When European settlement began in earnest in the mid-1800s, much of New Zealand was covered in native forests and shrublands.

Many of these forests were cleared to create sheep, cattle and dairy farms. Timber from the forests was used to build the country's rapidly growing towns, as well as fences on farms.

Despite laws to encourage tree planting, the clearance of native forests was so rapid that by 1913, some native species were threatened with extinction. In 1918 exports of native timber were restricted, and in 1925 the Government introduced financial incentives to create plantations of imported species and to reduce the pressure on native forests.

Radiata seed had been imported from California in the 1840s to grow shelter for farms. Because the species had been shown to grow faster here than anywhere else in the world, it became the tree of choice for forest plantings.

Mass plantings in the 1920s and 1930s, and again in the 1960s, created a robust exotic plantation forestry industry that was soon able to supply all New Zealand's domestic timber needs and secure the future of the remaining native forest.

In 1986 –87 the Government's forest assets were split between the Department of Conservation (to manage protected native forests) and the New Zealand Forestry Corporation (to manage plantation forestry operations). This ring-fenced most of New Zealand's native forests for conservation and restricted the commercial harvesting of native timber. Since then most of the corporation's forests have been sold to commercial interests.

In 1991, representatives of four forest industry organisations and 10 conservation groups signed the New Zealand Forest Accord, a joint commitment by forest companies and conservationists to value, protect and conserve New Zealand's indigenous forests. It recognises the importance of commercial plantation forestry both as an economic activity and as an alternative to the depletion of natural forests.

Today, forests cover 31 per cent of New Zealand's land surface — 24 per cent is indigenous (native) forest and 7 per cent plantations of mainly exotic species.