Scion celebrates 75 years of forest science impact
For immediate release
22 April 2022
Since it was established in 1947, the Forest Research Institute, which we now call Scion, has played a significant role in forest research for New Zealand.
This year, the Crown Research Institute (CRI) turns 75 and continues to deliver impact for New Zealand, not just across the forestry sector, but also in the area of biomaterials, bioenergy, waste and ecosystem services. This evolution represents the increasing importance of forests, and Scion’s commitment to enhancing New Zealand’s prosperity, wellbeing and environment through trees.
In April 1947, the State Forest Service established a Forest Experiment Station beside the existing nursery at Whakarewarewa Forest. The decision to centralise forestry research laid the foundation for Scion today, supporting New Zealand's third largest export industry.
Scion’s research has had significant outcomes for New Zealand’s 1.7 million hectares of planted forests. Forestry adds $6 to $7 billion to the economy each year in export revenue and provides jobs for around 35,000 people.
Scion’s chief executive Dr Julian Elder says the 75th anniversary is a chance to reflect on where the organisation has come from and where it is headed, but also to really acknowledge the place that Scion sits right now – quite literally, the land on which the institute was built.
“When we opened our award-winning innovation hub, Te Whare Nui o Tuteata, in March last year, we started on a journey of inviting visitors into Te Papa Tipu campus, where Scion is headquartered in Rotorua, and sharing our work with the community.
“A significant and very special part of that journey has been the relationships we have developed with Ngā Hapū e Toru - Ngāti Hurungaterangi, Ngāti Taeotu and Ngāti Te Kahu o Ngāti Whakaue.”
Ngā Hapū e Toru are the mana whenua of the 114 hectare site where Scion is situated in the Te Papa Tipu campus.
Ngā Hapū e Toru trustee Veronica Butterworth explains that when the land was used by the Crown as a forest nursery from 1898 and then for forestry research from 1947 onwards, physical connection of the hapū to this land was severed but the spiritual connection was never lost.
“Land is the basis of identity and wellbeing for our people,” Veronica says. “We are genealogically connected through our whakapapa to the land itself, as we trace our ancestry from Papatūānuku (the earth mother) and Ranginui (the sky father).
“Our whakapapa ties to the land and the various parts of the natural environment are fundamental aspects of our culture and our lives. Whakapapa and whanaungatanga give rise to obligations to look after the land, the waters and the environment on behalf of our ancestors and ourselves for future generations.”
“Looking to the future, our hapū are building a relationship with Scion to reconnect our people and traditions to this land. The name of this campus, Te Papa Tipu – land on which to grow – is appropriate,” Butterworth says.
It is this kaitiakitanga (guardianship) for the land, and the long-term thinking that Māori value – making changes today that will reap benefits for generations to come – that Dr Elder says is key to Scion’s contribution as we head towards a circular bioeconomy future.
“Right now, we are on the cusp of huge opportunities with the circular bioeconomy. Scion, and New Zealand, are incredibly well-placed to contribute to this – we grow things well, we’re great at the science and, vitally, mātauranga Māori and the worldview of te ao Māori has much to teach us about interconnectedness with our environment.”
For principal scientist, Brian Richardson, celebrating 75 years of Scion is a chance to acknowledge the high-calibre breadth of work that has been achieved over that time.
Dr Richardson has worked at Scion for 39 years across many areas of forest science. In that time, he has seen a lot of changes – and a lot of things come back around. The highlights across the organisation have been many - genetic improvement of radiata pine, overcoming many forest health challenges and biosecurity incursions, supporting development of sustainable forest management practices to ensure maintenance of productivity and license to operate, and creation of management models.
“Scion has certainly been a leader across a range of research. Our work in areas such as ecosystem services – quantifying the benefits of forests beyond the timber – were happening long before the topics were accepted as mainstream activities.”
Doug Gaunt is a principal researcher in the materials analysis, characterisation and testing team. He joined Scion in 1979 and says the organisation’s contribution to the structural timber sector has been transformational.
Gaunt and his team focus on commercial testing for the timber building sector, supplying customers with the information they need to develop their own products and to meet export standards.
“Scion has been doing this work extensively for 40 or 50 years and I’d like to think that our research and expertise has impacted most building products in New Zealand. That is a huge testament to the work that has been conducted in our timber engineering labs.
Reflecting on Scion’s history, some other key areas of work have included climate change, including research around how our fast-growing forests are adept at capturing carbon quickly. Trees provide a long-term carbon sink while protecting New Zealand’s unique biodiversity, water quality and help reduce soil erosion. These are not just important for our economy, they are crucial for life.
Significant achievements across 75 years have built Scion’s reputation as a world-leader in forest industry research and technology development. Now we have a distinct multi-disciplinary capability across the value chain from germplasm generation to the design and application of wood, fibre and other forest resources in commercial products and services.
In 2000, Scion extended its focus to developing renewable chemicals, materials and energy from forest resources. These changes reflected increasing international interest in substitutes for fuels and materials made from fossil fuels and New Zealand’s need to enhance environmental performance and energy security. These concerns are much greater today as the world has suffered supply chain shocks due to Covid-19, conflict and climate change.
Scion has more than 300 staff located at its headquarters in Rotorua, as well as offices in Christchurch and Wellington.
Over the next 12 months, a range of activities and events will be held online and across the three cities as the organisation celebrates the 75th anniversary.
Scion history The forest around Scion’s Rotorua headquarters is part of an experiment that has been running for over 120 years. By the 1860s, forests in Aotearoa were being cut down faster than they could regrow. The government of the day soon saw that forests needed to be replanted quickly to meet New Zealand’s growing demand for timber.
The government started a scheme to grow new forests using faster-growing exotic trees. In 1899 the first exotic trees were planted in a nursery at the Whakarewarewa Forest from seeds shipped to New Zealand from around the world.
More than 60 different kinds of trees were planted here to work out which grew best. This work was important to develop planted forests in New Zealand. It allowed a forestry industry to flourish and helped to save large areas of indigenous forests from the axe.
When it was first planted at Whakarewarewa, radiata pine was grown only for shelter to protect the initially more favoured species. However, radiata pine soon outshone all others.
Today, it’s hard to imagine a forestry industry in New Zealand without Pinus radiata, or radiata pine. It makes up 87% of trees in our planted forests.
This ‘super tree’ grows extremely well in a range of New Zealand climates. We’ve learned how to grow it tall and straight with few branches, and its timber has a range of uses in building and manufacturing.
Although it is now one of the world’s most important plantation species, radiata pine is endangered in its natural homeland in central California where it clings to just a few foggy hillsides.
The Forestry Crown Research Institute is formed
As forest plantings boomed, New Zealand needed to learn the best way to manage its forests. Scientific studies initiated by the Crown began in Rotorua in 1947, and two years later the Forest Research Institute (FRI) was formed with 33 staff. The first facilities included World War II surplus huts and a converted horse stable.
But, in the blink of an eye, the Sirex wasp wiped out a third of all pine trees in the Central North Island in the late 1940s. Drought and poor forest management fuelled the losses.
Researchers across many areas worked together to tackle the wasp problem. In addition to plant health, their work focused on climate, soils, tree spacing in the forest and forestry management. This all-inclusive research approach attracted scientists from around the world during the 1950s. By the end of that decade, 150 staff were on-site, and their families became part of the fabric of the Rotorua community.
Te Papa Tipu Innovation Park, which surrounds Scion, has more than 30 organisations and businesses devoted to the forestry industry. For 75 years, many science breakthroughs have been made over a cup of tea between scientists and people working in the forestry industry.
Scion is one of the few forestry research organisations in the world that enjoys such close contact with end users. Working together has made sure science and technology advances work in the forest, the timber yard or the mill – not just on a computer or lab bench.
Great strides have been made towards understanding every step of the plantation forestry lifecycle - from genetically selecting the best trees, through to multiple end uses of timber and wood fibres.
FRI’s research reputation grew so much that by the end of the 20th century the institute had become a world leader in plantation forestry science.
In 2005, the trading name Scion was adopted. A new name, together with pressures of climate change, business, trade and biosecurity risks created a new sense of purpose, and urgency, to value our planted forests for so much more beyond wood.
Trees are remarkable, renewable resources and New Zealand is fortunate to have some of the fastest growing sustainable forests in the world. Trees have a powerful potential to be at the heart of a new low-carbon biobased future for New Zealand. Anything that can be made from fossil fuels today can be made from trees in the future.
Today, our scientists are working on ways to power our factories from renewable sources grown in our forests and orchards instead of from gas or coal. We’re refining bark from trees and we’re proving that our biofactories of the future can create the world’s most sought-after chemicals. Our pioneers who planted the first exotic trees here in the late 1800s would marvel at the creativity of our scientists today.
Revolution for the climate
Outside, children are playing in forests that will shape their lives.
Imagine those young ones as adults…in 2040.
The electric bus they arrive in will have lightweight panels made of high-performance bioplastics strengthened with nanocellulose from wood with touchscreen displays made from transparent, environmentally-friendly biopolymer film.
Their water bottles could be bioplastic made from tī kouka – the cabbage tree – which are biodegradable. Sunscreens could use hydrogels made from seaweed containing molecules extracted from bark that block harmful UV light.
Overhead flies a jet, powered with a biofuel made from wood waste.
From the DNA of trees, we can predict how they will grow and what we can create. Right now, Scion is discovering even more extraordinary compounds that will help fight climate change.
We’re even fighting climate change from space. Hyperspectral cameras on satellites tell us how these trees cope in our changing environment.
Our forests are not just growing wood. They are growing the sustainable new world of tomorrow.
Forestry statistics – size and scale of the industry
The importance of forests to New Zealand goes well beyond commercial timber production.
Forestry adds $6 to $7 billion to the economy each year in export revenue and is our third largest goods export behind dairy and meat. A key challenge is how to grow those earnings and create new value and jobs.
Around 35,000 people work in forestry from planting and growing trees to harvesting, transport and processing for local and overseas markets. From trucking firms to sawmills and ports, many of these jobs support the fabric of our small towns.
About 10 million hectares of New Zealand is forested, and planted forests account for about 1.7 million hectares of that. Our forested area is growing in size every day.
Our fast-growing forests are particularly adept at capturing carbon quickly. Trees provide a long-term carbon sink while protecting New Zealand’s unique biodiversity, water quality and help reduce soil erosion. These are not just important for our economy; they are crucial for life.
Māori connection with forests
In the Māori creation story, Tāne separated his parents, Papatūānuku (earth mother) and Ranginui (sky father), letting light into the world. Trees in the forest are believed to hold apart the earth and sky, so light can come in.
Tāne (god of the forest) created trees before mankind, and they are therefore respected as tuakana. They are the link between man and sacred ancestors, Papatūānuku and Ranginui.
As we look to re-cloak our land and restore the mana of Tāne, planting for the future may look very different from the forests we see today, just as the thinking that will be required to create these forests will change too.
We will require the collective understanding and ways of knowing that are preserved through mātauranga Māori (traditional and contemporary knowledge), which is unique to Aotearoa New Zealand.