Climate change has delivered a new set of demands on Te Tairāwhiti forest owners, many which have been outlined by the Forest Owners Association in its submission to the ministerial inquiry on land use now underway.
Those demands were underscored by cyclones Hale and Gabrielle, which laid waste to hundreds of trees only midway through their lifespan, something Forest Owners Association (FOA) president Grant Dodson said foresters have not had to deal with before now.
The FOA’s submission has a strong focus on solutions to dealing with forestry slash losses and damage, without ruling out forestry altogether as a viable, and necessary, land use option for Te Tairāwhiti.
The region accounts for 10% of New Zealand’s exotic forested area, creates about 17% of the employment in the region, and Eastland Port contributes almost half a billion dollars a year in export log earnings.
Dodson said it is estimated the two cyclones moved 100 million tonnes of soil in the region, half of that ending up in waterways.
“FOA, and the Eastland Wood Council in particular, are focused on solutions in our submissions, and these must provide incomes for people in the region. We’d expect the future of Gisborne and northern Hawke’s Bay for a long time to come will continue to be based on forestry and farming.
“The terrain and remoteness make both forestry and hill country farming in this region a very difficult enterprise. Accelerating climate change makes it even more difficult.”
The submission does not shy away from laying some culpability at the door of the pastoral sector. FOA notes the farming sector has failed to accept ownership of silt, and, like forest debris, this has to be part of the inquiry’s focus.
It notes that, while forest owners have been prosecuted for slash losses, other landowners have not.
FOA cited the success of the National Environmental Standard for plantation forestry despite it often being criticised as being overly permissive.
FOA pushed back at claims it was developed by industry for industry, noting Gisborne’s forests are more heavily regulated than most due to the region’s geologic fragility.
Rather than seeking a step back from future plantings, or proposing a blanket Bola type response, FOA is proposing a blended approach to land use in Te Tairāwhiti that combines exotics, alternative exotics to pine, and natives, alongside pastoral land use.
It does, however, underline that sediment losses over the life of a forest compared to a pasture catchment can be significantly lower, and peak flood flows reduced by as much as 50%.
But to bring about smarter planting of exotics, FOA is advocating greater use of technology like LiDAR (light detection and ranging) remote sensing that can paint a far more granular, exact indicator of slope risk than current land use erosion classifications can.
While suggesting natives could be planted in particularly suspect areas, FOA also exhibits a level of ambivalence about their use.
“Without doubt, there will be native tree planting for land stabilisation and biodiversity,” Dodson said.
“But it has to be realised that indigenous tree establishment is expensive, and it’s difficult for slow growing native trees to become established, with the region predicted to have more droughts and ongoing storm damage from now on.
“And, unlike with plantation forestry and farming, planting native trees doesn’t produce an income product. Even their carbon sequestration capacity is also insignificant until many decades into the future.”
When it comes to dealing with forest slash, FOA acknowledges the lack of a viable processing plant in Te Tairāwhiti is a key limiter. The nearest processing plant remains the Pan Pac plant near Napier, currently offline due to severe storm damage.
The submission urges the government to consider options to encourage a processing plant in the region that may provide biofuel options, including creating an alternative wood pellet fuel source for the likes of Fonterra.
“So long as the economics can be worked out, we could eventually get to where no energy source needs to be imported into Tairāwhiti ever again.”
Given Tairāwhiti has some of the most erodible land in the world, FOA is also proposing retirement of the most erosion-prone land where geology has made harvesting too risky.
While forest owners could absorb the costs of smaller scale retirement, any large-scale retirement will require the need for transition for affected owners, contractors and workers who lose income.