Sunday, December 3, 2023

One-forest-fits-all approach won’t work

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Ministerial inquiry on east coast land use could use a rest, says Alan Emerson.
With extreme weather events becoming more common, we need a national strategy that gives local councils flexibility, Alan Emerson says.
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I totally agree with Federated Farmers over their call for a reset of the ministerial inquiry into land use on the east coast.

The forestry minister at the time, Stuart Nash, didn’t want it but Prime Minister Chris Hipkins did. The inquiry team was limited in numbers and expertise, the terms of reference too narrow and the time frame ridiculously short.

As far as the inquiry team was concerned, it was led by ex-National cabinet minister Hekia Parata with former regional council chief executive Bill Bayfield and forestry engineer Matthew McCloy also taking part.

Bayfield has since resigned, to be replaced by Dave Brash, a “consultant who provides advice to central and local government”. No one, to my knowledge, has an agricultural or science background.

The terms of reference included the storm damage and its causes, current practices and regulatory and policy settings and was restricted to the Gisborne Wairoa areas even though Hawke’s Bay and parts of Wairarapa were hugely affected.

The panel started in February with its recommendations due in April. The government obviously wanted a quick, dirty, once-over-lightly report.

We were told that feedback from communities and the wider public would be sought. They’d have to be lightning fast, considering the time frame.

The problems were caused by wrong decisions made after Cyclone Bola in the late 1980s, combined with a one-size-fits-all National Policy Statement on forestry.

After Bola the decision was made to plant trees to prevent erosion. At the time land had been developed that shouldn’t have been, encouraged by the subsidies of the Muldoon era. That land eroded and the government decided trees were the answer. By 2020 there were 150,000ha of Pinus radiata on the east coast.

The problem was exacerbated by then-conservation minister Nick Smith, who decided to have a central policy on forestry.

Soils, climate and contour vary hugely around New Zealand and one size doesn’t fit all. We obviously haven’t learnt any lessons as we’re still pursuing that one-size-fits-all philosophy with a degree of alacrity. It didn’t work then and won’t work now.

As we know, national standards override district and regional council plans. The standards, ridiculously in my view, apply to any forest over one hectare anywhere in the country.

So, my position is that there are major decisions required that are well researched by qualified people. They will have ramifications over the entire country and we need to do it once and get it right.

Having two or three people considering an extremely narrow geographic area in a ridiculous time frame won’t provide any real answers or solve anything.

The current problem with an extreme weather event involves the North Island east coast, but those extreme events are going to get more common and geographically spread.

We need a national strategy that gives local councils flexibility.

Further, while the majority of trees on the east coast were planted for timber, there’s the additional burden of trees planted just for carbon.

For example, Dryland Carbon, owned by CO2 emitters Air NZ, Contact Energy, Genesis Energy and Z Energy,  have “10,000ha of steeper and marginal farmland for forestry”. Could that steeper land be just as erosion prone as land on the east coast?

NZ Carbon has 100,000ha of forest land owned or leased with “60,000ha managed for permanent forest”. Carbon Crop has 10,000ha.

So instead of slash on beaches could we end up with whole trees?

We need answers.

There are other options with forests and slash, with the main two being burning and biofuels.

Scion tells us that turning slash into biofuel is a viable option that is available now.

Canterbury Health tells me that burning slash has cut its reliance on coal.

ANZ Bank agricultural economist Susan Kilsby tells me that businesses are currently encouraged to offset emissions by planting trees rather than by reducing their emissions. 

She told RNZ that “it’s been identified that at the moment it’s cheaper and easier for companies to invest in forestry rather than investing in solutions that would reduce their own emissions”.

That has meant a loss of around 2000 farms, which is extremely serious for our economy in the long term.

It is also a short-term and unsustainable option.

These are huge issues that NZ has to come to grips with and soon. It won’t be achieved by a quick glimpse at the Gisborne Wairoa flooding all done at a frenetic pace and with limited expertise.

The opinion expressed in Stuff by Marcus Musson of Forest360 had me intrigued. The headline read “Slash blame a witch hunt”. He said that “the current witch hunt on the forest industry is textbook Salem in the late 1600s and boffinism is fuelling the fire”.

I’d humbly suggest he stays in the shallow end.

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