The Northland Environmental Protection Society (NEPS) is celebrating an "outright win" after the Supreme Court ruled the exporting of swamp kauri slabs and logs as table tops or 'totem poles' to be illegal.

The society has been battling for years, and has failed in the Environment and Appeal courts, to stop swamp kauri roots and slabs from being exported.

Earlier this week the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the society's objection, under the Forest Act, vindicating its calls for the Ministry for Primary Industries, Customs and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage to put a stop to exports, which it claimed were in breach of the Forests and Protected Objects acts.

A loophole had enabled exporters to make superficial changes to raw wood and call it a product, such as a table top or ceremonial pole, the court finding that that did not fit the definition of a manufactured product.

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The five judges did not agree that swamp kauri was covered by the Protected Objects Act, but their ruling in relation to the Forests Act has closed the export loophole.

"This is an outright win," NEPS president Fiona Furrell said, adding that the ruling applied to all native timber.

The Forests Act defines a manufactured product as one leaving New Zealand "without the need for further machining or other modification", the court saying the product must be ready to be used or installed in the form in which it was to be exported.

Logs would "almost always require modification before being ready for use or installation. Merely labelling a log a totem or temple pole does not change this," it added.

The Forests Act generally requires value to be added in New Zealand after milling before swamp kauri can be exported.

NEPS' argument in relation to the cultural, artistic, social and historical significance of swamp kauri in terms of the Protected Objects Act was largely related to its significance of as a finite resource and its essential character.

"We do ... accept that swamp kauri is a finite resource, and that it has scientific and cultural significance. Its significance is heightened by the threat to living trees from kauri die-back disease," the court ruling added.

It also acknowledged that the society's purposes included protection of indigenous biodiversity ecosystems in Northland, but noted that there were no controls on the extraction of swamp kauri in the Forests Act, although extraction might be subject to other legislation, such as the Resource Management Act.

Ms Furrell said NEPS' focus would now turn to the Northland Regional and district councils' policies. "We now intend to investigate the role our councils played in this mess," she said.