Commercial forestry in New Zealand

Scion is an integral part of New Zealand’s forest industry, contributing scientific research, technology development and other services throughout the value chain.

SCI value chain fig

Forestry is a major part of New Zealand’s land use and economy.

The forest industry is based around sustainably managed exotic plantation forests, covering 1.7 million hectares – about 7% – of New Zealand's land area.

In the year to June 2016, commercial forestry contributed over $5 billion annual gross income to the economy, about 3% of GDP. Wood and wood products are the country’s third largest export earner after dairy and meat, and some 20,000 people are employed throughout the forestry value chain.


1. What trees grow in New Zealand’s forest plantations?

New Zealand’s two main plantation species are both conifers originating from North America:

  • Radiata pine (Pinus radiata) – 90% of plantation area
  • Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) – 6% of plantation area.

Radiata pine and, to a lesser extent, Douglas-fir, have benefited from many decades of investment into genetics and breeding, plantation management, harvesting, and processing. As a result, New Zealand’s plantation forests and wood processing sector are advanced and highly productive.

Eucalyptus and other species - cypresses, redwoods and a range of other exotic and indigenous species - make up the remaining 4% of the plantation area. These species are now receiving research and development investment and are becoming the focus of new initiatives to increase the diversity of the forest estate and wood products industries.

2. Who owns New Zealand’s planted forests?

New Zealand’s plantations are largely privately owned - some 94.5% of planted forests is in private hands. The industry is dominated by a relatively few owners of large plantations, including a number of overseas owners. Over 1.1 million hectares (65%) of New Zealand’s plantation forest estate is owned by less than 20 companies.

Māori are increasingly featuring in large-scale plantation forest ownership, as land is handed back to Māori corporations as part of Treaty of Waitangi settlements.

Plantation forests ownership

At the other end of the spectrum, there are many thousands of owners of small areas of trees – these include farm foresters and private investment owners.

3. What happens to the trees when they are harvested?

In 2015, nearly 29 million tonnes of logs were harvested from New Zealand’s plantation estate. The flow of these logs, once harvested, is complex:

Log flow in the NZ forest industry

The logs that are exported go ‘over the wharf’ – that is, they are transported by ship from New Zealand’s major ports to many countries around the world for processing and re-sale.

In 2015, the total value of log exports was over $4.7 billion. Some 38% by value of all log exports went to China.

Top five export markets by value of exports (2015):

DestinationValue of exports 2015 (NZD 000)% of total exports by value
China 1,826,407 38
Australia 711,693 15
Korea, Republic of 462,469 10
Japan 405,312 8.5
India 254,383 5

(Source: NZFOA Facts and Figures 2016)

Other significant markets for New Zealand-grown logs include the USA, Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.

The forestry levy

New Zealand’s forest owners pay a levy on all harvested timber. This levy is collected by the Forest Growers’ Levy Trust. The money is used to fund research and other industry good activities such as biosecurity and health and safety initiatives.

Read more about the Forest Growers’ Levy Trust

4. What are plantation forestry’s environmental credentials?

New Zealand has a number of controls and initiatives to ensure forestry plantations are managed with due regard for the main environmental criteria it impinges on - soil, water and aquatic habitats.

“The environmental impacts of plantation forestry, both good and bad, are often measured in terms of changes to soil, water and aquatic habitats. Protecting soil and water resources is the key to sustainable forest management because soil and water resources underpin forest ecosystems.” (Source: NZ Forestry Portal: Environmental Topics)


Over 50% of the total plantation estate is certified under internationally accredited certification schemes. FSC and PEFC are the two international schemes operating in New Zealand.


New Zealand has two main pieces of legislation to protect soil and water resources:

  1. The Resource Management Act 1991
  2. The Forests Act 1949.

Guidelines and standards

A number of guidelines and standards also exist to help forest managers protect natural resources; these are widely promoted and supported by the forest industry.

Read more about forestry and the environment: NZ Forestry Portal: environmental topics

5. What about forests and climate change?

Plantation forests play a key role in New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions profile. By removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, forests offset emissions of carbon dioxide by other sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing and transport.

Forests act as carbon sinks or reservoirs. As they grow, trees absorb or ‘sequester’ carbon as CO2 from the atmosphere and store it in their roots, stems, branches and leaves.

All carbon stored by trees is eventually returned to the atmosphere in what is called ‘the carbon cycle’.  In natural forests, the carbon is stored until the trees die and decompose. In plantations, the carbon is stored until the trees are harvested.

When a plantation forest is harvested, the stored carbon is transferred to the products that are made from the timber, and very gradually returns to the atmosphere over time as these products break down. Some carbon is also left in the forest at harvest, for example in roots and harvest debris. This carbon also gradually returns to the atmosphere as the material decomposes.

Much research has gone into understanding how much carbon is stored by New Zealand’s plantation (and indigenous) forests as they grow: this is now well understood. Less is known about the rate at which the carbon returns to the atmosphere from timber products.

Read more about forests and climate change: NZ Forestry Portal: climate change

The Emissions Trading Scheme

New Zealand’s forest owners have the option of joining the NZ Emissions Trading Scheme. This gives them the opportunity to account for the carbon stored in their trees, and trade in carbon credits.

Watch this introductory video or read more about the NZ Emissions Trading Scheme

6. What jobs are there in the forest industry?

Recent statistics indicate that around 7,000 people are employed in growing and harvesting trees in New Zealand, and a further 11,000 work in wood processing.

Mechanisation and the use of technology are increasing in all aspects of forestry and especially timber processing.

Employment in different forestry and wood processing sectors: statistics

7. Where can I go for education and training?

There are four main providers of forestry and wood processing education and training in New Zealand:

NZ School of Forestry, University of Canterbury, Christchurch
Undergraduate and post-graduate courses and further research.

Toi-Ohomai Institute of Technology, Rotorua, Dept. of Forestry and Resource Management
A range of technical and management qualifications in forestry operations and wood processing.

Telford campus, (Telford Rural Polytechnic) Lincoln University, Clutha, South Otago
Certificate in Forestry
Distance and e-learning courses in forestry.

Competenz – the Industry Training Organisation (ITO) for forestry and manufacturing
‘On the job’ training throughout the value chain, including apprenticeships.

8. What does the future look like for New Zealand’s forest industry?

The future for New Zealand’s forest and wood processing industries will be greatly affected by a range of global trends. Scion reviews and analyses trends, economic and social drivers that will affect the forest industry. This analysis is summarised in our Statement of Corporate Intent.

Scion’s vision for the industry, and our role within a vibrant future forest and wood processing sector, is illustrated below:Forest industry vision and Scion 2025

9. Who are the main organisations involved in the New Zealand forest industry?

Wood Council of New Zealand (Woodco)

Pan-industry partnership/strategic leadership

NZ Forest Owners Association (NZFOA)

Forest owners; also administers the Forest Growers’ Levy Trust

NZ Farm Forestry Association

Farm foresters and woodlot owners

Wood Processors and Manufacturers AssociationWood processors and manufacturers

Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), Ministry for the Environment (MfE)

Government departments with an involvement in the forestry and wood processing sectors
Federation of Māori Authorities (FOMA)Māori

10. What are the best sources of information about New Zealand’s forest industry?

Three main sources of information are: