A small Northland environmental group is celebrating an ''outright win'' after New Zealand's Supreme Court ruled the export of swamp kauri slabs and logs as ''tabletops'' or ''totem poles'' is illegal.

For years, the Northland Environmental Protection Society (NEPS) has battled and lost in the Environment and Appeal Courts - and has now finally won in the Supreme Court - to stop swamp kauri roots and slabs slipping out of New Zealand on a lucrative international trade route.

The court ruled in favour of the NEPS' objection to the export of swamp kauri under the Forest Act.

The decision released yesterday vindicates NEPS challenging the Ministry of Primary Industries, Customs Department and Ministry of Culture and Heritage to close down the export trade, citing breaches of the Forests Act and also the Protected Objects Act.


A loophole had enabled exporters to make superficial changes to the raw wood and call it a product, such as a table top or ceremonial pole.

But calling it a table top did not mean it fitted the definition of a manufactured product, the five Supreme Court judges have ruled.

While they did not agree pieces of swamp kauri were covered by the Protected Objects Act, their ruling in relation to the Forests Act means the export loophole is now closed.

''This is an outright win. This does not just affect swamp kauri but all native timber,'' a jubilant NEPS president Fiona Furrell said yesterday.

The Forests Act defines a manufactured product as needing to leave New Zealand ''without the need for further machining or other modification''.

''The product must be ready to be used or installed in the form which it is to be exported,'' the judgment released yesterday said.

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.''

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

The court defined that as meaning swamp kauri would have effectively lost its identity as swamp kauri before it could be exported lawfully as a finished or manufactured indigenous product.

Therefore, that was inconsistent with the purpose of any protection under the Protected Objects Act, going on NEPS' interpretation, the judges said.

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

The court would only review the case under the Forests and Protected Objects Acts, but acknowledged one of NEPS' purposes being the protection of indigenous biodiversity ecosystems in Northland.

The court also said there were no controls on the extraction of swamp kauri in the Forests Act, although extraction might be subject to other Acts such as the Resource Management Act.

Furrell said NEPS' focus would turn to Northland Regional and district councils' policies regarding kauri swamp extraction and the RMA.

''We now intend to investigate the role our councils played in this mess.''