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War Economy

Timber: The Sawmilling Industry Under Pressure

Timber: The Sawmilling Industry Under Pressure

At the outbreak of war, stocks of timber were good. At this stage the sawmilling industry was producing some 315 million board feet of timber a year, which was being supplemented by imports, mostly of types not available in New Zealand, averaging about 40 million board feet a year.1 Exports averaged about 15 million board feet a year.

During World War I there had been a steady decline in the demand for timber, and it was expected that a similar decline would occur again. Rather than try to bring about any general reduction in timber output, it was proposed to adjust the supply by opening up smaller areas of new state forest for milling.

Recruiting for the armed services made early inroads on manpower in the timber industry. In 1940, volunteers were called for three forestry companies for overseas service,2 to be recruited from men experienced in bush-felling and sawmilling. The industry lost some 500 of its best men to these companies, known as the Forestry

1 Including the equivalent of 12 million board feet imported as sleepers and logs.

2 11, 14, and 15 Forestry Companies, New Zealand Engineers.

page 246 Group. Recruiting for other arms of the services also took its toll and, in a survey of sawmill and bush operations in the second half of 1941, it was estimated that, out of a normal complement of 6700 men, the industry had lost 1800 to the armed forces, but had gained 900 from other industries. Its working force, as a result, was down by 14 per cent.

By this time, it was becoming apparent that the expected reduction in the demand for timber was not likely to eventuate. As civilian construction work fell off, the demand was taken up by defence construction work, and by November 1941 it was estimated that at least 85 per cent of available timber was being used for essential purposes, such as camps and hospitals, and for containers for munitions and primary produce.

A Timber Controller had been appointed in 1939, and powers had been taken to control the sale and cutting of standing timber and the production, distribution and use of timber and timber products.1

The Timber Controller's powers now became more important to the war effort. He had a substantial measure of control over the milling of timber and could require any private owner of forests to sell. His consent was necessary for the erection of a new sawmill or for a change of site of a sawmill. These powers were used to get quicker access to millable trees and to conserve scarce equipment and skilled workers.

In spite of various measures to assist the industry, production started to decline after 1941. Demand accelerated at the same time. Japan had entered the war in December 1941. When the threat of invasion brought the need for defence construction work to a peak, the timber industry was declared essential, and working hours were extended in order to obtain maximum production.

In March 1942 the regular weekly hours in the industry were increased from forty to forty-eight in North Island mills.2 The restriction of this order to North Island mills illustrated the difference in the supply position in the North and South Islands. Timber was in short supply in the North Island, but was plentiful in the South Island, where there was less military work. Shortage of coastal shipping made it difficult to ship South Island supplies to the North Island, where they were urgently needed.

In May 1942, men with experience in the timber industry were required to register for work of national importance.3 Direction of labour to the industry followed. There was some direction of workers from the South Island to work in the North Island. With

1 The Timber Emergency Regulations 1939.

2 The Defence Works Labour Legislation Suspension Order 1942 (1942/65).

3 The Timber Workers' Registration Order 1942, which applied to men between the ages of 18 and 65.

page 247 demands for timber still very high, the shortage of skilled men persisted, and requests were made to the Government to release men from the armed forces. At this time there was a very heavy opposing pressure to recruit extra men from all industries for the armed forces, to meet the possibility of Japanese invasion; but, in view of the demand for timber for defence construction work, over one thousand men were held on appeal in the sawmilling and forestry industry, and Armed Forces Appeal Boards recommended the release of 315 men to return to the industry.

In 1943 it was decided that manpower difficulties in the timber industry warranted the recall of most of the Forestry Group. On their return from England, in November 1943, about 250 of the men were directed into the timber industry.

Towards the end of 1943, defence construction work began to taper off, but the housing construction programme soon revived to take its place. Timber stocks had been depleted during the rush of defence construction work, and shortage of stocks was to hamper building operations for some time to come.

Chart 53 shows changes in the production of sawn timber.

chart of timber production

Chart 53

With civilian building restricted, use of timber during the war years averaged only a little above the highest pre-war year, 1937–38. However, imported supplies had fallen away by some fifteen million board feet, which had to be made good by an industry with a page 248 labour force 10 per cent below normal. In 1943–44, the highest wartime year, production was 9 per cent above 1937–38.