Thursday, May 19, 2022

Dissent over government forest plans

Both the pastoral and forestry sectors are sharing concerns over the Government’s plans to change the regulations around permanent carbon forests to only allow native plantings to be eligible for the classification.

Both the pastoral and forestry sectors are sharing concerns over the Government’s plans to change the regulations around permanent carbon forests to only allow native plantings to be eligible for the classification.

Submissions have recently closed on a discussion document guiding government policy on the controversial aspect of exotic trees being allowed to be used in permanent carbon sequestering forests.

Forestry Minister Stuart Nash has made no secret of government’s preference to have the regulations changed to only allow natives alone to be planted for long-term forests.

But Euan Mason, professor at University of Canterbury school of forestry, has concerns the Government’s keenness on natives-only will seriously damage New Zealand’s efforts to sequester optimal carbon amounts using forestry.

He is also concerned the policy is being based on “look-up” carbon sequestration data that has been proven inaccurate and will misinterpret the efficiency of different forest species plantings in capturing carbon.

Mason submitted his concerns to government and acknowledges the level of political concern on permanent exotics that stems from rural fears of the pastoral economy being planted over.

“But it is just fanciful if we believe we can get anywhere near our targets if we are to revert to all native plantings for permanent forests. Yet it can be perfectly feasible to have parts of farms planted in exotics,” Mason said.

He anticipates NZ will experience a deep deficit between its sequestration ability and its aspirations to achieve zero carbon by 2050.

He has already challenged the Climate Change Commission’s estimates that NZ needs 380,000ha of exotics by 2027 and 300,000ha of new native plantings, stating these fall well short.

“And a move to all native permanent forests? That will only make it significantly worse,” he said.

He said even planting one million new hectares in natives would not meet the shortfall and the sheer costs of establishing natives will only add to that.

Estimates are natives can cost $7500ha on average to establish compared to about $3500/ha for exotics. But the native cost can go beyond $20,000/ha, with good pest control vital.

He is also concerned inaccurate look-up tables are contributing to wholesale land-use change, while penalising owners of woodlots of 100ha or less.

Current regulations mean woodlots less than 100ha must only use look-up tables to estimate carbon sequestration, while those greater can use forest specific measurements and these will always be greater than what the more conservative tables would estimate.

In his submission, Mason is urging officials to make the look-up tables more accurate and expansive, based on a wider range of species with stronger scientific backing.

His own Honour students’ research has revealed the disparity between how much carbon the tables estimate trees will sequester and the reality. 

In some cases, looking up tables puts it at up to 60% less than reality.

“These are measurements dictated by the state and there are trust issues there – it is almost in your interests to have over 100ha in planting as an entire forest, rather than a smaller woodlot on a farm,” he said.

Mason has urged officials to avoid a “natives only” policy, instead considering that all permanent forest carbon sinks have a comprehensive management plan filed on establishment.

This would include how the forest would be monitored, a pest management plan and a financial plan for how its management would be funded, all in a binding agreement with the Crown.

Alongside improved look-up table data, he is also urging more efficient native seedling production, and consideration of exotics’ role as a nurse crop for natives.

In its submission, Forest Owners Association is labelling the tone of the natives-only approach as “anti-Pinus radiata”.

It is urging government not to demonise a tree with 100 years of proven commercial performance.

Combined with changes to the RMA and the special forestry test that allowed more foreign interests to buy forests, the ability to plant more trees for carbon sinks was to be seriously challenged.

The group has challenged the definition of “permanent” forest, maintaining a long rotation pine forest felled at year 49 and then replanted is a viable option to simply leaving trees in the ground indefinitely beyond year 50.

Long rotation pine forests of 50 years are being touted by industry as a good compromise to a wholesale ban on pines beyond the usual plantation period of 25-30 years.

The organisation also challenges claims councils lack the ability to determine forest types in their catchments, pointing to Auckland, Tararua and Marlborough as all having controls on permanent forestry plantings.

At a pastoral level Beef + Lamb NZ has welcomed the Government’s attempt to address exotic carbon forests, but maintains the proposed moves do not go far enough.

B+LNZ chief executive Sam McIvor said the body’s submission calls for specific limits in the ETS on how much offsetting fossil fuel emitters can do through forest planting, as happens overseas.

Concerns over the “natives only” proposal also has B+LNZ seeking a two-year moratorium to give time to develop a suite of mechanisms around forest sequestration.

“The Government has created a scheme that’s about short-term thinking and short-term profits,” McIvor said.

“We instead need to take a long-term view of land-use decisions. Current policies are incentivising land-use changes that are hurting our rural communities and this has to stop before more damage is done.”

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