New Zealand's Rainforests
Europeans arrived in the late nineteenth century and cleared extensive areas of forest to graze sheep and cattle and to grow crops. Today, less than one sixth of the land is covered by forest.
Much of the remaining forest has been logged, particularly the valuable kauri rainforest. The timber from kauri trees is highly valued for furniture and boat building, and these forests were so heavily logged that the New Zealand kauri became threatened with extinction. The remaining kauri are now protected and most kauri trees grow in isolated forest areas.
The kauri rainforests of northern New Zealand and the beech forests of both islands are remnants of ancient forests. Recognised ancestors of the kauri appeared about 250 million years ago, when New Zealand, Australia, Antarctica, India, Africa and South America were still linked together in the supercontinent, Gondwana.
New Zealand beech trees are part of the Nothofagus group which is thought to have covered Gondwana. Scientists believe that this vast continent broke up around 100 million years ago. Nothofagus cool temperate rainforests can be found today only in countries that lie on the same latitude, including New Zealand, Australia and South America. These ancient links make the beech and kauri forests of particular importance. They tell us about conditions on earth many millions of years ago and give us clues about the evolution of animals and plants found today in the rainforests.
A network of reserves has been established in New Zealand to protect the remaining native forests and their wildlife. These consist of national parks, scenic reserves, wildlife refuges and sanctuaries.
In the Northland region, kauri forests are protected under a forest management plan. Scientific reserves have been established within the kauri forest region to study the remaining forest and monitor any environmental changes. These reserves help protect threatened species of both plants and animals.
Vegetation and wildlife are also protected on reserves such as Kapiti Island, Little Barrier Island, Cape Kidnappers, Okarito in Westland and Taiaroa Heads on the Otago Peninsula. The management of these reserves is an important part of conserving both plant and wildlife species. Often it is difficult for a full range of native plant species to re-establish after disturbance as there is too much competition from introduced plants. Management may involve the planting of more native plants and the removal of introduced species. Ongoing monitoring is necessary to check on the condition of the forests in these reserves.
In recent years, some conservation groups and forestry companies have been cooperating in an attempt to come to some agreement over the future of logging in New Zealand. One such agreement, the Tasman Accord, signed in the late 1980's, was seen as a landmark for cooperation between environmentalists and loggers.
The accord resulted in the protection of 52 important areas of native forest throughout New Zealand. This not only protected the indigenous forest but also the habitat of endangered birds such as the kokako.
Under such agreements, plantation timbers such as eucalypt and radiata pine would be logged instead of native hardwoods. Today the forestry industry in New Zealand primarily logs plantation timbers of monterey and radiata pine. These timbers are fast-growing and easily accessible. Most importantly, they provide an alternative to the large scale destruction of precious rainforests and native wildlife so prevalent in the past.
New Zealand's rainforests, symbolised by the fern leaf, are featured on the following New Zealand coins: