Sunday, August 14, 2022

Minister hints at tougher tree regulations

The possibility foreign buyers purchasing land for forestry may face a more onerous pathway to do so has been proposed by Forestry Minister Stuart Nash.

Forestry Minister Stuart Nash is concerned pine will become the go-to option for carbon sinks.

The possibility foreign buyers purchasing land for forestry may face a more onerous pathway to do so has been proposed by Forestry Minister Stuart Nash.

Since October 2018, foreign buyers seeking to buy land for forestry here have only been subject to the “special forestry test”, assessed by the Overseas Investment Office (OIO).

Among other things, this required them to only purchase the land for plantation forestry, and to undertake replanting after harvest.

“But in my view, every farm sold to a foreigner should go through the ‘benefit to New Zealand’ test pathway,” Nash said.

This test involves considerably more complexity, comprising seven parameters against which the bid will be assessed, including economic, environmental, access and policy benchmarks. Purchases for farmland are also assessed in a version of this test.

Since the tests were introduced in October 2018 to December 2021, 92 consents have been granted for foreign purchase of land that was either in, or destined for forestry, totalling 212,000ha.

Forty of the consents were granted to convert farmland to forestry. This amounted to 23,400ha of pastoral land converted to forestry.

This is .3% of all drystock pasture land area in NZ.

Nash acknowledges the portion of pastoral land being lost to trees has been relatively small, and far from NZ’s highest planting rates in the mid-90s that reached almost 100,000ha in a year.

“The percentage is small, but the threat is real, who knows where carbon prices will end up,” he said.

The area purchased for forestry by overseas investors in the past 11 years for forestry and farming are approximately equal.

A 2021 Radio NZ investigation revealed during the 11 years to 2021, 180,000ha of farming land was purchased or leased by foreign interests, comprising drystock, dairy and wine country.

In the meantime, 173,000ha of forest land was bought by overseas buyers.

Investors purchasing land for tree planting and consequent felling face new rules next year, where carbon sequestered is claimed by year 16 for plantation forests.

“But I would still like to see the regulations tightened further,” he said.

Prior to the last election, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor raised the possibility farmers wanting to convert over 50ha of land to forestry would require resource consent to do so.

But Nash said this would not happen.

“I do not think we would ever be in a position where we said to farmers you could only plant a certain number of trees on your property,” he said.

While forestry has been blamed by some groups as the cause of rural depopulation, Nash also said such a shift has been occurring since the 1980s, when NZ had multiple millions more sheep than today.

“A lot more of that has gone on in the last 40 years is through farms getting bigger, more efficient than through the impact of trees,” he said.

He would also like to see more regulation around the planting of exotics for carbon-only, regardless of whether that is done by domestic owners or foreign investors.

He said the focus needed to be on more indigenous plantings over exotics for that role.

He pointed to the risk unpruned, unfellable pines could leave a damaging environmental legacy if not regulated.

“It could mean you need a different sequestration regime for exotics,” he said.

But Forest Owners Association Phil Taylor said the focus should be on “long-lived” trees, regardless of whether they were exotic or natives.

“Our position is no radiata due to the risk of forest collapse. But long-lived trees like redwoods that do live for hundreds of years should be allowed. We have to keep as many of our options open,” Taylor said.

Nash said exceptions may be possible, including ones where selective felling of redwoods took place.

“We need to acknowledge that may be the case and build in an exception regime. We will consult on this,” Nash said.

With indigenous trees sequestering only a quarter of their exotic counterparts and costing up to three times as much a hectare to plant, he said there was a need there to make native plantings for carbon more appealing to investors.

Sequestration data remains sketchy nationally on indigenous trees and trial work was under way, starting with mānuka to better understand sequestration rates.

He agreed there was a need to significantly ramp up the value placed on carbon sequestered by natives in order to generate greater investor activity over exotic plantings.

The Climate Change Commission has recommended NZ be planting 380,000ha of exotics by 2035 and about 300,000ha of natives.

Nash said he expects a discussion document on changes to plantation and permanent forestry regulations out within two months.

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