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Developing a strategy for the cypress forest industry

Marco Lausberg and Harriet Palmer, New Zealand Tree Grower August 2020.

The cypress industry in New Zealand is at a critical juncture. Macrocarpa remains a favourite timber and one of the few alternative species timbers which is certain to find a market. Research investment continues into breeding and developing innovative ways of processing cypress.

 Planting rates of cypress are in steep decline, and a number of small sawmills have closed as the supply of good quality macrocarpa runs out. If the cypress industry is to survive and thrive, it needs a major boost.  Fortunately, the remit of the Specialty Wood Products Research Programme includes work on developing regional strategies for specialty species.

Cypress industry strengths

Cypress has a relatively long history of development in New Zealand. Early cypress planted for farm shelter was milled and the timber quality was recognised by the Forest Service in the 1950s. Then the Forest Service’s alternative species policy of the 1970s led to more planting by corporate forest owners, farm foresters and other private land owners. Most planting was in the 1990s.

There has also been significant investment in cypress research since the Forest Research Institute breeding programme was set up in 1970s and breeding work still continues at Scion. There are other research programmes, partly funded by the Forest Grower’s Levy via the Specialty Woods Programme Research Partnership, with around $500,000 invested over the past five years alone.

This work includes, for example, breeding and trialling new canker-resistant hybrids, testing the ability of Trichoderma fungi to increase canker tolerance, thermal modification of cypress timber and investigating the sawing potential of young cypress. In addition, there are over 500 permanent sample plots in cypress forests throughout New Zealand, maintained by Scion and corporate growers. These are potentially a very valuable source of data.

Years of research

Over the years a rich collection of research, development and extension material has accumulated – reports, advisory information and videos covering all aspects of growing and processing different cypress species, much of which is available on the NZFFA website. The Cypress Development Group continues to be very active, highlighted by the recent successful effort to establish a nationwide series of trials of new genetic material.

This history, combined with the fact that many people feel there is still nothing to beat macrocarpa in terms of a versatile, attractive, and easy to mill timber, means that the cypress industry has considerable support and resources nationwide. Cypress grows well on a range of throughout the country although careful site selection is needed to produce good quality timber and avoid the risk of canker.

  • A snapshot of the industry shows 
  • A resource totalling almost 10,000 hectares
  • Processing capacity in the form of a number of specialist small sawmills
  • A strong niche market for macrocarpa clear wood and timber in a range of domestic applications
  • An emerging international log market, particularly in China
  • New hybrid material and clones becoming available, including the reasonably well-proven Ovens cypress
  • Significant expertise in growing and processing cypresses.

The decline in cypress planting

A total area of around 10,000 hectares makes cypress the third most popular plantation species in New Zealand.  However, this is a fraction of the total New Zealand plantation of approximately 1.7 million hectares.  The table below shows how cypress is scattered across the country and how planting rates have declined since the peak planting years of the 1990s.

The cypress resource in hectares by age and region
  Age 1 to 10 Age 11 to 20 Age 21 to 30 Age 31 to 40 Age over 41 Total
Northland 28 215 229 21 22 515
Central North Island 339 465 192 155 28 1179
East coast 55 55 68 46 47 271
Hawke's Bay 57 265 29 8 13 372
Southern North Island 108 163 56 153 114 594
North Island total hectares 587 1163 574 383 224 2931
Nelson and Marlborough 41 158 133 26 48 406
West Coast 69 2942 976 477 29 4493
Canterbury 23 158 253 12 10 456
Otago and Southland 320 708 376 265 8 1677
South Island total hectares 453 3966 1738 780 96 7032

The National Exotic Forest Description data for alternative species and forests less than 40 hectares is known to have significant inaccuracies. There is a strong feeling that the small-scale cypress resource is under represented in this information.

The reasons for the decline in planting are not difficult to uncover. Cypress forest ownership, including the high rates of planting in the 1990s, features a mix of corporate and private owners throughout the country.  Corporate growers are currently showing a strong preference for radiata pine and for Douglas-fir in parts of the South Island, mainly because of the high costs and longer rotation associated with growing a pruned cypress crop. Radiata pine and Douglas-fir produce better returns on investment.

In addition, cypress needs good sites to perform well and it does not make sense to allocate the best sites in a forest to a species which underperforms in financial terms. Small-scale growers, such as farm foresters, may not want or need the same return on investment as do corporate growers, but they have also lost enthusiasm for cypress, probably due to the widespread emergence of canker on mid-rotation and younger macrocarpa, particularly in the North Island. There has also been greater species diversification since the 1990s with increasing interest in redwoods, which now cover an area of around 10,000 hectares, as well as durable eucalypts and indigenous species.

Developing a strategy for the cypress industry

Despite numerous past independent and joint research and development projects, there has never been a concerted, coordinated attempt to develop an integrated strategy for cypress encompassing the whole cypress value chain. In other words, one which involves all those growing, processing and marketing cypress. Few in the forest industry or throughout the cypress value chain would like to see cypress slowly fizzle out as a viable alternative species. The challenge of how to revive and re-invigorate the industry is a difficult one.

Fortunately, as part of its mandate, the Specialty Wood Products Research Partnership is required to develop regional strategies for specialty wood products.  The programme focuses on three main alternative species groups – Douglas-fir, durable and non-durable euclaypts and cypress. In 2019 a strategy for the durable eucalypt sector was completed and now it is the cypress sector’s turn to receive some strategic help.

Work on a cypress forestry strategy is well under way.  The project is being managed by Marco Lausberg, and directed by a small working group consisting of two NZFFA members Angus Gordon and Vaughan Kearns, as well as Toby Stovold from Scion. There is additional input from Paul Millen, Professor Bruce Manley and Harriet Palmer. Development of the strategy is in two distinct stages, with work on the second stage depending on the results of the first.

Stage One

A framework has been prepared which outlines the main areas on which the working group believe the strategy should focus. These cover the value chain and include market development, research, extension and building industry partnerships. Three other main areas of work are:

  • Consulting with the two main groups operating in the cypress value chain, corporate growers as well as the harvesting and marketing sector
  • Work by Scion to revise their cypress research plan 
  • Developing initial growth models for clonal Ovens cypress regimes based on the best available data from the existing permanent sample plot network.

Corporate owners are important. Despite cypress being synonymous with farm forestry, most of New Zealand’s cypress trees are owned by forestry corporates. Therefore, we have approached them to learn more about the status of their cypress, their harvesting and marketing activities, and their plans for cypress in the future.

Harvesting and marketing companies and consultants have also been contacted. They have supplied valuable information about the current level of activity in cypress harvesting and marketing, where harvested logs are going, and what affects log value.

Once all the elements are complete, an interim report will be produced. This will summarise corporate grower’s views on the future of cypress on their land, and their willingness to support the development of a cypress strategy. It will also summarise what has been learned about activities of the harvesting and marketing sector, existing value chains and future results of current research. It will also include information on the current markets and profitability of cypress forestry and timber processing that will guide future investment in new planting and new processing and models to demonstrate the feasibility of proposed new clonal cypress regimes.

Stage Two

Based on all the collated information, and assuming there is enough perceived support from the sector to continue, the working group will then prepare a draft strategy which will go to the technical steering team for a first round of feedback. The main activity will be a workshop for industry stakeholders due to be held in September 2020. Ideally people will be able to attend in person. If this is not possible, we will use communications which people have recently become familiar with. The aim of this workshop is to present a near-final strategy, and then for participants to prepare a detailed action plan.

If members of the industry, including corporate and small-scale growers, the harvesting and marketing sector, processors and retailers, and the research sector, see a future for cypress in New Zealand and are prepared to invest in the future of the species, they will need to speak up. The working group’s aim is to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to do this. Anyone who want to know more about the cypress strategy development should contact Angus Gordon or Vaughan Kearns, the NZFFA representatives on the working group.

Marco Lausberg is manager of the Specialty Wood Products Research Partnership.
Harriet Palmer is an independent forestry communications specialist.


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