Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Govt sends mixed signals on forest cap

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Putting a cap on exotic forest plantings is still an option on the table for the Government as it considers its response to the Climate Change Commission’s recommendations.
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Last year in the lead up to the election, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor undertook to make resource consent a requirement for landowners seeking to convert over 50ha of higher-quality land into forestry.

The decision came amid mounting concern that greater areas of farmland were being lost to forestry, some to unharvested carbon forest plantings.

But Forestry Minister Stuart Nash signalled recently that the Government plans to back away from planting restrictions.

He told a primary production select committee when asked by committee member David Bennett that the restraint would not be put into play now.

He told the committee the Government would instead be aiming to integrate forest land legislation into the emissions reduction plan, to be developed by year’s end in response to recommendations from the Climate Change Commission (CCC).

But O’Connor maintains the cap may still be in play.

He says the Government was taking a “big picture” approach to climate change, including discussions around requiring resource consent for the conversion of highly productive farmland into forestry.

“This proposal is still active and is currently being considered for the forestry chapter of the emissions reduction plan.

“I am a strong proponent of the right tree in the right place and this proposal is one tool still very much in the mix,” O’Connor said.

The Government announcement last year to limit forestry area had Forest Owners’ Association head Phil Taylor claiming officials had risked painting themselves into a corner, as the Government also sought to use exotic forests as the first response to NZ’s carbon emission reduction goals.

O’Connor had said the consent requirement was likely to kick in if new forest plantings were to get over 40,000ha in area each year.

Last year, newly planted area amounted to 22,000ha, well below the 1992-96 average of 75,000ha a year.

In the meantime, the forestry sector is taking a wait-and-see approach on whether the Government will still follow through on the requirement.

Taylor says it was likely the Government was putting the move on pause, recognising the “heavy lifting” in carbon absorption had to be done by exotic forests in the short-term, at least.

“I think there was also a fair bit of push back from farmers themselves too,” Taylor said.

“Farmers recognised this could be the thin edge of the wedge if regulations were to control how much area they could choose to put into trees on their land.”

Choosing to limit tree plantings will only mean pressure will be greater in other areas of the economy to absorb carbon, possibly at a greater cost.

“So, the Government is in a difficult situation here. Policy settings will be critical in terms of what Climate Change Commission recommendations are adopted. Putting the forest limitations on hold is a sensitive step backwards,” he said.

The proposed limitation was intended to be enforced on land-use classifications (LUC) 1-5.

The Bay of Plenty was particularly vulnerable to the limitations, accounting for about a third of Central North Island’s 550,000ha of exotic forest.

Almost half of the BoP’s forested area is in LUC 4 and 5, compared to the national average of 75% of forested land on LUCs 6 and 7.

Of 58,000ha of new forest plantings done nationally in the past decade, 40% was on improved farmland, but the rest was on unimproved pasture and scrub country.

The total exotic forested area in NZ is near a 10-year average of 1.73 million hectares, still well below the 2003 peak of 1.827m ha.

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