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The importance of the National Exotic Forest Description for small-scale forest owners

Hamish Levack, New Zealand Tree Grower May 2015.

The National Exotic Forest Description (NEFD) provides reliable, comprehensive information which cannot be obtained from other sources. In the 1960s and 1970s tables were developed describing New Zealand’s forest area age classes by region, species type, and generalised management regime, along with the associated yields. Two large private forest companies contributed to the process but the Forest Service planning staff carried out most of the work.

Alan Familton, Murray Hosking, Hamish Levack and Dave Elliot led the main updates. The resulting national wood yield projections were remarkably accurate for about three decades ahead of whenever they were produced. Such work underpinned the main issues which were addressed at the Forestry Development conferences in 1969, 1974, 1975 and 1981. Important concerns included land use policy, regional forestry development, forest legislation, forest industry training, manpower requirement, afforestation, future wood supply, management practice, transport, landscape, as well as social and environmental matters.

In 1979 the Forestry Council was set up, which was a forerunner of the New Zealand Forest Industries Council, and after that, the Wood Council of New Zealand. In 1982 the Forestry Council highlighted the necessity of having and maintaining an improved and internally consistent exotic forest description and asked the Director General of the Forest Service to give top priority to establishing one. In 1983, what was effectively the first NEFD steering committee was founded.

It was then called the Forestry Council forest modelling steering committee. It was made up of representatives from the Forest Service, the Forest Owners’Association and the University of Canterbury. In 1985 New Zealand’s first national exotic forest description was published and it has been updated annually ever since. The two major private forestry companies supporting the NEFD in 1983 no longer exist, and the coordinating government agency has changed from the being the Forest Service, to the Ministry of Forestry, to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and now to the Ministry for Primary Industries. This unbroken sequence of annual updates is amazing.

Steady improvement

Every year, as envisaged in 1983, the extent and reliability of the data in the NEFD has been improved. Cross-checking data against forest nursery returns, agricultural production censuses, reviews of new planting estimates, deforestation surveys, ministry annual log and round-wood removal statistics and the Ministry of the Environement’s satellite imagery derived land use and carbon analysis system, have all helped. Bruce Manley, Paul Lane, John Eyre, Nelson Gapere, Allan Bell and John Novis have been prominent in this work. Statistics associated with the forest growers’ commodity levy, which began being collected last year, will help provide even more accurate estimates of areas harvested.

Currently the NEFD steering committee is made up of seven Forest Owners’Association and MPI nominated members. Traditionally MPI nominates representatives from the NZFFA, Scion and the University of Canterbury in addition to three of its own staff. The committee meets about three times a year and the current chairperson is Ian Hinton from Timberlands New Zealand. An electronic copy of the latest NEFD publication is available on the Ministry for Primary Industries website and the tables from this electronic report can be downloaded as excel files.

Better yield tables

To begin with, foresters in the Forest Service and the larger private forest companies provided yield tables which did not necessarily represent regional averages. In 1987 standard yield tables were developed for most crop types in each wood supply region or territorial authority. During 1991 André Neumann and Chris Perley of the Ministry of Forestry revised and added to these, preparing what could be considered the first full set of yield tables.

These tables were revised again in 1995 and the process continues. Updated wood national supply forecasts were published by in 1993, 1996, 2000 and 2010. From 2005 to 2009 MAF prepared timber forecasts for 13 different wood supply regions.

Small-scale forestry kept up to date

Basic NEFD data has been provided by sending questionnaires to those owning 40 hectares or more of exotic forest. This has meant that the total area of forests of less than 40 hectares has had to be estimated. In 1983 information about the area of forest in this category of holdings below 40 hectares was derived from data held by the Forest Service in a system called private forest information.

At the time no-one was using the definition of small-scale forest owner as someone with a forest of less than 1,000 hectares. If they had, probably the total area owned by small-scale forest owners would have been around five per cent of the national forest estate. In contrast, the total small-scale forest owner area is estimated now to be 25 per cent.

A survey

Today the government does not maintain a private forest information system using a regional network of extension forest officers with good local knowledge. To get a better understanding of the small forest component of the national forest estate, MAF in 2004 contracted AsureQuality to run a survey.

Subsequent annual changes to regional small forest areas were added from this survey. However, in recognition of their increasing national and regional importance, in February 2015 MPI mounted another survey of owners of forests totalling less than 40 hectares. For this survey MPI has used a list of postal addresses which the Wellington Branch of the NZFFA developed using satellite imagery linked to the Land Information database. This new method of identifying owners is cost effective and uses only information which is in the public domain, therefore overcoming problems arising from the Privacy Act. Under this Act information can only be used for the purpose for which it was gathered unless it is already in the public domain.

Why is NEFD important?

The NEFD is still of fundamental importance in spite of the fact that it was created in a completely different operating environment. This was when the government owned and managed more than half of the country’s exotic forests and heavily influenced the location and nature of major greenfield wood processing plants.

The NEFD is essential because it allows the industry to develop wood availability forecasts such as Bruce Manley’s New Zealand Wood Availability Forecasts 2010- 2040, which was endorsed and published by MAF. Woodco used those projections to develop its sector strategic action plan, which aims to increase export earnings to $12 billion a year by 2022. The aim is to build a sustainable log supply, change the emphasis away from commodities and invest in jobs, skills, research and development of high value products.

In its plan Woodco called on the government to develop a clear, coherent policy framework ‘for sustainable long term economic growth and therefore investment in forestry and wood processing; to introduce policy and regulation that recognizes the carbon credit value of wood and paper products in line with UNFCCC carbon storage agreements; and to change tax policy to enable woodlot owners to aggregate wood supply without penalty’. So far the government has not responded to the call, but the pressure is building up.

At the same time, the NEFD survey of 2014 forest planting and Bruce Manley’s 2013 deforestation survey indicate that New Zealand’s exotic forest area is shrinking. The annual loss is about 8,000 hectares, or just under half a per cent of the total net stocked area, which is very probably a worse rate than any other country in the world. For example, according to FAO figures based on satellite imagery, the Brazilian Amazonian forest is being lost at less than half this rate. The loss of New Zealand exotic forest is at odds with public expectations that forests will help offset greenhouse gas emissions, either from the harvesting which is expected to accelerate from around 2020, or from other sectors.


The NEFD provides reliable, comprehensive information which cannot be obtained from other sources. Without it we cannot expect central and local governments to develop informed forest-related policy, or for industry to sensibly plan, and these activities underpin the sector. Forestry is a major land use and makes a large contribution to New Zealand’s domestic and export wellbeing. The NEFD is important for all forest owners.

Hamish Levack is a member of the National Executive.


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