Friday, July 1, 2022

Forest protection is noble, let’s value it

Who am I? Stuart Chambers is Hauraki-based writer and former sheep farmer.
Stuart Chambers says every landowner with forest should receive a per hectare annual grant from the state in perpetuity.

As a one-time employee of the Queen Elizabeth National Trust and also a forest covenantor, it was suggested to me recently that rewards for forest protection need updating. 

In this new world of climate change, forest protection is more important than ever and so the rewards for it need to reflect it. 

The QEII Trust, as it is most commonly known, is an organisation set up by the Government to protect mostly forest on privately owned land. 

It is generally little-known but has, over nearly 50 years, protected a lot of forest, and also other forms of open space such as tussock land, lakes and beaches and archaeological sites. 

Currently it has more than 4900 protected areas of various sizes, totalling more than 180,000 hectares.

It has achieved this by offering landowners protection of such areas in perpetuity through legal covenants. 

This has ensured that with changes in the land ownership over time, their cherished open space will remain forever.

Many have agreed with this idea and have invited protection and in so doing have relinquished the use of the land in the process. 

They have not sought payment for their now-redundant acres and in many cases have continued with the land’s maintenance by way of fencing, pest control, weed control and the payment of its rates, mainly because the state (QEII) has carefully left the protected forested area on the original land title.

The actual outcome of this voluntary system of protection is that the state, with little enticement, has built up a scattered private forest park at no cost to it by way of land purchase, purely based on landowner goodwill. 

For varied reasons, landowners have been willing to forgo productive use of this land and place it in this ‘park’ with the only reward being a small monetary one by way of fencing costs, and a bit for survey and legal expenses.

If landowners want to relinquish rights to their land and in essence give it to the state, while continuing to maintain it, that is their choice and many have done so. 

An approach to the QE II Trust has always been welcomed and quite quickly attended to by a multitude of field staff, a board of directors and a large office staff, who eventually combine to arrive at a conclusion. 

Whether the state, or the general public, have appreciated this is another matter. 

Because so few know of the trust and what it does, I suggest they probably haven’t.

“The state needs to start offering solid financial benefits to those who have given up user-rights to their land for the benefit and appreciation of all New Zealanders.” 

When I first looked into protecting a 100 acre farm forest back in the seventies, and prior to the establishment of the QEII Trust, the catchment authorities were the organisations to approach. 

They were providing suitable funds by way of comprehensive farm plans and in my case the local Hauraki Catchment Board offered a very good system and service for protection including money for fencing and tree planting. 

Their covenants, though, were only for a period of 23 years and with land frequently changing hands, as it always is, there was no way the protected areas were secure in the long term.

The QEII Trust then came along, spurred on by the catchment authority work, and offered much the same protection and with the same fencing money enticement but its protection was in perpetuity.

This long-term protection was evidently what most landowners wanted and so slowly a portfolio of properties was built up. 

The outcome of all systems of forest protection has seen the state gaining the protection of a large amount of forested New Zealand landscape at very little cost to it, this cost being further reduced with landowner contributions. 

Overall, it has been a win for the environment, the public and the state alike.

However, things have now changed. 

With climate change pressing, forest protection has a new meaning and need. 

Its worth has increased with the protection of it becoming a necessity to everyone’s benefit. 

Protection is no longer necessary just for its benefits to nature, erosion control and waterway protection but for the overall climate patterns as well. 

It is not just benefitting a few environmentally-concerned people and downstream farmers but the public at large. 

Now all areas of bush are important sequesters of carbon in an over-carboned world of livestock, transport and factories. 

Therefore, the time has come for the state to recognise this new era and adjust accordingly the rewards to those who protect or have protected without productive reward, and probably the way to do this is through an upgraded protection agency such as the QEII Trust. 

The state needs to start offering solid financial benefits to those who have given up user-rights to their land for the benefit and appreciation of all New Zealanders. 

We have moved into a time when every acre of bush is important for its long term carbon benefits for the climate and if we are serious about reducing methane emissions, the encouragement of further forest protection is a big way to help the cause. 

Certainly we do have a carbon emission trading scheme, but that is aimed more at providing an incentive to plantation growers, people who haven’t relinquished the rights to the use of their land but plan to reap future monetary returns from it. 

The aim of this scheme is to encourage replanting.

So now, instead of simply offering protection by the current land-take system of the QEII Trust without reward, we need to implement a system which offers ongoing financial reward of a continual nature to all those who protect. 

That is, if as a nation we are serious about reducing methane in the atmosphere.

Every landowner with forest, whether it be protected via a catchment scheme, the Department of Conservation, a district council initiative, Māori land or the QEII Trust, or even not legally protected at all, should receive a per hectare annual grant from the state in perpetuity. 

Further, those that do seek permanent legal protection in perpetuity should get a total fencing grant where necessary and pay no district or regional council rates on it. 

This grant should be administered either by district councils or a QEII-type trust updated into a large scale forest protection agency. 

Under such a scheme all remaining unprotected forest would quickly become protected by fencing and covenant and many hectares of marginal land would be replanted in natives for the good of waterways and natural life. 

The methane problem from agriculture would soon be counteracted as might the climate dramas of floods and droughts.

Such a scheme of reward would also reduce the hesitancy that the sale of land with covenants on it currently experiences where buyers baulk at paying good money for land which has no freedom of use.

So first the Government should acknowledge and appreciate its current land-take of protected bush. 

Then it should come up with the money to reward it and further finance it.

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