The head of the National Māori Forestry Association, Kapunga Dewes, is happy for iwi to take credit for forcing the government’s hand recently on its proposed ban on permanent exotic carbon forests.
After initially proposing a rule change to allow only native species to be planted as permanent carbon forests, Minister of Economic Development Stuart Nash and Climate Change Minister James Shaw changed their tune, instead delaying any decision for the time being.
“We quickly came to the realisation it [the rule change] was politically motivated, not scientifically based,” Dewes says.
He is clearly impatient with the repetition of the claim that permanent pine forests will spell ecological disaster in 100 years’ time when they supposedly all collapse and decay.
“Twice I have asked Minister Nash to withdraw that claim about forest collapse,” he says.
Research from Scion scientists has indicated pine populations do not collapse at year 100, rather populations become self-thinning with stronger trees continuing to grow through as smaller trees fall away over time. The Ministry for Primary Industries website also cites research references to pine trees having the ability to live beyond 100 years.
Nash “has acknowledged the science since, but it still gets picked up and repeated”, says Dewes.
He also ruefully notes the irony of ministerial concern at a supposed ecological disaster in 100 years’ time while the world faces down one far more immediate in the here and now as climates change.
Pushback from iwi on the native-exotics rule was also driven by a deep sense of indignation that they should be shut out of the one land-use option their poorer quality class 6-8 land could afford them.
“We have 1.6 million hectares of iwi land, of which at least 160,000ha is suitable for permanent forestry, with 80% being class 6-8, and 50% is underutilised, basically growing gorse,” Dewes says.
That land could generate $2000/ha/year in carbon forestry income, compared to the next most suitable use as sheep and beef at $250-$500 a hectare.
“I have estimated the wealth potential to be about $7 billion based on $2000/year carbon value.
“But Infometrics has put it as high as $64b, and it may fall somewhere between the two. But even at $7b, that is a big number.”
Dewes offers constructive solutions to the five key areas he sees the government grappling with when it comes to exotics versus native carbon forests.
“Stand collapse is one, and we know that is just not true.
“The second is the risk of ‘plant and leave’ forests arising. We agree, we don’t want this either, it could be a problem, but it can be dealt with by having covenants and standards to which forests have to be planted and managed under through time.”
The third concern in the government is the risk of carbon price collapse as forest size grows.
“But that can be dealt with. Carbon credits are created, the supply can be limited down, or a minimal legislated floor price can be set. At present it is set at $25 a unit, it could be set higher.”
Fourthly, the government is concerned forests may not be able to transition from exotics to natives.
“Admittedly we have not had enough time in NZ to know with certainty that this will work, but we can draw inferences from modelling, and early research it is highly likely it will work, and we as iwi are comfortable we can manage that.”
He is also bemused by NZ’s definition of a forest’s rotation being as short-lived as 28 years. Other foresters are pushing for an extension to 40 years, or even 50, to facilitate trees like redwoods that need a longer run-up for carbon sequestration.
“In other countries including USA they only get started at year 50 and go from there. In Europe it’s 150-year inter-generational rotations. Why not here?”
Longer rotations result in less prime land heading into trees and makes the economics of tougher hill country planting significantly better, playing well to iwi’s land portfolio in areas like East Coast.
Dewes freely admits he’s been labelled a “farming anti-Christ”, even by his own iwi members at times. But he contends the problems some rural communities face are not necessarily attributable to forestry.
He finds claims about forestry workers only offering “drive in, drive out” contracting services in communities’ forests ironic, given he spent so much time doing just that in a shearing gang around the East Coast for years.
But he is even more concerned about the burning platform that NZ and the world now stand upon, and the cost to NZ if it doesn’t adopt more trees to do the heavy carbon lifting.
“By 2030 we may be required to buy 100 million carbon credits on some offshore carbon credit market at a cost of billions.
“Yet we as iwi are being told we are not allowed to take our land here in NZ and turn it to forestry, which would significantly reduce that offshore cost of greening someone else’s country.
“It offends me deeply that we would not be talked to collectively about what we could do here with the land we have, to avoid that.”