View of a piner’s camp, situated in Pine Forest, J.W. Beattie / PH30-1-1905 / NS869-1-322 Tasmanian Archive & Heritage Office
The value of Huon pine wood was quickly recognised by the first European settlers, and commercial harvesting of the timber began in the early 1800’s. Lieutenant Governor Sorell established a penal colony at Macquarie harbour on Tasmania’s west coast with the convicts harvesting the abundant Huon pine in and around the harbour, eventually processing the timber for export overseas.
Private operators had also started significant harvesting of the timber on various rivers around Tasmania’s southern and western coastlines. The piners as they were known were rugged bushmen that would often live for years in the wilderness working throughout the year harvesting timbers along river courses. A number would only return from the depths of the forests for a few weeks each year. Their dangerous occupation would be carried out with small flat bottomed boats on fast flowing and very cold rivers, in all kinds of weather. The river was their highway and a route to float out their log cargo during high water flows; in the process a number lost their lives for the harvest.
Superior value of this Wood
The oil compound methyl eugenol acts as a preservative for the Huon pine timber, preventing it from rotting rapidly. It also acts as a deterrent for many timber pests such as the damaging marine worms that previously limited the life of many an early day wooden hulled vessel. Its long life, high buoyancy on water and relative light weight made it highly regarded boat building timber by the early Europeans. In particular it was a favoured timber for small vessels such as whaling boats. However a number of large vessels were also constructed of its timber some of which still exist today.
The wood with its beautiful light honey brown colour and its easily worked qualities made it a highly prized resource for fine furniture and home finishing. The gnarled birds-eye forms of the timber are some of the most highly sought after types. In retrospect however it seems that in the early days the wood was squandered on many of the periods utilitarian needs, and what today might be regarded as wasteful uses such as roadside signage, picket fences, coffins, head boards on graves, railway sleepers, bridges and even pattern making in foundries. It was however a major export throughout the known world and soon had an established name within society as quality timber.
It is an even more highly prized timber today and its finite stock still in storage means that it will only continue as a rare and much sought after commodity. Most timber today is from stock piles and from underwater salvaging sources. Logs that have lain underwater in some cases for centuries, have been recovered with the wood still in a perfect condition. This wood is then still available to supply the trades of the specialist craftsman, artists and wood working enthusiasts.
Today around 85% of the remaining wild populations of Huon pine are within reserves across the state. The Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens plays an incredibly important role in the conservation of the Huon pine and many other rare and threatened species of Tasmanian plants through the Gardens Tasmanian Seed Conservation Centre TSCC.
In 2016 staff from the TSCC collected an estimated 92,000 seeds from 32 trees at Corinna in North West Tasmania, for preservation in the Tasmanian seedbank. An equal collection will also be sent to England for the Millennium seedbank based in Wakehurst, that is managed by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. This is a key project to ensure the preservation of the worlds genetic heritage for all future generations.