Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Govt to cut wilding control funds

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Plan to cut programme to less than half current budget, potentially undoing years of work
Damien O’Connor, Minister for Biosecurity, invited hydro electricity generators to step up and contribute to programmes to control wilding conifers, and said Meridian had declined a previous invitation to contribute.
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Addressing delegates at the Wilding Pines Conference in Blenheim last week, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor said the $140 million spent since 2016 on the Wilding Programme has made a difference. It funded work in 69% of infestations across 1.4 million hectares of the South and North Islands.

“We have covered a huge percentage of what we needed to cover, but not everything was covered.”

This is drying up, however, with the job half done, with government funds to the National Wilding Conifer Control Programme for 2022-23 looking to be slashed to $10m from $25m the previous year. O’Connor said there is unlikely to be funding at levels seen in recent years.

Jo Ritchie, from the advocacy and co-ordination group Wilding Pine Network, said the National Programme has made major progress in stopping wilding spread. If this is reduced to $10m as proposed for the 2023-24 financial year, it’s equivalent to falling off a cliff, she said.

She said that $25m a year for 10 years is the minimum required. 

“This is a critical investment in terms of biodiversity, primary production, hydro generation and cultural heritage values.”

The progress gained, and the investment made so far, will be put at risk, she said. It will result in laying off skilled and experienced wilding control contractors.

O’Connor said hydroelectric generators and farmers are key beneficiaries of the work and there needs to be a discussion about how these people can contribute more. Meridian Energy was asked to stump up $100m by the government, he said, but there was no money forthcoming.

“We have to have that conversation again,” O’Connor said. “The hydro electricity industry needs to think about their social licence.”

He acknowledged that individual hill and high-country landowners spend a lot on checking the spread of wilding conifers – about $9m from partners over recent years. This was a significant amount, he said. Wilding conifers can remove up to 40% of water from a catchment.

He told delegates he will campaign for more funding from the government but it will take a collective effort to control these weeds. 

“You really want the minister of finance here today, not me,” he told the conference.

Richard Bowman, chair of the Wilding Pine Network, questioned O’Connor on the possibility of co-funding with commercial forestry. O’Connor said it was a fair question but that it wouldn’t go as far as regulation to create a levy.

There are no regulations compelling forestry owners to undertake wilding work on neighbouring adjacent areas, even if the forest is a proven source of wildings, Bowman said.

Queried about the possibility of sourcing money via a levy on the carbon forest market,  O’Connor said maybe a slice of their income should come to biosecurity. “I’m happy to have that discussion,” he said.

Genetically engineered (GE) sterile forestry trees could be a mitigating option.  O’Connor said that the jury is still out on the effect of using GE on the image of NZ’s food industry.

“Yes, we do need a sensible discussion, especially in the rush to plant trees for carbon. We need niche high value customers to buy our food and do they want genetic engineering associations?”

O’Connor said the 2018 Sapere Report on the cost/benefit of wilding control adds to the case for more funding. The status quo of $10m-base funding gave a 20:1 economic return, he said. Bowman said that funding to the ultimate level, however, gives an even better return – up to 38:1.

“This shows it is worthwhile doing the job properly and get rid of seed sources before they seed, creating a bigger problem, with maintenance every two years.”

He said that Contorta, for instance, will cone at four years.

Colin Maunder of Timberlands spoke at the conference about wilding management done by the Rotorua-based forestry company over 208,000ha. Its new strategy involves wilding Contorta and Douglas Fir work “for our social licence”, he said. Timberlands is in the top 10 most profitable companies in New Zealand, he said. 

At $650,000 a year, this equates to about $3 per hectare.  In comparison, the spend on wilding pines on the sheep and beef hill country property in the Wilding Pines Conference field trip was also $3/ha.  

“We used to do what the councils just tell us to control, but now we go beyond,” Maunder said. This includes supporting the Tawaera Trust for work on iwi land.

Maunder said whether or not there should be a forestry levy for wilding control was the same question as whether the government should levy farmers for nitrate leaching.

Steve Satterthwaite of Muller Station, Marlborough, questioned this comparison. He said farmers have changed behaviour to reduce their flow-on environmental effects, at their cost, and also compelled by regulation. Wouldn’t that, he asked, be similar to “regulation for containing wilding pine spread”?

“Also, there is clear evidence that wildings escape from forestry blocks, so it seems fair that a levy on commercial logging would be totally justified to contribute to wilding pine control.”

His calculations showed that a $1.50 levy on 33 million cubic meters of logs exported would generate $50m.

“If matched by government we could start big projects like the Branch-Leatham.”

Timberlands had approached the Department of Conservation to offer to  control wildings in the public-owned area adjacent to its forests.

“Their issue is they are needing to bed in their co-governance structure first,” Maunder said.

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