Sunday, August 14, 2022

Scion upbeat on exotic options


While the emissions reduction plan (ERP) has focused on indigenous forests for carbon storage, the head of the country’s largest forest researcher Scion sees some good opportunities to apply exotic forest skills to native plantings.

The ERP provided more than a quarter of a billion dollars to the forestry sector to help boost its capacity to sequester more carbon, with an additional $73 million to establish a wood biomass research resource, including 10,000ha of forest. 

Along with pastoral agriculture’s $300m in funding, the forestry funds represented one of the biggest injections for any sector of the economy under the plan.

Scion chief executive Julian Elder agrees that at first glance the Government’s focus on increasing plantings and reliance upon indigenous forests to sequester carbon runs counter to Scion’s focus on exotics. 

His corporation’s own submission on the proposed ETS changes underlined an unease at what the Government was proposing in its reforms, which included stopping exotics being approved for long-term carbon sequestration. 

Scion’s submission pushes back on the wisdom of this and on the risk of treating all exotic species the same for long term forestry options.

“But in answer, we do see an opportunity to use our knowledge on indigenous species, which have been a relatively small part of our focus, compared to exotics. 

“But clearly, all the things we have learnt from exotics gives us knowledge to apply to indigenous.”

Elder acknowledges the catch up in native knowledge Scion is now embarking upon, given exotics and pines specifically have almost 100 years of plantation growing expertise and knowledge behind them.

He also reiterates the Scion-sourced mantra of “right tree, right place”, comfortable with the fact that in some places indigenous plantings may be the only suitable option. 

Overall, Elder says he is encouraged by the spirit of the ERP and how it specifies R&D investment. 

The fact it provides a research-focused organisation like his a clearly funded pathway to base research on is also equally important.

“It is quite a change from living in Scion’s usual system where a huge amount of revenue comes through contestable funding. 

“When you have a cabinet-mandated purpose to drive  R&D for NZ’s benefit and are having to win those contestable funds – it is not always very planned.”

A big focus of the funding is on ramping up the ability to propagate more native seedlings and bring down the cost of doing so. 

“One of the big challenges is to bring down that cost. We have a research target to get it down to $6000 a hectare.”

Julian Elder

Costs of indigenous establishment are eye-watering at $20,000 to $50,000 a hectare, compared to about $4000 for pines.

“One of the big challenges is to bring down that cost. We have a research target to get it down to $6000 a hectare.”

Much of the heavy lifting in seedling propagation has already begun. 

Scion researcher Dr Heidi Dungey and her team are streamlining native propagation, pulling growing out time down by two thirds prior to planting. They are using smaller paper pots for nursery to field planting and retaining good survivability rates over traditional bulky plastic potted seedlings.

Another area of focus for Scion is better understanding of what native carbon sequestration rates are. 

Typically, natives will sequester only a third to a quarter of pines’ carbon in their first 28 years, but differences exist along the length of this long skinny country and vary between species.

“When carbon was low value, not many people were thinking about it, nor planting indigenous. There has not been a lot of funding to develop indigenous sequestration tables, we need to start developing more data gathering to fill out that knowledge base.”

Elder also argues exotics have done much to help keep current stocks of native forests from being diminished further, given the growing global demand for timber and NZ’s plantation skills at helping meet it.

“So, it will always be important to keep exotics in the mix, we need them for that and to sequester carbon at a much higher rates than natives.”

Mixed canopy options and transitioning from exotic to indigenous are also some of the management practices he believes need considering.

He does believe the Government may have swung too far into the indigenous camp, in a political rather than evidence-based response.

But Elder says he is not sure the door is completely shut on exotics’ role in longer-term sequestration.

“I am heartened by seeing the ministers for forestry and for agriculture together at the ERP launch, talking about the value of trees on farms, and the value to farmers.”

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