Volume 10

Tairua Forest: A History

Ian Barton

THE EARLY YEARS (Kauri timber and Gold)

Although this is a history of the Tairua exotic forest, a brief review of the preceding kauri logging years is warranted, for a great deal of kauri was milled in the catchments of the Tairua, Wharekawa and Whangamata rivers and the presence of this kauri had considerable impact on growth of the later exotic forest. Probably the largest kauri driving dam ever built was The Wires dam1 on the first branch of the Tairua river. Built in 1905/06, it’s construction required about half a million board feet of kauri timber (1500 m3 ).

It is estimated that almost 1 million m3 of kauri was cut from the Tairua catchment. Taking the price of 2/6d per 100 board feet paid to Faithfull & McConnell in 1903 for logs delivered to the booms, as a guide, the total amounts paid to contractors for all the kauri cut from Tairua would have amounted to about £500,000 or at least $111 million in NZ dollars today.

Early Tairua was very much a frontier mill town. Things were so bad that in 1878 the new owners of the mill, The Union Sash and Door Company, contacted the police about lawlessness in the town; pointing out that they owned cutting rights to virtually all the timber in the district and were the major employer. By the end of 1878 two policemen were stationed in Tairua. However the long depression in the 1880’s and 90’s caused a severe downturn in the timber industry and by 1896 Tairua’s population had almost halved and the mill worked with greatly reduced hours. The police station closed in October 1895, because in the three years from mid 1892 there had been only 7 arrests in the district.

There were some very large kauri in the area and the measurements of one gave a diameter of just over 3 metres, height of 50 metres and timber volume of 128.3 m3. But other trees must have been larger for, in the gold rush of 1875, it was reported that an enterprising storekeeper at Measletown2 cut a door and window into a hollow fallen tree and set up shop there; unfortunately no measurements were given and the dead tree was soon after consumed by fire. Fire, as in several other kauri forests, also destroyed large quantities of kauri timber in the Tairua area. The worst occurred about 1895 and burnt 16 million board feet (38,000 m3) of kauri. The milling contractor had apparently observed the fire being started by a gum-digger but had great difficulty in getting the authorities to act. Even 35 years later, when the proposal to establish the Tairua State Forest was being made, there was still some harvesting of native timber occurring. Over half a million board feet (1500 m3), mainly kauri, was measured for sale in the early 1930’s and sold to the Leyland O’Brian Timber Co for £2632/3/-in 1935; probably a one-off sale.

At the same time as timber was being milled, gold mining was also an important industry. There were two mines in the Tairua Forest; in the south the Auckland or Wentworth Mine –up the Wentworth Valley. While due west of Whangamata was one of the best producing of the early Coromandel mines, the 'Luck at Last'. This operated from 1897, when the first drives were made until 1900 when the Company, Whangamata Proprietary Ltd sold the mine. Until 1929 further attempts were made to reopen the operation but, as far as is known no further gold was extracted. The operation yielded 13,136 oz of bullion, valued then at £17,666 [today approximately NZ$2 million]. There is an excellent account, written by one who was there, of establishing the mine, the life of a young miner and living in the Luck At Last village.


In 1913 the Royal Commission on Forestry had suggested the formation of a separate Forestry Department of government; but this was not implemented until after the end of the First World War when, in 1921-22, the Forests Act was passed to set up the State Forest Service. The reason for setting up a separate Department of State was the finite indigenous forest resource, and the task of the new State Forest Service was to ensure sufficient timber supplies in the years ahead; implicit in this decision was the need to plant exotic species.

MAP 1: Tairua Forestry 1973
Source: NZFS Map Series 1,
Auckland Conservancy Sheet2.

An early job of the first Director of Forestry Leon McIntosh Ellis, was to set planting targets for the infant forestry department. This was probably finalized at a meeting of senior Forestry staff at a conference in Rotorua in 1925, but it was not until the annual report of 1928 that figures appeared which set the objective of 300,000 acres of planted forest by 1935. It was early determined that Riverhead and Maramarua forests would be established to supply Auckland and North Waikato, with planting beginning at Riverhead in 1926 and Maramarua in 1928. However the rate of planting required to meet the Ellis’s target saw them both fully planted by 1931 and more land was urgently needed.

Indications that the establishment of an exotic forest at Tairua, where there was considerable cutover kauri forest - some already gazetted as State Forest, was being considered surfaced as early as 1927 and in 1929 steps were taken to acquire land for a nursery. Originally this was leased because of the long time required to obtain permission to purchase. The Tairua project was launched after an Auckland Advisory Committee, consisting of Auckland’s Conservator of Forests and the Commissioner of Crown Lands, confirmed that the bulk of the land in the area could be more economically utilized for forestry than farming.

While the provision of long term timber supplies was the main objective of establishing these and other forests around New Zealand, the depression from the late 1920’s until the mid 1930’s provided a labour force which enabled planting to get underway without delay. By 15 November 1929, 120 unemployed men, both European and Maori, were working at Tairua forest under the direction of Mr C Biggs, who was a forest ranger based in Auckland but was temporarily in charge at Tairua until the appointment of the first Officer in Charge, W Staveley in 1930.

As was often the case when it was proposed that land be set aside for forestry, the farming lobby was quick to point out that, in their opinion, there were extensive areas of land suitable for dairy farming and sheep and cattle raising in the Tairua area. It was stated that land between Waihi and Hikuai, currently locked up in provisional afforestation areas, was retarding settlement. The Minister of Forestry replied that both he and the Minister of Lands were at all times prepared to investigate any area better suited to farming than forestry. Despite several attempts over time to re-open the subject, it is interesting to note that throughout its history as a State Forest (until the Forest Service was axed in the late 1980’s) the area and boundary of Tairua changed very little!


The 1913 Royal Commission on Forestry had come to the conclusion that,( sic) 'it was useless to plant native trees for timber production', and recommended instead that New Zealand’s future timber needs be met by several Australian Eucalypts, pines of various kinds for building timber and timber for box wood for the cartage of various kinds of agricultural produce; Pinus radiata was thought to be best for the latter purpose. Henry Matthews, the Chief Forester of the Lands Department was advocating as early as 1905, the planting of mixtures by Foresters - who had the skills to manage them, or single species plantations by farmers. He recommended that oak, ash, elm and the spruces should be planted on rich loam; larch on light gravelly soils and pines and birch on rocky ridges. Mathews who had been appointed Chief Forester on 19 August 1896 was a nurseryman by training, but by 1905, had acquired some forestry experience - his department having been growing and planting a wide range of exotic species for almost 10 years. However he seems to have taken a somewhat scatter gun approach.

In 1899 the combined forest nurseries were growing 46 different tree species; reducing by 1904 to 25 major and about 14 minor species. It is understandable that, with virtually no accumulated experience of growing exotic trees in New Zealand and little knowledge of their nutrient requirements, Matthews and his helpers tested many species; but it does seem unwise to have planted large areas of species about which they had little knowledge – for establishment costs at the time appear to have been about four times that of today. They usually planted about 2700 trees per acre (4’ x 4’) at the estimated cost of the day for trees in the ground – 1.27 pence per tree3.

However some early forestry staff were aware of the problems associated with planting large areas of many relatively untried exotic species. Kensington ( A to J 1910-11)while outlining the main reasons that native species were felt to be unsuitable for afforestation, pointed out that the use of exotics could only proceed by conducting experiments with great care and that some would be more successful than others. He quoted larch, almost 50% of the planted area in 1911, as showing susceptibility to dry conditions, while Pinus laricio, P nigra and P ponderosa had adapted well. Almost 20 years later, a cautious approach was still being taken by Maxwell, who deplored the fact that by 1930 so little experimental planting had been done stating that:

'Beyond a few species which may be indifferent of climate and soil conditions, no amount of information……… is sufficient to warrant extensive planting of many apparently suitable species …..'.

Maxwell advocated planting experimental blocks on areas considered to be average for the several species being considered and considered that P strobus, P ponderosa and Larix decidua should be planted, with smaller areas of Pinus nigra, P laricio, P taeda.

From the above two paragraphs it can be concluded that by 1930 foresters did not know much more about the best species to grow than they had 30 or more years earlier and it is noticeable that of the species originally planted only a few, mostly in a minor capacity, are still being planted today. When Tairua Forest began in 1930 those involved knew little about which species were best suited for the area and even less about the soil and climatic conditions needed for their growth. This is the probable reason why some forty different species and mixtures were tried and, even 30 years later, Pinus radiata and mixtures containing it comprised less than 50% of the species planted at Tairua.


The Tairua nursery and forest HQ was established on 27 acres4 located just south of the point where the Whangamata-Hikuai Road crosses the Wharekawa River and about a kilometre south of the Opoutere turnoff. The first seed sown in the nursery was in November 1929 when 360 lbs of Sequoia sempervirens (redwood), 150 lbs of Pinus ponderosa (Western Yellow pine), 34 lbs of P. laricio (Corsican pine) and 10 lbs of Cryptomeria japonica (Japanese cedar) was sown. Redwood seems to have been a highly favoured species for, at the germination rates provided in the correspondence, over 4.5 million seedlings could have been produced – sufficient to plant 670 hectares at the common spacing of the time -4 feet. In November 1929 it was reported that the forest gave employment to 120 men – most working it can be assumed, in the nursery or preparing land for the first planting. In March 1930 the forest was visited by the commissioner of State Forests - the Hon W B Taverner; the local Thames MP -Mr A M Samuel and senior officers of the Forestry Department. Mr Taverner stated that he was very pleased with progress and expected that several thousand acres would be planted in the coming winter, with seedlings grown in the forest nursery.

(Photo 1) First nursery site.

(Photo 2) Cottage & relief workers camp

In April 1930 the first monthly report from the nursery, stated that Mr Clabburn had arrived to take charge of the nursery and a team of local Maori women had been employed to take care of the weed problem. Of the first species sown in the nursery Corsican pine had not done well; Japanese cedar had germinated poorly and P. palustris had failed. More land, adjacent to the original block, was being acquired bringing the total area of nursery and Forest H Q to 56 acres The Chief inspector of the State Forest Service, C M Smith, inspected the forest on 27th May 1930, noting that 500,000 redwood, 250,000 Insignis 5pine and 130,000 Canary Island pine were available for planting which would enable planting of 1300 acres, although more land had been prepared. For the 1931 planting season 1.7 million seedlings, including Corsican and Western yellow pine but with redwood making up 57% of the total, would be available. The 3 miles of public road from Whangamata to the nursery, probably unmetalled, was causing problems and required urgent metalling. Smith inspected the forestry camps which he found to be satisfactory although Forest Guard Clabburn’s new house had several defects.

(Photo 5) Tairua Forest from Luck at Last Road 1931

The vegetation of much of the forest area appears to have been light scrub, certainly in the central area as can be seen in Photo 5 Tairua Forest from Luck at Last Road 1931. The prominent volcanic structure (Taungatara) in the photograph is known as a Beeson’s Island Volcanic and comprised mostly of Miocene andesite (Schofield 1967). Photo 6 shows approximately the same view in 2016, following the third harvest.

(Photo 6) Tangatara 2016

In October 1930 the nursery report lists several new species being sown, including Pinus patula, P. peuke6, P. taeda, P. caribaea7, P. lambertiana and Araucaria cunninghamii. By December 1930, E Phillips Turner the Director of Forestry, had approved the purchase of the 646 acre section 7 of Block XII, Tairua Survey District, part of which was to be the site for the new Forest HQ and nursery.The new Forest Service HQ was later located at the southern extremity of this section, 5 km south of the then nursery; the remainder of section 7 being planted. The first trees were planted at Tairua Forest in the winter of 1930 and by 31st March 1931, 1882 acres had been established.


During the next five years the emphasis was on providing work for the very large number of unemployed in New Zealand, with Tairua playing a major role in this effort. In May 1932 it was reported that throughout the country 750 men were employed on forestry projects of which 130 were at Tairua –only exceeded by the numbers at Kaingaroa and Golden Downs Forest in Nelson8. But although winter employment on planting schemes was still occurring in 1935 it was reported that the full planting programme at Tairua could not be achieved because of shortage of relief labour and by the end of 1937 arguments were again appearing in newspapers on the recurring question of farming –v- forestry use of the land. Taking a different angle the Thames County, of which the Tairua Riding was a part, complained that Tairua Forest consisting of 44,000 acres of government land and paid no rates leaving the ratepayers on the remaining 30,000 acres to pay all the costs of the Riding. The main area with which this debate was concerned was some 6000 acres lying south of Tairua township but north of the area already planted. (Map 2) The debate continued for several years but by 1967 the Lands Department had advised that it was unsuitable for farming and it was planted during the 1970’s.

The boost to planting rates, by using unemployed labour, was done with minimal planning and at some cost to the proper practice of forestry. The main problem was the large number of different species being tried9 with little knowledge of how they might grow. In September 1932 the Auckland Conservator, R D Campbell, had sent a report to Wellington suggesting that too many species were being used and that they should be reduced to two; proposing redwood and P, patula. This letter may have been the reason why, six months later, C M Smith spent 3½ weeks at Tairua and produced a plan of operations for the next five years work. A later report in March 1934, by C M Smith, stated that although 10,000 acres had been planted at Tairua he considered only 4000 of these had the potential to become commercial forest. Smith also noted that, because fires had been controlled over the past four years, scrub had been regenerating and its consequent protection and improvement of the soil was also encouraging the regeneration of kauri and tanekaha. Contrary to Campbell’s recommendation of two species, Smith proposed a range of pines, Eucalypts and Thuja plicata. Noticeably he did not recommend Pinus radiata, considering older local specimens to be dead topped and unhealthy looking. Finally he considered that the administration of the forest needed to be improved and regularised; the camp upgraded and a permanent storeman appointed. A sample of Tairua soil he took in 1934 proved, on analysis by the Department of Agriculture, to be of reasonable physical structure but very deficient in phosphate and potash. As later experience was to show it was this phosphate deficiency which had caused the poor growth of P. radiata and several other species.

Smith’s recommendation as to the best species to be grown largely fell on stony ground and the species being grown by the nursery in 1935 still containing large numbers of P radiata and P ponderosa, although, as recommended by Smith, P palustris and P pinaster were being grown.

Access to the forest before World War 2 was difficult; by road via Waihi, and virtually all metalled. The rail head was at Waihi with heavy goods intended for Tairua forwarded by truck; which was limiting for bulky freight. However until 1938 a coastal shipping service called at many ports on the Coromandel Peninsula, including Tairua and Whangamata and this undoubtedly carried much heavy freight10. In April 1931, R D Campbell had recommended to the Director of Forestry that an area of land adjacent to the nursery at Tairua be purchased to grow horse feed and in October of that year the department surveyor, E V Stewart11 recommended that Sect 1, Blk XI Tairua SD, including 20 acres of flat land and the property of T Wairepo be purchased . In his report he mentions that hay and carrots could be grown which would result in great savings over the current cost of shipping fodder in by scow from Auckland12.

Apart from the first horse, purchased from Mr Martyn in 1930 and referred to as a 'splendid worker and beautiful type of horse', the exact number of horses employed in the nursery is unknown, although in most reports they are referred to in the plural. However they were gradually superseded because the nursery report for Sept 1937 refers to discing being done with a tractor. Nevertheless horses must have remained in use for at least another 12 years; the monthly report of May 1949 referring to the making of feed boxes for horses. They were probably dispensed with soon after 1949 as the O/C Bernie Guthrie commented on this in a letter of 27 Oct 1953.


  1. So called because the telegraph wires between Auckland and the Bay of Plenty passed close by.
  2. So named because apparently there was a severe outbreak of measles there during early gold rush days. Location was near Neavesville (originally called “Upper Township”) at the top of the Tairua river catchment.
  3. 1.27d for wages in 1904 converts to approximately NZ$4 today. Actual cost to plant one P radiata today ranges between NZ$0.83 and NZ$1.30 Farm Forestry New Zealand and Measuring Worth
  4. Part section 8, Block VIII in the Tairua Survey District
  5. Pinus insignis was earlier name for Pinus radiata.
  6. Probably Pinus peuce (Macedonian pine)
  7. Although called Pinus caribaea this was probably Pinus elliottii from SE U.S.A. P caribaea is native to Cuba and Central America.
  8. The pay rate was £1 a week for married men and 10/- for single men. They were provided with meals and housed in tents.
  9. Over 20 different species had been planted by the end of 1933.
  10. The main boat on this service in the 1930’s was the Tuhoe which did the run at least weekly. There had been a regular shipping service to Tairua since at least 1881.
  11. E V Stewart was listed in the Public Service List as a Forest Ranger with land survey experience and was based in Wellington.
  12. The Tairua Nursery report for Oct 1935 also states that 4.5 acres of oats, at a cost of £1/13/11d per acre were grown, while feeding and grooming the horses cost £1/2/5d.

See part II for references. [To be continued]

Appendix of Species

Botanical Name: Common Name

  • Agathis australis: Kauri
  • Araucaria cunninghamii: Hoop pine
  • Cryptomeria japonica: Japanese cedar
  • Cupressus luusitanica: Mexican Cypress
  • Larix decidua: European larch
  • Phyllocladus trichomanoides: Tanekaha
  • Pinus canariensis: Canary Island pine
  • P. caribaea: Caribbean pine
  • P. elliottii: Slash pine
  • P. lambertiana: Sugar pine
  • P. laricio: Corsican pine
  • P. nigra : Austrian pine
  • P. palustris: Longleaf pine
  • P. patula : Mexican pine
  • P. peuce : Macedonian pine
  • P. pinnaster : Maritime pine
  • P. ponderosa var scopulorum: Western yellow pine
  • P radiata (Pinus insignis): Monterey pine
  • P. strobus: Eastern white pine
  • P. taeda: Loblolly pine
  • Sequoia sempervirens: Coastal redwood
  • Thuja plicata : Western red Cedar


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