Prodded by concerns in the rural sector prior to the election, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor had moved to promise after the election the Government would restrict forest plantings over 50ha on land use capability (LUC) classes one to five.
Typically, LUC classes one to three are for dairying and horticultural use, with four and five the most forested, but about 78% of New Zealand’s forest estate was in class six and seven.
The Government has been prompted by pressure from rural communities and a report commissioned by Baker Ag consultants on the impact of large-scale forestry on the Wairoa district, were it to go ahead.
That estimated large scale conversion in that district would result in the net loss of nearly 700 local jobs and $24 million less spent in the local economy.
But that report has also been challenged by foresters, who have pointed to the wholesale conversion modelling as being overstated, and ignoring the positive impacts afforestation may have in smaller blocks in conjunction with farm operations.
“The policy is, and we will proceed, to enable councils to require resource consent. It is an enabling policy that will be up to local councils to enact, not an overall policy,” O’Connor said.
He says the Government was aware of the potential impact such a policy could have on landowners’ property rights, and ability to change land use to permitted activities like forestry.
“But no one has absolute rights over land, we are guardians for the next generation. This will be a policy that will protect productive land,” he said.
The policy has support of the new Minister for Forestry Stuart Nash and Wairarapa MP Kieran McAnulty.
O’Connor also acknowledged the policy change comes accompanied with the “political beat up” reported prior to election on the amount of land likely to be lost to large scale forestry.
“But there were some areas, including the top of Wairarapa, where some good farms went to trees, and the Wairoa district. I don’t think there will be widespread utilisation of the policy,” he said.
Data from the 2019 National Exotic Forest Description indicates over the past decade the amount of improved pasture lost to land remained small.
Of the 58,000ha of new planted area between 2009 and 2019, 40% (23,000ha) of that was from improved pasture, the rest coming from unimproved pasture and scrub country.
Three-quarters of that 23,000ha was converted to trees between 2009 and 2012, a time when there was no specific policy favouring forestry over farming.
In contrast, the wholesale conversions to dairying from forest areas undertaken by Ngai Tahu and Landcorp together totalled about 33,000ha over the same period and was allowable under regional councils’ “permitted activity” descriptors.
The 2019 land area in forestry sits on the 10-year average for planted exotic forests at about 1.73 million hectares. This is well below the high point of 1.827 million hectares reported in 2003.
Forest Owners Association president Phil Taylor says the process of seeking resource consent would make forestation unnecessarily complicated and expensive.
A national environmental standard for forestry planting had been developed over five years because of the variations that had existed between councils on the activity.
“And by and large forestry is a permitted activity on all land other than highly erodible country,” Taylor said.
At present, forestry activity can already be restricted on grounds of landscape impacts, fire risk and water quality issues.
“Given LUC one, two and three are too expensive for foresters, and it is estimated there is only about 20,000ha on LUC four, it is really only LUC five that is the issue,” he said.
Taylor says he was concerned the Government continued to buy into a belief that farming should have priority over forestry, when in fact the two activities were quite compatible.
He also challenged the Government’s “huge inconsistency” of putting a control over private landowners’ rights, while also claiming it was mindful of those same rights.
Horizons regional councillor and forester John Turkington says he suspected the 50 Shades of Green campaign had some role in prompting the Government’s position.
“But I have always been a supporter of trees on farms, not farms of trees,” Turkington said.
He says given it was LUC one to five that would be affected by the 50ha policy, it could work if mapping is accurate enough to clearly define the land class.
He maintains there is also a place for greater community input on where trees go, given the strength of catchment groups in many regions, including his own.
“I think you will see a modification of Labour’s tree programme, maybe towards more native plantings versus production forests,” he said.
He says tailoring policy to regions made sense, given the variance in contour and soil type throughout NZ.