Seven Wairarapa farms have been sold for forestry conversion in the last year but forest owners say it is not a start of up to 5.4 million hectares of afforestation said to be needed to offset the country’s carbon emissions.
Forest Owners Association president Peter Weir says there are not millions of hectares of land available for planting despite reports by the Productivity Commission and Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment claiming planting of that scale is required for the country to be carbon neutral.
But the prospect of large-scale afforestation as part of the Government’s carbon-neutral policy has rural communities nervous they might no longer exist as jobs and services linked to livestock farming disappear.
Weir says regional rules and plans protecting water catchments prevent planting on the South Island’s east coast while management of red-zone, erodible North Island land prohibits plantation forestry, pushing forest companies into uneconomic, more expensive classes of land.
“That is the end of forestry looking at cheap, erodible hill country land for plantation forestry.”
To achieve target yields of a 6-7% return on investment the price of land has to be less than $2000/ha but should the price of carbon, now $25 a tonne, increase then that could alter the economics.
Wairarapa farmer Derek Daniell has been vocal in his concerns about the impact of large-scale forestry, saying the Wairarapa farm sales removed 100,000 stock units from the area.
It is doubtful land planted in trees will ever revert to pasture.
The Government’s promotion of tree planting is further erosion of the primary sector and ignores and undermines the country’s economic powerhouse, he said.
“Is there another country that has shafted its major industry, which has built the country for the last 150 years?”
It also ignores the fact livestock numbers are falling and the sheep industry has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions, contrary to growing emissions from an expanding population and industries such as air travel.
Daniell says it is ironic 75% of NZ forestry is foreign-owned and the Government amended the Overseas Investment Office (OIO) rules to make it easier for those corporations to invest.
While farming has been criticised for its environmental footprint, pine forests are far from immune, causing sediment, allowing little native undergrowth and drying up rivers, Daniell said.
NZ has 7.9m hectares of native forests, 2m hectares of exotic forests and 12.1m hectares of agriculture and horticulture.
Weir says 50,000ha of forestry reverted to pasture between 2002 and 2012 and the volume of land bought by forest companies recently has been small in comparison.
Dunedin City Council’s City Forests has bought two farms covering 650ha in south Otago and in its half-year report said it is looking for more land to increase both wood and carbon production.
A Colliers International report said there is no sign of forest interests outbidding sheep and beef farmers.
Forestry companies buying farms do so only if they can make it work economically, he says.
Generally available hill country land is too expensive and he believes farmers will be the main driver of any forestry expansion as they look to offset their methane emissions.
“It may be a different bunch of actors doing the next afforestation because I don’t think it will be the companies, simply because the economics do not stack up.”
Forest owners are focused on using genetics and silviculture to increase productivity off their existing land rather than adding to their holdings.
Forestry Minister Shane Jones says by late next year, Te Uru Rakau Forestry NZ, will have used part of its $240m fund to partner with landowners to plant 2400ha and he encourages more farmers to become involved.
Jones says OIO rules were simplified because foreign companies own 75% of NZ’s exotic forests and change was needed to maintain that investment flow.
He called on farmers to unite and decide how they are going to offset their emissions and whether trees are part of that.
He is dismissive of claims rural communities will be destroyed by afforestation believing them to be exaggerated and an influx of corporate farmers and a reliance on migrant workers has changed them already.
“What are they frightened for? Communities no longer have a good variety of Kiwis in those workplaces.”
Estimates on the degree of afforestation are not Government policy and Jones says planning is a case of the right tree, right time, right place.