SAVING FORESTS: Paul Bensemann has researched 50 years of campaigns to stop logging of native forests. Photo supplied

Fight for the Forests
Paul Bensemann
Potton and Burton

THIS book combines the large format and beautiful illustrations that one would expect from a Potton and Burton publication, with the excitement and intrigue of a who-dunnit.

The author’s meticulous research documents a number of campaigns that ran over 50 years from Save Lake Manapouri and its forests in 1952 to the final cessation of logging of state forest on the West Coast in 2002.

I became involved with a campaign to stop logging of Horohoro Forest on the Mamaku plateau near Rotorua, in the 1970s, shortly after joining the Forest Research Institute, the research arm of the New Zealand Forest Service.

Horohoro Forest, which had areas of dense podocarps, principally rimu, was home to a small population of the endangered native wattle bird, the kokako, which is critically dependent on unmodified native forest. The forest was being clear felled, burnt over and planted in pines.

The rimu logs were being milled by a railways department mill in Mamaku to provide timber for maintenance of old railway carriages. Our small group of Rotorua activists formed a branch of the Native Forests Action Council and with a short, sharp campaign publicising the destruction to the citizens of Rotorua, succeeded in having an area of the forest set aside as a reserve. This was the first piece of North Island forest saved. The mill was sold and converted to milling pine logs.

One of the campaign tools was the organisation of bus loads of Rotorua people to visit the forest and see the destruction for themselves. I remember being thanked by an elderly woman who had known the forest as a child and was horrified at what was happening.

The same bus trip tactic was used as a part of the eight-year campaign to save Whirinaki Forest, east of the Urewera National Park. In this case, however, the Forest Service officer in charge organised Minginui residents to block the public road and prevent four buses from visiting the forest.

The road blockage received a lot of adverse publicity and probably contributed to the cessation of logging and creation of a Forest Park. The park advisory committee was set up by the minister of forests and included myself and others, who had helped organised the bus trip, as well as locals.

The three years of research and writing that Bensemann devoted to this book reveal the dedication of those who were involved in campaigns the length and breadth of the country, culminating in 18 victories. These victories are summarised on a two-page spread of New Zealand in relief showing the sites where logging ceased.

As well as amazing photographs of native forest, ugly photos of logging sites and portraits of key campaigners at work, there are reproductions of newspaper cuttings and historic documents such as the 341,000 signature Maruia Declaration petition to stop logging of native forest, one of the largest petitions in New Zealand history.

Bensemann, as well as being an active campaigner, infiltrated the Forest Service head office to obtain information about logging plans and research, that in the days before the Official Information Act, were being kept a closely guarded secret by the Forest Service.

He tells his story in a chapter dealing with the Forest Service head office in the years1976 to 1977. He survived an official inquiry into the leaks but the strain of being a spy was taking a toll on his health and he resigned. It is a credit to both Paul and his former boss, Colin Basset, director of research, that Colin helped Paul in the writing of this book.

Each chapter is complemented by endnotes giving sources of information and additional comments.

The foreword is written by Helen Clark. An overview, The Reflections of an Insider is given by Craig Potton who was also a key member of the campaign. A prologue, “A Young Rabble of Protestors” (a quote from Rob Muldoon), describes the tree climbing episode that was key to the saving of Pureora Forest.

The comprehensive index reads like a who’s who of environmental activists, 31 of whom feature in a section titled What are they Doing Now?

Anyone who was involved in the campaign will find this book fascinating. There was a lot going on behind the scenes such as Richard Prebble’s help with the Whirinaki campaign, that I knew nothing of although I had helped to organise the infamous bus trip.

This book will also appeal to campaigners for anything, but especially to environmental campaigners in these days of serious concerns about the relative inaction of governments over the crisis of climate change.

It is a great read, broken up by some delicious photographs of native forest. I strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the environment.

Book review by Mike Collins