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A love-hate relationship with redwood

Wade Cornell, New Zealand Tree Grower February 2007.

I have a love-hate relationship with redwood in New Zealand.

The meteoric rise of redwood in the past few years is unparalleled among alternative species. In 2001 there would have been at most a few thousand trees available or sold. Nurseries in 2007 will be offering between one million and two million trees. This is success indeed for those who preached the virtues of this noble tree – or is it?

Could the ecstasy of finding a fast growing tree with so many positive attributes vanish and turn to despair before our first thinning?

Those who have grown redwoods successfully generally fall in love with them. However, for many years local wisdom had it that the timber was not any good as it was too soft for framing and general uses. This is true enough, but that is not how redwood is used, and it has a very well established overseas market.

California sets the standard

The main market for redwood is currently California and they set the standard. That standard has changed in the past 30 years due to the disappearance of old growth timber that has been replaced by second growth. This has certainly caused problems, since second growth is not as dense or durable as old growth. The result has been that redwood is being relaced by composites and other materials that give more reliable performance. A less desirable cheap market also exists in Korea where they use redwood to make coffins.

Redwood is an icon species in California, much like kauri is here. People still pay for the real thing although they also give money to preservationist groups who oppose logging in natural forests. This gives New Zealand the opportunity to be everyone’s hero by growing these trees in plantations. Or does it?


Poorer basic density and poor durability

By all accounts California will still be harvesting and selling redwood lumber for some time. Restrictions will continue to be imposed, but prices are also likely to continue to increase with smaller harvests. This means that New Zealand redwood will be measured against locally sourced redwood.

The aspect of growing redwood that we like most, short rotations, is also potentially our Achilles heel. We can grow redwoods to harvest size in a quarter to half the rotation time of California.

The result will be similar to the difference between old growth and second growth with poorer basic density and poor durability, but this problem can be overcome. Are current growers going to be able to achieve this? Probably not. The millions of trees currently going into the ground are all either from seedling sources or ‘selected or elite clones’. In all cases none of these trees have been screened or chosen for the only important factor, how the wood will perform.

New Zealanders seem to have easily forgotten the lessons of the Angora goats, ostrich and emu scams. Redwoods are being sold in a lolly scramble. Some may be counting that another generation will pass before anybody knows they have been had. There is plenty of scientific data behind our ability to predict wood properties of fast grown redwood. The seedlings and clones now being sold to New Zealanders will produce noticeably inferior wood compared with California second growth. We are witnessing a marketing slow motion train wreck.


Clones selected for growth and form

The best feasible short term answer is to grow clones that have been selected for appropriate wood properties as well as faster growth and good bole form. This should not be confused with the clones currently sold in New Zealand, which have only been selected for growth and form. The people selling these clones might be able to guarantee pretty trees that grow quickly, but have no idea what the wood will be like. The market buys wood, not trees. It will not matter if you have pruned, loved, hugged, or sung to your trees. Wood that does not have enough durability, hardness or stability will not make the grade.

Planting small areas of seedlings to check adaptation within various areas is a good idea in anticipation of the availability of fully tested clones. Planting large areas now may not only be a financial disaster, it could also make life very difficult for others who follow and are doing the job right.


What do we do?

Of the millions of trees being planted, only a small percentage has appropriate or high quality wood. Even if in the future the best trees can be economically identified, there is a problem for a grower with all the waste. It is likely that poor quality wood will enter the market place well before we can establish plantations of clones screened for wood properties. This will probably taint the reputation of all redwood supplies from New Zealand. It is possible that New Zealand redwood could be shunned altogether or at least priced well under California domestic supply. If so, our growers will be the ones most hurt.

Solutions will be difficult, but not impossible. Establishing a registry that can certify logs or timber coming from clone trees that have specific wood properties could give a critical market advantage. We would also need to cooperatively lobby California buyers and mills so they understand that the initial poor quality redwood coming out of New Zealand will not be a true representation of our potential quality. This will hopefully keep doors open.

Western red cedar replacement is a goal worth pursuing. Only growers who can supply timber with a specific range of wood properties are likely to reap these rewards, which could be very large as the world runs out of old growth western red cedar. If nothing is done, we may be looking forward to becoming the world’s cheap coffin suppliers, or growing carbon sinks for an ungrateful New Zealand government.

Wade Cornell is a member of the Auckland branch. One of the proponents of growing redwood in New Zealand, here he provides his own view of the redwood story.


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