Exporting primary products from New Zealand has long been celebrated and is the underpinning of our economy and way of life.
We all hail increased dairy and meat exports, are more than happy that the best fruit and crayfish go offshore but throw our toys out of the cot about log exports. Most elections will see some ill-informed politician standing in front of a wharf full of logs pontificating about supporting our local industry and keeping the logs in NZ.
Builders and home handypersons are pointing the finger squarely at forest owners for increased lumber prices and supply issues, assuming these are caused by the exporting of logs rather than supplying local mills.
For perspective, think of trees as sheep and cows. They're all cut into different products for different markets. Your favourite restaurant in Parnell isn't likely to serve you a medium rare lamb bladder and the pet food factory probably doesn't have much demand for a lamb rack. Logs are no different except, unlike the fruit and fishing industries, we keep most of our good product here for our domestic sawmills and export bladder and brains grades of logs.
One tree may have as many as 10 different log grades within one stem and generally quality and hence value diminishes the further up the tree you go. NZ sawmills cannot make money out of sawing lower grade logs, whereas export markets such as China have much lower production costs and therefore can afford to spend more time reconstituting the lower grade logs into usable products.
To put forestry's valuable export earnings into perspective, as well as its importance in reducing emissions it's essential to understand how the forest industry works, its regional benefits and why log exports are a vital part of its functioning.
As with the sheep and beef industry, you need a solution for the whole animal - you can't just sell medium rare bladders to Parnell and throw the lamb rack away.
It's easy for Joe Average to get a slanted view on log exports. Our industry differs from many others in that logs are very visible on trucks, trains and in ports but timber is not.
Timber is delivered to retailers dry, wrapped in plastic and transported in curtain sider trucks which are indistinguishable from those that carry corn flakes. Log exports are just part of a much more diversified set of products that aren't that visible to people in port cities.
Locally manufactured wood products are, however, a big part of many of our daily lives, whether we notice it or not. If you write on it or wipe on it, build with it or burn it, wood products from our radiata pine forests around the regions are generally taken for granted. In addition, the use of engineered timber panels is growing rapidly in the building of multi-storey commercial buildings and apartments, prized for their carbon sequestration as well as earthquake and fire resistance.
So the next time you're listening to someone spout off about how terrible it is that our logs are going offshore and the lack of framing timber in NZ, you can rebut their ill-informed opinion with the following fun facts:
1. The NZ supply shortage of timber is due to a lack of sawing and kiln drying capacity in NZ,not a result of log exports. There is no way the total log production from NZ could be sawn locally.
2 .Log exports are just one part of the log (usually the top half or less) that is produced and sold in the market.
3. Forest owners, like every other private business, have the right to sell what they own to whoever they want - they are an investment, not a public good item.
4. Logs produce all kinds of products - some are solid wood, which continue to store carbon over their lifetime; others of lower quality are valued by Chinese buyers for a range of uses, but mainly single use formwork in the construction of high-rise buildings in China.
5. Logs are valued by manufacturers in China because of the versatility of radiata and also because countries like Russia have imposed export tariffs on log exports – something that our small and vulnerable government would never consider in a market economy and which is out of our control in NZ.
6. Forest and wood products are a vital piece of the NZ landscape and fit well into our ways of earning a living for rural communities and respective forest owners, large and small.