Govt measures weaken local forest rules

Updated: This story has been amended to make clear that the NES-PF still needs 'permitted activity' conditions to be met before consent is automatically granted; to include members of the stakeholder working group and to include comment from Te Uru Rakau.

New national rules governing plantation forestry are in some cases weaker than district rules, causing concern for communities living close to erosion-prone land. Farah Hancock reports. 

For Tolaga Bay locals, the new national forestry standard brings little comfort that pine logs and forestry debris won’t smash through their farms again. The new standard places fewer restrictions on harvesting than the council rules they replaced, which have been described as insufficient.

The National Environmental Standard for Plantation Forestry (NES-PF) overrides plans of local councils around the country, in many cases with rules which are more relaxed than what foresters used to comply with.

Previously the Gisborne District Council required consent for harvesting from yellow, orange and red-zoned land. Only land zoned green, with a low risk of erosion did not require a consent.

Now, as long as permitted activity conditions are met, only red zone land requires consent and consent must be granted for all but class 8e, a classification given to the very steepest land.

The permitted activity conditions for harvest include avoiding sediment from harvest entering water, managing disturbed soil, protections for harvesting near waterways, and managing debris. There are no conditions aimed at soil erosion caused by removing trees.

Former Gisborne councillor Manu Caddie said the legislation to give the forestry industry a “level-playing field” has created mixed results. Some parts of the country now have stricter rules than they previously had. Others, like Gisborne, have weaker rules.

The legislation raised significant concern within the community, which was already grappling with negative effects of forestry, said Caddie. Hapu groups made submissions to the draft forestry standard in 2015.

“Basically, they were saying this is going to weaken our rules, which we already knew weren’t sufficient.”

“Those red zones shouldn’t be planted or harvested. Certainly, shouldn’t be harvested.”

Caddie said once clear-felled of pines, land in Gisborne is constantly slipping away.

Roots holding the soil together slowly rot after trees are cut. Until roots from newly planted trees grow enough to offer reinforcement, the soil remains unstable.

Heavy rain can bring about slips, sending forestry slash - the debris left from harvest - careening down slopes, into homes, roads and bridges.

“Those red zones shouldn’t be planted or harvested. Certainly, shouldn’t be harvested,” said Caddie.

The standard’s inception

In 2009, the Minister for the Environment, Nick Smith, asked the Ministry for the Environment to look into whether a nationally applied standard could create consistency in the way forestry consents were handled and eliminate “unwarranted variation” between districts.

The forestry industry was particularly keen on a national standard. A consistent regulatory treatment across the country meant cost savings for large forest owners.

Previously, forest owners needed to adhere to a range of rules from different councils. For forests spanning two districts this could mean foresters had to comply to two sets of rules in the same forest. The thousands of consents they had to apply for caused delays and affected profits.

The Ministry worked on the proposal until 2013. During that time, three cost-benefit analyses were completed.

These analyses looked at whether the costs of implementation to councils and forestry companies were outweighed by the  standard's benefits, such as improved environmental outcomes, reduced costs and certainty.

Each time an analysis showed negligible benefit, a cabinet committee handling economic matters sent the Ministry away to improve the result.

In 2013 the Ministry made a recommendation to the cabinet committee to put the proposed standard on hold.

Policy for water was being developed, which it said could impact the forestry standard’s “viability and necessity”. The Ministry also cited concerns over whether the proposed standard was “fit for purpose” at all.

The project then fell into the lap of the Ministry for Primary Industry (MPI).

“It is Council’s impression that the NES-PF is an industry-led proposal driven by industry for the benefit of industry.”

Caddie said he believes the shift was based on economics.

“I think it was National’s focus on industry over environment to put it bluntly. They saw it as a primary industry issue and that’s where it should sit, rather than being about environmental protection.”

In 2015, MPI sent out a consultation on the draft proposed standard for public feedback. It received 18,732 submissions.

One size doesn’t fit all

The response to the standard from some councils could be described as lukewarm. Some were not sure a one-size-fits-all approach could cater for New Zealand's varied landscape.

“It is Council’s impression that the NES-PF is an industry led proposal driven by industry for the benefit of industry,” says a 2015 submission to a draft of the standard by Southland District Council.

Other councils around New Zealand had similarly negative reactions.

Otago Regional Council called the standard “fundamentally flawed”.

Marlborough District Council said: “… it is considered that the proposed NES for plantation forestry is a blunt instrument to resolve what is effectively an administration (as opposed to environmental) issue.”

Taranaki Regional Council submitted the standard “undermines fundamental principles in relation to local governance”. This sentiment was echoed by Environment Canterbury’s submission.

There were a range of concerns expressed by local government.

Some councils were worried at the relaxing of harvest rules on erosion prone land. Others were unsure how the forestry standard would fit into a jigsaw of other standards, including coastal and fresh water policy. A clause allowing genetically modified trees caused backlash and there was surprise that the impact of forestry on local roads was not covered in the proposal. Finally, many councils were concerned about where the cost for monitoring compliance would fall.

The submissions did cause some changes to the final standard. The clause about genetically modified trees was removed, and councils were given the ability to charge forestry companies for compliance monitoring instead of relying on ratepayer funds.

More stringent local council rules were also allowed, under a few narrow criteria such as in geothermal areas, or where the land is of outstanding natural value.

What didn't change was the ability for local councils like Gisborne to require forest owners obtain consent before harvesting anything but the very steepest of land.

The approaching harvest

MPI’s website says: “The sector is entering an exciting new phase, as forests planted in recent decades reach maturity, increasing production volumes.”

This “new phase” is being reached in Gisborne, where trees planted after 1988’s Cyclone Bola to hold its hills together are ready for harvest.

Former Gisborne District Council environmental services manager Trevor Freeman has grave concerns about what this could mean for Gisborne’s erosion prone soil.

The new national standard requires a harvest plan to be submitted to councils before harvesting begins. However, councils have no ability to turn a plan down.

“You can put in one that can be as long, or as short as you like. As long as you have done that you’ve fulfilled the requirement of the NES. There’s no recourse for councils to biff it out. You just have to accept what comes in, so that’s of no use whatsoever in terms of compliance.”

Freeman said foresters would not need to take as much care harvesting under the national standard as they would have under a district plan, and local council would not have adequate control.

“Permitted activity conditions tend to be broad as they need to cover all regions of NZ, this means they may be overly tight or overly loose. In comparison a resource consent process enables site specific conditions to be put in place that reflect actual on the ground risks. If a forester contends a permitted activity applies, councils can only monitor and enforce after the activity has been carried out, yet some effects are irreversible.”

He thinks harvesting poses risks.

“It’s that window of vulnerability over a few years post harvesting when they are very susceptible to rainstorms like we’ve had. In some areas the effects of those rainstorms are so devastating that there really is a risk that shouldn’t be taken.”

The options to avoid risk are limited and expensive.

“You could take some of the trees out but it’s extremely difficult. You are really talking about a helicopter or special cable hauling systems. It’s difficult. No one does it because it’s uneconomic.”

Freeman said radiata should not be planted on the steep hills again.

“I think the mechanism really has to be - accept the trees are there, accept they have to be harvested and then key conditions are around what happens then. How they are harvested, what happens with that land and how it’s going to be treated post-harvest.

“I think there are some areas that shouldn’t be replanted with radiata, so they can’t have a clear-fell forestry regime in front of them again.”

New Zealand Forest Owners Association communications manager Don Carson said managing erosion-prone land with planting is a complex issue.

“We are looking at other options, other technology. We’re looking at different species, we’re looking at different management regimes.

“Just simply saying, ‘Well, we’ll put in natives and we won’t harvest’ is not that straightforward.”

Carson said indigenous trees are more expensive to plant and the roots take longer to grow, leaving the land vulnerable for longer.

“Pinus radiata is fast to establish, but also fast to rot.”

"If it is not worthwhile planting for harvesting, then what’s going to happen?”

The options Carson said the industry is looking at will not be in place in time for the upcoming harvest.

“It takes time on these things and we are still locked into that trap of replant after Cyclone Bola.”

Under the forestry standard, the green, yellow, orange and small areas of red zone land can be harvested without a consent and there are no conditions around replanting.

Replanting on larger areas of red zone land is a controlled activity, for which consent must be granted. Councils can control the timing, location and species. This could be used to address erosion risk.

Forest owners are not required to replant unless specified as a consent condition at the time of harvesting.

Carson said the industry faces a conundrum. This could be problematic for Gisborne, where 56 percent of current forest cover is on red zone land and replanting large areas would require a consent.

“They [councils] may simply say it’s too erosion-prone, you need to spend more money or resource to make sure there are no debris flows. So, more dams, smaller landing sites, those sorts of things.

“We anticipate on some of that economically marginal harvesting area it will make it not worthwhile. The companies will say it is not [that] we don’t want to replant that area. If it is not worthwhile planting for harvesting, then what’s going to happen?”

Theoretically under the forestry standard, a forestry owner could leave a forest unharvested if it decided the replanting conditions were too onerous to bother harvesting it.

According to Trevor Freeman, just walking away from a plantation forest poses an environmental risk.

“No one leaves plantation forests standing because they tend to blow over.”

When asked if the forestry industry had too much influence in the creation of the forestry standard, Freeman was quick to answer.

“They initiated it. They pushed all the time.

“MPI have been a force around the table as well. There have been a lot of MPI people involved in this as well and not much from the Ministry for the Environment.”

Freeman was one of the people from outside MPI involved in the stakeholder working group.  He represented the Gisborne District Council until he retired. Other parties listed in the standard’s 2015 consultation guide included the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, Tasman District Council, Forest & Bird, and Fish & Game.

The forestry industry was represented by the New Zealand Forest Owners Association, Ernslaw One, Hancock Timber, Timberlands, and PF Olsen.

For Manu Caddie it's a question of what's next for Gisborne's hills, and the forestry standard aren't necessarily providing answers.

"Unfortunately, the farm clearances 100 years ago weren’t what the land needed. The pine trees have enabled it to remain a bit more intact over the last 30 years but now, as they are being clear-felled, the chickens are coming home to roost."

One billion trees

Te Uru Rākau, the new government forestry service established in May said the standard was designed to better protect the environment.

“An independent assessment of environmental effects carried out during the development of the NES-PF strongly indicated positive environmental benefits of the NES-PF and confirmed that the NES-PF will not permit activities which have a significant adverse effect on the environment,” said a spokesperson.

It disagrees the rules have been weakened pointing to the permitted activity conditions and the continued requirement for consent for activity on the steepest land.

Lessons from Tolaga Bay are being taken on board. These include “harvest models” for red zoned land.

“Officials are committed to continue to work with foresters on sustainable land use, including helping them identify areas suitable for different types of forestry, more economic models for alternative species use, and whole tree utilisation.

“The findings of our work with Gisborne District Council will be incorporated into the One Billion Trees Programme going forward.

“It is critical we get the right tree in the right place to ensure we minimise these type of debris flows in the future.”

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