Thursday, April 25, 2024

Forestry regs barking up the right tree with local control

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Alan Emerson welcomes govt moves to devolve land-use changes to councils.
If New Zealand has to rely on good farmland being planted in exotics to achieve our climate target we’re in dire straits, Alan Emerson says.
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I was pleased to read last week that the government is putting initiatives in place to tighten up the rules about converting good farmland to forestry. They are badly needed.

It is a difficult balance. For a start we do need trees as both an export earner and carbon sink. That’s countered by the fact that New Zealand is a food exporter. It’s the base of our economy and needs to stay that way. Without it we don’t have a future.

There’s also the question about farmers being able to sell to the highest bidder and if that’s for carbon farming, so be it. In Wairarapa there have, in my opinion, been some ridiculous prices paid for good farmland to be converted to carbon forestry. The locals aren’t happy and it is a real barrier to new farmers joining the industry.

There is also the current legislative framework where a business can cover all its climate obligations by planting pine trees while maintaining its polluting activities. I don’t believe that achieves anything. It certainly doesn’t save the planet for future generations.

With all those complications, the government has come up with a strategy to give locals a say in the future of their communities.

It is “empowering local councils to decide which land can be used for plantation and carbon forests through the resource consent process”.

I believe that is positive, as we do have a major problem.

In 2019 37000ha of farmland was sold for forestry followed by 35,000ha in 2020. According to Beef + Lamb NZ that figure lurched to 50,000ha in 2021, of which 30,000ha is for harvest forest and 20,000ha for carbon.

That’s 122,000ha taken out of production in just three years. It is unsustainable.

At a local level, the Tararua Bush Telegraph tells me that between 2002 and 2022 stock levels in the district dropped drastically. They lost 600,000 sheep, 47,000 beef cattle, 15,000 dairy cattle and 10,000 deer. That’s also involved the loss of 67,000ha of grassland. 

That is devastating for a rural area that runs between Dannevirke and Eketāhuna.

Local Government Minister and Minister for Rural Communities Kieran McAnulty said that “everyone accepts we need to plant trees. The concern is that blanket planting of productive land is counterproductive. This change will assist rural communities to ensure that the right type and scale of forests are planted in the right place.

“Local communities through their councils will ensure the location and the extent that carbon forestry can occur.”

While I support the initiative, my concern is the ability of local councils to act responsibly over who can and who can’t. For example, we’ve had the government come out with questionable conservation policies affecting farming that the Wellington Regional Council have made even more severe and impractical.

I’d further question the expertise of central government agencies to make scientifically based, sustainable decisions on farming issues. That concern becomes even greater at a local level.

Minister McAnulty doesn’t share my worry. “I am confident they can do it. Consenting is a cost covered by the applicant,” he told me.

“This is the only logical solution to the issue. They [foresters] just won’t bother applying for a full-farm conversion because they know it won’t be approved. They’ll apply for bands of appropriate and suitable land, which is what we want them doing,” he said.

So it’s up to local government to decide where trees should be planted, which should mean the right tree in the right place. 

That the policy is solid was witnessed by the near hysteria from the forest owners, telling me that the new policy will mean “that Aotearoa New Zealand will fail to meet its climate charge target by 2050”.

I thought that was a bit over the top. If we have to rely on good farmland being planted in exotics to achieve our climate target we’re in dire straits.

It gets better. Forest Owners Association president Grant Dodson said that “foresters will be subject to a lengthy resource consent process and restricted by the quantity and type of trees they can plant – if the process permits planting at all”. 

He went on to add that “the premise that forestry is swallowing valuable pieces of highly productive land simply isn’t true”. 

If that is indeed the case, I don’t see the forestry industry having a problem. I would, however, offer him a farm tour around the local area showing him the productive land forestry has taken out of food production. 

His statement that reduced investment in forestry puts at risk “the biodiversity, community and economic benefit that sectors like our offer” did surprise me. I’d humbly suggest the opposite occurs.

Having a single one-size-fits-all policy coming from central government won’t work.

Having local control over what the new government policy achieves will. 

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