The government’s decision to push pause on changes to rules around permanent exotic forest plantings has been met with dismay by iwi and the pastoral industry, concerned about the level of uncertainty it introduces into long-term forestry decisions.
In late July Climate Change Minister James Shaw and Forestry Minister Stuart Nash sent a joint letter to forest owners and industry advising them of the government’s intention to take more time to fully consider options for the future direction of the Emissions Trading Scheme’s (ETS) “permanent forest” category.
This was particular to the planting of exotic forests for long-term carbon sequestration. The ministers stated that it would be “unlikely” that they would propose closing the permanent category to exotic plantings on January 1, 2023.
Previously the government had intimated a preference to see exotics dropped as a long-term planting option, amid fears that forests would degrade over time, causing environmental issues after storm events. Nash has openly stated a preference for a “natives only” permanent carbon forestry plantings.
The proposal had drawn strong criticism from iwi groups, concerned that their ability to generate income from largely poor-quality land would be further diminished by disallowing exotic plantations.
In a letter to members, Ngā Pou a Tāne, the National Māori Forestry Association chair Te Kapunga Dewes said the ministers’ statement offers some positive progression but is not the outcome being sought by iwi.
“Advising us it is ‘unlikely’ government will close the permanent category to exotics by January 1, 2023 is different from a final decision and until that is given investment uncertainty remains,” he said.
He said the group also contends the science and evidence used by Nash to validate the change banning exotics was erroneous and will continue to show up in regulations.
Calculations by Ngā Pou a Tāne set the net present value of exotic carbon forest at $30,000 a hectare, compared to $4500-$20,000/ha for dry stock farming, and the potential earning value from carbon credits is estimated in the billions for iwi.
But if forestry is banned, the estimated value loss per hectare to iwi ranges from 33% to 650%.
With 80% of iwi land in the poorer Class 6-8 range, that is likely to be at the higher end of the 650% value loss, across at least 1.3 million hectares.
Dewes said it is mischievous of Nash to imply that pines are an environmental threat because exotic plantings are likely to die off at age 90.
He labelled the minister’s claims sensationalist and based on tenuous assumptions.
Beef + Lamb NZ said the ministers’ announcement is a step back from addressing the issue of sheep and beef farms converting to carbon forests.
Chief executive Sam McIvor called on the government to urgently clarify its plans on the issue.
“While we didn’t think their proposal to change the permanent category in the ETS would fix the problem, at least it was a step in the right direction,” he said.
McIvor said it seemed the government may be concerned about issues raised during the consultation process.
“There were legitimate concerns raised, including by BLNZ, about missed opportunities under the proposals, but we strongly believe these could have been addressed through an exemptions regime,” said McIvor.
He said BLNZ is urgently seeking limits on the number of forestry offsets available in New Zealand to fossil fuel emitters, in line with other countries.
Forest Owners Association president Grant Dodson said the association welcomes a more considered approach to the regulations.
“We understand the need for permanent forestry if it is well managed. We do not want large areas of unmanaged pine in NZ.
“But we also recognise the role exotic forests play in addressing NZ’s zero emissions goal, with their ability to sequester significantly more than natives can. Having a blanket ‘no exotics’ rule is not an effective way to deal with the challenge.”
The association has iwi members, and Dodson said the association is very aware of the challenges iwi have in getting a return off land that is often less than ideal.
“This was where they were getting very frustrated with that rule. We do have some sympathies about exotics getting out of control, but that is just not happening.”
Colin Jacobs, general manager for Lewis Tucker, which oversees the Forest Partners forestry fund, said he is concerned the ministers’ letter signals all aspects of the ETS forest regulation changes are now on hold.
With some carbon forest estate, his company has submitted for forest rotation periods to be pushed out to 50 years from their current 30.
“We just hope they don’t say that it’s all too hard and leave things the way they are. A long rotation period lengthens the period of carbon returns out to 26 years. It means more carbon is sequestered by 2050 and the land required to achieve it is less,” said Jacobs.
His company has written to the Ministry for Primary Industries seeking clarification on what aspects of the proposals will continue to be considered.