between these two centres prevented the proper carrying out of the scheme. Courses in applied forestry were established at both colleges as a result of political pressure, but after four or five years these instructional facilities were abandoned. The net result was the granting of degrees in forestry to ten men. Some of these are doing good work in the State Forestry Service while others are in private employment in the timber and forest industries. The crying need to-day is for adequate intermediate and University training facilities.

But otherwise Bell's plans have been adhered to, and proper principles of forest management have been applied to the kauri forests and the great forests of Westland. In a recent letter to the writer, the late Director of Forests, Captain McIntosh Ellis, sums up the results achieved by Bell's initiative and firmness.

1.New Zealand is now undoubtedly to be the softwood timber farm of Australasia.
2.Water conservation is assured by the blanketing of the backbone ranges by State Forests.
3.There is plenty of timber and to spare for New Zealand for all time.