Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Foresters give council powers thumbs-down

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Government recently announced that it will empower local councils by amending the National Environmental Standard for Plantation Forestry.
Forest Owners Association president Grant Dodson says operators are less than happy about councils having a greater say in what land can and cannot be planted in trees. Photo: Justus Menke
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Forest owners and local communities are at odds over government moves to give councils more say over where forests may be planted.

Alongside concerns that the Emissions Trading Scheme is promoting over-planting of pines rather than emissions reductions, the government has also felt community heat from forest slash impact during weather events in Te Tairāwhiti Gisborne  and Te Matau-a Māui Hawke’s Bay.

Forestry Minister Peeni Henare announced last week that the government will empower local councils by amending the National Environmental Standard for Plantation Forestry.

For Wairoa District Council mayor Craig Little the move has not come a moment too soon, and he maintains it is only through council pressure the changes have become a reality.

“We have been told before that we have all the powers possible, but when you read the national environmental standard, it overrides everything that we can do.” 

He said councils have been seething ever since the standard was introduced in 2017.

“There have been 17 councils on board, and it is thanks to work by Lawrence Yule that we have managed to get a lot done on it. We at Wairoa were a bit of a lone soldier on this for so long.”

Little said his council is not anti-forestry but has become increasingly alarmed at the amount of farmed area converted to trees over the past decade, with estimates that about 20,000ha has been converted to forestry in that time.

In announcing the changes, Minister of Rural Communities Kieran McAnulty said the government had heard the concerns of rural communities, particularly in Te Tairāwhiti and Wairoa.

“We are empowering local councils to decide which land can be used for plantation and carbon forests through the resource consent process,” Henare said.

“Amendments to the National Environmental Standards for Plantation Forestry will see the environmental effects of permanent pine forests being managed the same way as plantation forests.

“This means many standards, such as ensuring firebreaks and rules planting next to rivers, lakes and wetlands, will now be required for any new forestry conversions,” Henare said.

The report on Te Tairāwhiti land use and Gabrielle’s impact issued last month slammed the Gisborne District Council for its lack of monitoring and compliance reviews of forestry, contributing to the resulting environmental damage. 

The report incensed Gisborne mayor Rehette Stoltz, who claimed her council had been pushing for years to have greater control over forestry than the national standard was offering.

She was not available for comment on the latest change. 

But Ruatoria local and former district councillor Manu Caddie told Farmers Weekly he was cautiously supportive of the government’s latest move.

“It’s good to give that ability to local communities to determine what is and isn’t appropriate land but concerning that the minister is still talking about this misnomer of ‘permanent pine’ plantations.”  

He said the same process should apply to bare pasture, especially on erosion-prone land,  which is nearly 90% of the land in Tairāwhiti.

“If local government is to be enabled to control where pine plantations are allowed, councils should also be enabled to control where bare pasture is allowed.”

Linking back to recent ETS reform proposals (see accompanying article) Caddie said if the government is to face carbon liabilities between $3 billion and $30bn in offshore credit purchase, the funding is better spent locally on establishing indigenous forest plantings.

Manawatū mayor Helen Worboys said she welcomed any greater say councils get on forestation.

“Government has moved to enable councils to protect high value soils from housing. We support that, but why allow trees to be planted on productive soils and not houses? That land is still being taken out of use.”
But Forest Owners Association president Grant Dodson said devolving more power to councils is problematic given the variation in skills and resources between councils throughout New Zealand.

“It adds another layer of ill-considered regulation that will dictate and limit what landowners can do with their land. Foresters will be subject to lengthy resource consent processes and restricted by the quantity and type of trees they can plant, if the process permits planting at all,” he said.

He disputed the premise that forestry is swallowing valuable pieces of highly productive land. 

“Plantation forestry occupies just 1.76 million hectares of the 13.5 million hectares of agricultural land and has an export return that’s three times greater than sheep and beef production per hectare.” 

In 2021, the estate expanded by just 1.1% and remains 70,000ha smaller than it was 20 years ago when forestry peaked at about 1.83 million hectares, he said.

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