Academic journal article Environment and History

A Sudden Fancy for Tree-Planting? Forest Conservation and the Demise of New Zealand's Provinces

Academic journal article Environment and History

A Sudden Fancy for Tree-Planting? Forest Conservation and the Demise of New Zealand's Provinces

Article excerpt


New Zealand provides a valuable case study of the relationship between colonial statecraft and forest conservation. This article explores the connections between Premier Julius Vogel's Forests Act of 1874 and the abolition of New Zealand's provinces in 1876, locating conservation within the broader context of popular discontent with provincialism. It argues that previous perspectives have either downplayed or exaggerated the significance of conservation to provincial abolition, and that the relationship between the two was complex and uneven. Abolition profoundly affected conservation, but the stimulus for abolition had been gathering elsewhere even as conservation shaped its timing.


Forest conservation, forest policy, New Zealand provinces, Julius Vogel, colonialism


During the parliamentary recess of 1873-74, New Zealand Premier Julius Vogel toured the South Island and the environmental degradation he witnessed shocked him. In particular, recent heavy demand for timber--primarily a result of Vogel's expansive promotion of public works--had caused widespread deforestation. He had previously given little thought to forest conservation but, in the words of his most recent biographer, he now 'took up the cause with the convert's enthusiasm'. (1) Vogel devoured a vast amount of global literature on conservation and forest management, from the work of George Perkins Marsh to British colonial government reports on Empire and European forestry. (2) His interest in forestry began in Dunedin, the city where he entered politics before moving to Auckland. Preceding a banquet in Vogel's honour, the Otago Daily Times of 1 January 1874 carried an editorial on the importance of conservation, citing G.W. Goyder's influential work in South Australia. The author was most likely editor William Dick Murison, who chaired the Otago Acclimatisation Society; he probably wrote with foreknowledge of Vogel's new interests, as the two knew each other from political and sporting circles. (3) Five days later at the banquet, Vogel emphasised that conservation was 'the largest question demanding consideration at the present'. He expressed horror at the 'most reckless waste of the timber of this country', where 'forests are burned down for the sake of lighting pipes, or boiling pots of tea'. (4) His speech concluded with a call to heed the lessons of India, France, and Germany, proposing to protect existing forests, plant new ones, and use the return to pay off New Zealand's public works debt.

Contemporary observers did not realise it, but this speech indicated the manner in which forest conservation would become embroiled in and shaped by New Zealand's wider political conflicts of the period. Vogel made explicit the connection between forest conservation and public works--forests were destroyed to build infrastructure, especially the railways under construction throughout New Zealand, yet state forests could protect the timber supply and contribute to paying public works debts--and this drew forestry into a broader debate about the future of New Zealand's provincial governments. Nonetheless, the role of the abolition of provincial governments in shaping New Zealand's nineteenth-century forestry policy has been little explored. Recent environmental historiography has placed considerable emphasis on imperial forestry and the dissemination of conservation principles throughout the colonial sphere. (5) The implementation of conservation occurred in a heavily politicised context throughout the world, and New Zealand provides a valuable case study of how forestry came to prominence--largely for reasons unrelated to conservation.

New Zealand politics had been riven by tensions between central and provincial governments since Governor George Grey proclaimed the British parliament's 1852 New Zealand Constitution Act on 17 January 1853. It inaugurated both the provinces and representative government, with responsible government following in 1856. …

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