Friday, December 8, 2023

Forests must be in land rules

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Forestry should be more closely integrated into land use policy to dispel some of the negativity surrounding increased planting on pastoral land, former hill country farmer and forestry consultant Garth Cumberland says.
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“More and more of the farming community are realising the good sense and profitability of forestry.

“Its improved prospects on marginal land could potentially compete with the returns from dairying.”

Cumberland was named the Forestry Institute’s Forester of the Year in 2017 for his work on a forestry policy, a summary of which he’s recently sent to the Forestry Minister Shane Jones, Forestry New Zealand officials and institute members. 

Innovative Policies for NZ’s Future Forest Sector came out of the 2015 to 2019 deliberations of the forestry sector’s forest policy project team, which Cumberland convened. More than 100 people from the forest sector contributed with business consultant Dr Wayne Cartwright also giving his advice.

Cumberland said the government has not had a cohesive forest policy for decades. 

His is intended as a living document to be continually updated and refreshed. 

It says the future NZ forest sector encompasses a wide scope including commercial and native forests and wood processing providing direct economic benefits. The sector’s social licence needs strengthening to address the issues of clear-felling of large tracts of land, the instability of harvest slash on steep land and public concern about the need to share roads with logging trucks.  

But the commercial forest sector is in a commodity trap yielding relatively low returns. A solution could be processing logs now exported, technologically advanced, engineered structural products marketed overseas as concrete and steel become more expensive because of climate change along with wood suitable for a multitude of other uses. 

The report proposes the Government and the forest sector set up simple procedures and a pricing regime for the perpetual sequestration of carbon applied equally to all types of forests. 

Those that conserve, protect and regenerate biodiversity and ecosystems should be sustained and expanded. 

Forestry’s benefits in mitigating erosion and flooding risks have already been adopted in principle as part of the Billion Trees programme. 

But that relies on landowners applying for grants, meaning land at high risk can be ignored, so a sound allocation of government funds isn’t ensured. That should be replaced by directly-implemented plans for risk management, based on a comprehensive assessment of future risk on all pastoral land. It could establish priorities and specify reforestation systems that can be compulsorily implemented based on fairly negotiated landowner arrangements where the risk is high.

The report says blanket reforestation of marginal pastoral land will have no significant impact on overall farming profits since the land is costly to manage with fertiliser and fencing inputs and has low pasture productivity. Reforestation will improve the landowners’ carbon emissions profiles during the lengthy period of growth in forest biomass.  

The Government should adopt an enduring set of forest sector policies to achieve the best outcomes for the country through actions of both the private sector and its agencies including economic development, regional development, climate change, energy, conservation, ecosystem recovery, biosecurity, Maori interests and tourism. 

A complete and objective analysis of the merits of alternative uses of each category of land should be done, including accounting for previously ignored externalities such as economic, social and environmental ecosystem services for which forest owners are not rewarded. 

Ecosystem services are subtle and diverse so are often taken for granted and not recognised but their value is many billions of dollars annually. And forestry’s role will be even more important in the major adaptations and transformations NZ will need to put in place in response to global warming and climate change.  

“There are great opportunities in climate change,” Cumberland said.

Some farmers want to continue with the same land use seen on their properties for the last 100 years.

“They’re fixated on the assets they’ve got and aren’t looking to benefits from the increase in workers that forestry’s going to bring.”

But with ecosystem services now being evaluated and quantified it is easier to see how forestry is worth more than just the logs produced.

“That will all help innovative farmers keen to learn and justify forestry planting. Getting trees in the ground has got to be the priority.”

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