Bringing in new rules to deal with forestry slash “had to be done”, says Federated Farmers national board member Toby Williams.
From November 2, slash longer than two metres, and with a large-end diameter of more than 10cm, must be removed after harvesting from erosion-prone land unless it’s unsafe to do so. That’s a minimum standard; councils can apply more stringent requirements if they choose.
Where foresters are unable to meet these standards, they will need to obtain resource consent, meaning councils consider the risks and impacts on a site-by-site basis.
Environmental damage from poor harvesting practices had to be addressed, Williams says.
“There’s no way we could carry on down the route we’ve been on. Huge damage has been caused on the East Coast, and in Hawke’s Bay and other districts, when avalanches of slash block rivers, smash infrastructure, and cover farm pasture,” he says.
“In Tairāwhiti we’ve tried the voluntary methods for the last five years. While things have improved, they haven’t improved sufficiently to really make the changes needed for when these devastating weather events come through.”
Williams is Federated Farmers’ meat and wool chair but, like many farmers in that sector, he also diversifies his income by planting trees. His Gisborne farm has about 100 hectares in forestry, “and we’re actually looking at putting more in”.
Sheep and beef farmers know what it’s like when regulations come in hard and fast, “so look, I think there’s a large amount of sympathy out there over this”, he says.
“We know it’s tough on those who will need to step up very quickly, but they’ve had opportunities. In 2018, when we had the flooding in Tologa Bay, that delivered a small-scale preview of what could happen. That should have been a warning.”
Williams says there are already plenty of forestry operators taking a “design engineered” approach to harvesting, taking out one area then returning a year or two later to do another area – “not clearing a whole catchment at a time”.
The National Environmental Standards (NES) for Commercial Forestry will also give much more say to territorial and regional councils over what trees are planted, and where forests are located and developed – including carbon-only forests.
Federated Farmers endorses this approach for an elected local council, accountable to the community they represent, to make the decisions, he says.
“As with so many land use issues, we need a catchment-by-catchment approach.
“Those local and regional councils understand the land around them, and the feeling for their community, so they’re best placed to be able to do this.”
There’s still a question over how that work should be resourced.
“We can’t keep dumping more and more onto local ratepayers to fund,” Williams says.
Federated Farmers has been pushing for these sorts of measures, and for those planting permanent forestry for carbon credits to be subject to controls put on plantation forestry operators.
Farmers have been incredibly frustrated that more than 200,000 hectares of productive farmland has been converted to pine trees and carbon farming – and it will probably never be farmed on again.
As the pines have moved in, the people have moved out, and the life of small rural communities has gone with them, Williams says.
Federated Farmers generally holds a view that landowners are entitled to make their own decisions about how to use their land but, in this case, rules and regulations have completely distorted the market.
The NES announcement on October 3 came as something of a double whammy for the forestry sector. MPI recently announced a new $30.25 per hectare charge for forests, as well as new fees for 22 other services, such as changing the classification of exotic or indigenous areas.
The rationale is that those who benefit from having forests in the Emissions Trade Scheme (ETS) should pay relevant costs, not the taxpayer.
However, a group that includes the Forest Owners Association and Ngā Pou a Tāne/The National Māori Forestry Association have filed for a judicial review of the new charges, labelling them “excessive, unreasonable and disproportionate”. They claim the charges will add up to at least $14m each year in fees for foresters enrolled in the ETS.
Williams agrees the fees are “quite a sting in the tail” for foresters, and those farmers who diversify into woodlots and forests.
One could argue the people doing the sequestering and benefiting from carbon credits should pay, but equally it could be argued those doing the emitting should meet the scheme administration costs, “or a combination of both,” he says.
Consultation is happening on whether scattered poplars, willows and other vegetation should qualify under the ETS.
“If fees are going to be extended to those too, it makes it a lot less attractive for the landowner.”
Williams believes the slash problem is also an opportunity.
“When we harvest pines, half of the product is being left on the sites. What about biochar, or micro power plants where we chip and burn that product, creating energy in these small rural townships?
Perhaps that energy could be used to produce hydrogen, to power the trucks and other equipment needed to collect and transport slash, he says.
“We need to get on with those conversations and investigations quickly.
“We don’t want to see people losing their jobs over these new rules. Regulations should be about correcting behaviours that haven’t been addressed voluntarily, not closing stuff down.
“Timber is still a very important part of our national economy and GDP.”
Federated Farmers, New Zealand’s leading independent rural advocacy organisation, has established a news and insights partnership with AgriHQ, the country’s leading rural publisher, to give the farmers of New Zealand a more informed, united and stronger voice. Feds news and commentary appears each week in its own section of the Farmers Weekly print edition and online.