Avoid fate of ‘dirty’ dairy, forestry warned

Shane Jones has warned the forestry industry to avoid the fate of the dairy industry, which lost the support of urban voters seemingly overnight. Gavin Evans reports.

Foresters must take every opportunity to promote the importance of their sector to the broader economy and as the “heavy-lifter” in the country’s climate change strategies, Forestry and Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones says. He warned the industry to avoid the fate of the dairy industry, which now faces intense opposition from climate and water quality activists in cities.

Political power lies in the metropolitan centres where there is a new generational ethos emerging, he told forest owners, managers and contractors yesterday. Those centres lack a good understanding of forestry, or other provincial-based industry, and firms and sector leaders must be aware of the risks that come with that.

“There’s a lot of misinformation in the cities about what we are doing and about our industries that are rooted in the countryside,” he told delegates at the New Zealand Institute of Forestry conference in Nelson this week.

“Things can change overnight. If you have any doubts about that look what’s happening to the dairy industry.”

New Zealand has about 1.7 million hectares of plantation forest and the sector is the country’s third-largest export earner after dairy and meat products. Exports of logs, timber, panels, wood pulp and paper earned almost $6.3 billion in the year through May, according to Stats NZ data.

Jones told delegates that he worked as a youngster in the Aupouri Forest in Northland so has a genuine passion for a professional industry which he says has been largely overlooked by successive Governments going back well before the administration of former Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark.

He said he tried to talk up the industry every day, at a time when the country is being “sold so much sop” with talk of Silicon Valley, soft-capital ideas, all of which are “inversely related” to the real lives of the people he serves.

Exotics vs natives

While that may sound like he’s gone “off the reservation” Jones said it was important that the provinces, and the industries based there, have a voice in the broader political economy.

The Labour-led Government has pledged to push national forestry planting to one billion trees during the next 10 years. The policy, driven by Jones’s New Zealand First party, is aimed at job creation in the regions and emissions reduction through carbon sequestration.

The Government has pledged $245 million from the Crown’s $1 billion Provincial Growth Fund to fund forestry-related activities. That sum includes funds for existing programmes with regional councils to control hill country erosion and an afforestation grants scheme which still has another two years to run.

Jones said some of his Labour colleagues would probably prefer a greater share of native trees among that planting. Given his commercial and forestry background, he favoured exotics.
Speaking earlier, institute president David Evison welcomed the renewed interest from Government and the enthusiasm being shown for the sector.

The previous lack of interest, across many Governments, was such that the institute proposed its own national policy for forestry.

The problem of 'slash'

Another “big challenge” is the on-going fallout from flooding at Tolaga Bay early in June. Damage from a highly concentrated storm was compounded by an estimated one million tonnes of broken logs and other harvesting residue that blocked waterways. The clean-up bill has been estimated at $10 million.

Jones said he was disappointed that the forest owners involved were not more proactive in responding to the event, which has raised doubts in the minds of the public as to the suitability of radiata pine as a tree crop on East Coast soils.

Jones said much of the “imbroglio” had been driven by the media, but the industry also had to do better.

Private investors may be able to continue planting pine in the region, but the Crown was unlikely to, he said.

“I don’t see that happening any time soon, such is the level of confusion and fear both up there and throughout New Zealand.”

Jones said the flooding and clean-up issue was a localized event, but also an example of how a single egregious case could taint the image of an entire industry.

“Once a perception takes root and you get an outbreak of moral panic its bloody hard for an industry to come back form that.”

The industry's good news

Evison said that in an industry generally lacking integration, Nelson stood out as an example of what could be achieved in a region which combines large-scale forestry with value-adding processing.

A “very exciting” local cluster had developed with firms producing laminated veneer lumber, glue-laminated timber and cross-laminated timber for increasingly sophisticated structural buildings components, he said.

Architects and developers were also starting to recognize the seismic and construction benefits of products that also come with a low-carbon footprint.

No tax, but registration for log exporters

In the lead-up to last year’s election Jones pledged to introduce a tax on log exports to encourage greater local processing.

Yesterday he told delegates that trade rules meant that wasn’t an option. But he had asked officials to look at some form of registration for log exporters, similar to that required for immigration officials and real estate agents.

Jones said the goal was to increase the value being gained from log exports without starving the domestic processing industry.

If domestic sawmillers and processors say they can’t invest in new capacity because they can’t sufficient certainty of supply, that becomes an issue.

“Exporting logs, without giving the confidence to the provincial industries that employ your neighbours’ children, or your neighbours, is a very big political challenge.”

“At the end of the day, the people who vote for me work in the domestic industry. They don’t work on the Shanghai wharf. That’s just the reality.”

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