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Anne Salmond: Forestry plan not out of the woods

Dame Anne Salmond wants to see the Forestry Service re-established, but only with lessons from the past on board

It's good news that the Government plans to re-establish the Forestry Service. But this demands a fundamental rethink about how forests are managed in New Zealand. The Government plans to take forestry out of the Ministry for Primary Industries, and to co-locate the service in Rotorua with Scion, the Crown’s forest research institute.

Over the past few years, however, Scion has focused largely on plantation forestry with exotic species, especially pinus radiata. It is imperative that the new Forestry Service and the new government’s National Forestry Strategy are forward-looking, and do not repeat past mistakes.

When the forestry industry was privatised in the 1980s, for instance, many state forests were sold to New Zealand companies who later sold their interests offshore. In the process, the industry lost much of its focus on environmental impacts, and the needs of the New Zealand economy and the regions.

On the East Coast, for instance, which has some of the most erodible soils in the world, 130,000 ha of 160,000 ha of plantations in the region had been planted as protection forests. After these were privatised, they soon began to be harvested. In the process, many of the financial, environmental and social costs were passed on to local communities.

This year, for example, when log prices were high during a very wet winter, harvesting carried on unabated. High volumes of trucks laden with logs and heavy machinery caused a great deal of damage to a fragile roading network. The Gisborne District Council was left with a $6.5 million blow-out in its roading budget, which is being met by cuts in staffing and services to ratepayers. There’s no good reason why local ratepayers should be expected to subsidise forestry companies in this way.

Carbon offsetting with plantation forestry is like putting one’s debts on a credit card.

In addition, forests are often clear-felled over large areas, down to the water-line, so that large volumes of sediment and forestry waste migrate into streams, rivers, to the coast and into the ocean.

The port has to be dredged, and slash removed from river banks and beaches in another cost to local ratepayers. A recent report from the Gisborne District Council shows that much of the woody waste in waterways in the region comes from exotic species of trees – about 70 percent pinus radiata, but also poplars and willows. As streams and rivers aggrade, flooding risks also increase, along with damage to riverside land and infrastructure including roads and bridges.

While pinus radiata grows quickly, it is harvested in cycles of about 28-30 years. The benefits for carbon sequestration may be rapid, but many of the credits have to be repaid when the forests are harvested, and the environmental costs associated with harvesting are high. Once topsoil is stripped from the land, very little will grow. Carbon offsetting with plantation forestry is like putting one’s debts on a credit card. With many New Zealand forests owned offshore, among the profits expatriated are those gained by carbon sequestration.

When forestry operations are managed to minimise costs, there are also risks to health and safety, and many of these are also borne by workers, ratepayers and taxpayers. These include health risks from pine pollen and dust from gravel roads travelled by logging trucks as well as accidents involving these vehicles, and work-related injuries and deaths suffered by forestry workers. Some forest owners have been averse to supporting enterprises that add value to local timbers before they are sent offshore, and prefer to export raw logs.

I support the idea of re-establishing a Forestry Service in New Zealand. Like Landcorp, however, it will need visionary, clever and clear-sighted leadership if the benefits of forestry are to outweigh its costs to the community.

As well as being dangerous and poorly-paid, many forestry jobs are intermittent, and this is also reflected in local economies.

For all of these reasons, it is vital that the new Forestry Service is not captured by lobbyists for the industry, and that it invests in forestry regimes that make positive contributions – financial, social and environmental – to the New Zealand economy and to the regions.

This will require a new kind of accounting, one that weighs the costs and benefits for ratepayers and taxpayers, and not just corporate enterprises. Many costs are regarded as ‘externalities’ because they’ve been shifted from company balance sheets onto local communities and households. The benefits may also include subsidies from taxpayers (eg the Erosion Control Funding Programme) that are heavily weighed in favour of exotic forests.

The benefits of permanent native forests – long-term carbon sequestration and erosion control, contributions to water quality, benefits to terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems, and associated industries like mānuka honey, bio-medical products and sustainable logging of high value native timbers – need much greater research and recognition. Over 50 million years of independent evolution, indigenous trees have learned to live in local landscapes, and we have a great deal to learn from them.

At present, we know surprisingly little about how to manage native forests for commercial as well as environmental purposes, or other by-products from native plants – although these may be more profitable than exporting high volumes of low value exotic logs. Many of the statements made about native forests – that they are very expensive to establish, and grow slowly, for example – are not well-founded in rigorous research that takes into account the diversity of New Zealand’s bio-regions.

I support the idea of re-establishing a Forestry Service in New Zealand. Like Landcorp, however, it will need visionary, clever and clear-sighted leadership if the benefits of forestry are to outweigh its costs to the community.

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