A gold rush is under way in Northland with valuable kauri trees being dug from peat soils that have preserved the wood for many thousands of years.

The forest giants toppled by unknown causes millennia ago have beautiful timber that finds a ready market in China, Italy, Australia, North America and Germany.

Ancientwood Ltd in the United States offers website sales of the old kauri for up to US$100 ($124) a superfoot, which is a section of timber one foot (30.48cm) square and one inch (2.54cm) thick.

The manager of the Oravida Kauri Ltd yard at Ruakaka, Mike Moodie, scoffed at that pricing and indicated returns could be better in China. But if swamp kauri averaged half that price on the market - US$50 ($62) a superfoot - an average kauri tree containing up to 5000 superfeet, or 11.8cu m, would be worth US$250,000 ($310,000).


If a swamp kauri as big as Tane Mahuta at an estimated 244.5cu m was found it could sell for more than US$5million ($6.2 million).

And the 2800 tonnes of swamp kauri Mr Moodie plans to have piled in the Oravida yard by the end of summer could have an eventual sales value of US$50million ($62million).

Armed with diggers, teams of men are toiling around Northland, extracting kauri stumps and logs close to the surface in swamps and on farmland.

Unlike Oravida, some of them are cowboys, ignoring the law in their eagerness to cash in. The Northland Regional Council last year took five parties to the Environment Court because they had refused to follow an abatement notice to stop digging up Kaimaumau swamp kauri.

But as long as extracting logs Hunt on for kauri as Chinese eye North icon

There is no justification or necessity to prop up the art with the mana of kauri.Stephen King, Waipoua

Forest Trust member from wetlands does not involve more than 5000cu m of earthworks or lower the water table, the NRC says kauri can be dug up as of right. Environmentalists and people interested in heritage protection claim that within a decade the ancient kauri will have gone the same way as most of the estimated 1.2 million hectares of live kauri that covered much of the northern North Island when Europeans first came to New Zealand.

Today barely 4000ha of original forest remains, much of it in Northland. And those live trees are not totally safe from predatory millers either. Some broke through a locked gate to get a portable sawmill into the Department of Conservation-controlled Warawara Forest south of Pawarenga in the Far North in 2009. They cut and milled a kauri, and were not caught.

The Warawara theft came to light after the controversy late last year over $700,000 worth of kauri being used to build the ceiling of the new Auckland Art Gallery.

Andrew Davy, of Kauri Warehouse, and Arthur Bergman, of Northland Kauri Timber, said they obtained the timber from privately owned bush where logs had been blown over in storms. Milling of standing kauri stopped in state forests in the 1970s and there are also rules for ancient kauri saying:

Swamp kauri can be exported without Ministry of Forestry (MAF) approval if it is a finished or manufactured product; or a personal effect.

Whole or sawn salvaged swamp kauri stumps or roots can be exported with a MAF milling statement and export approval.

Swamp kauri logs may not be exported, either whole or sawn.

The MAF acting director of sustainable programmes, Rob Miller, said in a reply to an Official Information Act request that 450cu m of whole or sawn swamp kauri stumps had been exported since September 2009. However, Northland Environmental Protection Society member Fiona Furrell of Whangarei had copies of MAF notice of intention to export forms showing more than 730cu m of swamp kauri was lined up for export between October 2010 and November last year.

Ms Furrell suspected the difference in export volumes reflected the ministry's inability to regulate the swamp kauri business.

But Mr Miller said some of the products listed on the export forms, such as "table tops" and "temple poles", could have been produced from swamp kauri logs so they would not have been included in the swamp kauri stump timber exports.

Isn't there a ban on exporting logs, either whole or sawn? Yes, but if the "table tops" and "temple poles" produced were finished products, it was okay. Mr Miller said there might be cases where swamp kauri products approved for export could be turned into something else.

"We look at it on a case-by-case basis," he said, describing the classification of export swamp kauri as a "a grey area" with confusion over the definition of the Forest Act. Later, Mr Miller told the Advocate an error had been made in the 450cu m assessment, which should have been 520cu m. He also pointed out that two of the export applications totalling 185cu m that MAF had provided to the Northland Environmental Protection Society had not been approved, reducing the volume of kauri lined up for export between October 2010 and November last year to 545cu m.

MAF has two permanent staff in Northland and a third forestry officer contracted to inspect timber intended for export. The ministry typically investigates up to 20 cases annually relating to breaches of the Forests Act, but there have been no prosecutions in relation to indigenous timber in Northland in recent years.

Meanwhile, at the Oravida Kauri Ltd yard at Ruakaka, manager Mike Moodie had about 800 tonnes of swamp kauri stumps and logs stacked up last month and he was expecting another 2000 tonnes by the end of summer. The pile would provide sufficient kauri for three years' milling, starting in April, he said.

Oravida Kauri Ltd has a million one-cent shares and its Chinese directors are Jing Huang and Deyi Shi, both of Auckland, and Julia Yu of New York. The firm sent five ancient kauri stumps from Kaihu to the Oravida Food Company in Shanghai in May last year and will process the timber it has at Ruakaka before resuming exporting. Mr Moodie said the kauri would be cut into slabs 75-120mm thick and sanded both sides. The slabs could then be exported as table tops. MAF told the Advocate legs did not have to be fitted.

Some root plates would be water and sand-blasted to get them clean before they were exported intact to China, where people would value them displayed like sculptures, Mr Moodie said. It took three days to pull a big root plate from the dirt in a Waipu farm paddock that had lots of shallow-buried swamp kauri.

Mr Moodie said Oravida paid farmers $50-plus a tonne for the extracted timber, filled in holes and reseeded grass. Swamp kauri created jobs, he said, pointing to Oravida's extraction crews, trucking companies, a sawmill firm, drying facilities and other expenses.

However, tree ring scientist Jonathan Palmer fears the extraction of swamp - or, as he calls it, sub-fossil - kauri is depleting a unique resource invaluable to paleoscientists investigating climate change.

Some sub-fossil kauri found near Auckland Airport at Mangere had been dated at 225,000 years old, yet it "could still be cut with a chainsaw - it's wood was still good", he said.

In Northland, there were "immense capsules of time buried in bogs", with some sites showing preservation of kauri in layers of logs ranging from 5000-30,000 years old.

Mr Palmer is carrying out research for universities in New Zealand and Britain into the Younger Dryas period 12,000 years ago, when there was an abrupt climate change with the Northern Hemisphere suddenly cooling for decades. He is working at the Kauri Museum at Matakohe, cataloguing samples of sub-fossil kauri so the reference material for his British university research is kept in this country.

Waipoua Forest Trust member Stephen King said swamp kauri was a finite resource that should be kept for New Zealanders and for scientific research.

He also said there was no need to "throw" kauri at the Auckland Art Gallery, where use of the timber indicated "misplaced values".

"It's a mediocre building and there is no justification or necessity to prop up the art with the mana of kauri," Mr King said.