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Oram: Why we need a real forestry strategy

Rod Oram argues we urgently need a true multi-generational and overarching forestry policy that creates sustainable carbon sinks and replacements for concrete and steel.

We’re an odd country when it comes to trees. We have a lot of them but no overarching long-term policy for them. Consequently, our short-term forestry decisions deliver some adverse outcomes, both economic and environmental.

And on our current course it’s going to get worse. We’re racing to plant one billion trees in a decade to help us meet our climate commitments (as last week’s column discussed), develop regional economies, reduce soil erosion, improve water quality, and enhance biodiversity such as helping to save native birds from extinction.

Trees could do all of that for us. But only if they can flourish in healthy ecosystems. To do so, they need all the help we can give them over three or four human generations. Instead, we’re working in silos over just a decade or two, the longest time most commercial enterprises can wait for an investment to pay off.

Meanwhile, many other countries have overarching, inter-generational policies enabling them to nurture their forests long term while deriving economic benefits from them along the way.

When our pioneers were pioneers

Once we were pioneers in that. Back in the 1880s, we began to realise we had a huge forestry problem. Just a few decades of massive clear-cutting of our slow-growing native forests for timber profits and pastoral farming opportunities had hit the wall. How could we get more timber to meet our burgeoning construction needs? How would we reverse some of the ecosystem damage we’d done?

The answer was to plant imported species of fast-growing trees, overwhelmingly radiata pine. The government established the Forest Service in 1919 to invest long term in plantations and to handle conservation, biodiversity, research, recreational use and other requirements of a comprehensive, multi-generational strategy for exotic species such as radiata pine and for our wealth of native species.

But in 1989, the government of the day, believing short-term market forces could make better long-term decisions than it could, abolished the Forest Service. It dispersed the functions and sold off many of the forests to companies that have reaped short-term gains from the public’s long-term investment.

Three decades on, much of the private sector struggles to do more than clear-fell forests, export commodity logs and replant radiata pine. In fairness to it, forestry is one of the hardest sectors to add value. It takes heavy investment to do any processing and even then, the products are still commodities battered by sharp swings at home in the cost of logs as the raw material, and of finished products in export markets.

In those narrow terms, forestry is doing well. In the year to the end of March forest exports rose 15.8 percent from the previous year to $6.2 billion; and China took 47 percent of those exports, including 75 percent of our export logs.

More radiata pine?

Radiata pine can also help us with our climate commitments by absorbing carbon on at around 30 tonnes per ha per year depending on location and conditions, while native species range from 2 tonnes to 10 tonnes at their very best. Radiata pines are also far cheaper and easier to propagate and plant than natives, and are more resilient and thrive better over the first decade of their lives.

For those reasons, the Productivity Commission has a heavy emphasis on ramping up radiata pine plantings in its recent report on our pathways to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Currently we have 6.5m ha of natives, almost all in the non-harvestable conservation estate, and 1.7m ha of exotics, almost all exotics in harvestable plantations. It estimates we will need to add up to 2.8m ha to meet our climate commitments.

It sees that as the best bet for maximising forestry’s carbon sequestration to help us meet our international commitments to reduce our net emissions in the next few decades. It also touches briefly on how the cost of planting natives could be reduced.

Rightly, though, it cautions us that forestry’s use as a carbon sink declines in later decades as we start to run out of land to plant in trees. By then we’ll have to do better at much reducing emissions.

Disappointingly, though, the Commission makes only passing reference to some of the many other factors that will determine how beneficial forestry could be, economically and environmentally.

An alternative to steel and concrete

For example, government policy and construction industry innovation could greatly push timber as a low carbon alternative to high carbon steel and concrete in construction; forest biomass is a very promising feedstock for fuels (liquid and solid), materials such as plastics and composites, and nutrition; forest ecosystem services such as nourishing biodiversity, enriching soils, cleaning air and water and benefitting humans in recreational, cultural and spiritual ways.

All this will take massive reinvention of our science, economics, business models, management, policy and societal values for forestry.

So far, the Government has made a promising start. It committed the nation to planting one billion trees by 2027 (500 million to replace those harvested and 500 million new) and in May it formed a new agency within the Ministry for Primary Industries to lead the work. It says Te Uru Rākau re-establishes the Forestry Service. It doesn’t, nor should it. It lacks some of the functions such as research and a true inter-generational remit and strategy the Service had; and anyway, that was a mid-20th century model of government. We need a new whole-of-nation model capable of helping us get to mid-21st century and beyond.

That said, the agency is busy on many fronts. For example, it is giving Crown Forestry, one of its units, a new lease on life. As the last miniscule vestige of the Forest Service, it is a commercial unit managing the Crown’s remnant commercial forestry assets. In its new guise it has started to do some innovative joint-venture planting deals with land owners to share the risks and long investment horizons of planting natives. It has also put some money into the first few initiatives to scale up and reduce the cost of propagating and planting natives; and it is working on a project in Northland to explore the feasibility of plantations of totara, a fast growing species by natives standards, which is a timber far more valuable and attractive than radiata pine.

Small, and not strategic

Meanwhile Shane Jones, the Minister of Forestry, is busy spraying Government funding at an array of initiatives via one of his other roles, Regional Economic Development. But both portfolios are showing the same chronic weakness of spending lots of small sums now without well-articulated strategies and the policies to deliver them.

This approach, though, will lock in over the next decade of extensive tree planting all the undesirable aspects of current government and business models. These have delivered low value, commodity plantations of exotics with low biodiversity values and substantial environmental damage when they are clear-cut over large (by international standards) swathes of rugged land and transported to export ports.

To avoid this destructive trap, the Government, business and society at large need to commit to some fundamental and multi-generational principles and goals for forestry.

The Government says it’s working on aspects of those in its National Environmental Standards for Plantation Forestry to provide a set of regulations to manage the environmental effects of plantation forestry activities nationally.

That, though, only applies to plantation forests which are a subset of the full forestry challenge; and NESs take years of policy and litigation under the RMA before they become half-way useful tools at national, regional and local levels.

Carbon Farming Managing Director Matt Walsh (centre) and Bruce Miller, Director Strategic Partnerships & Risk Management, with Shane Jones. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

There are a few pioneers in enlightened forestry, one of which is  NZ Carbon Farming. It is growing some 32,000 ha of radiata pine, not to harvest but to store carbon fast and then over the decades they manage the plantations, so they regenerate naturally into native forests. Its submission to the Productivity Commission tells more.

Likewise, there are some pioneers in high value processing, products and materials. One example is the surge of mānuka plantings for honey and oils. This illustrates the potential of native species and the benefits of scale which have greatly increased the number of seedlings available and dramatically reduced their cost. But we really need urgently is a true multi-generational, overarching forestry policy of the type that benefits many other nations today and had greatly benefited us in the past. Thankfully, the NZ Institute of Forestry has been documenting the principles of one since 2014, which it presented to the Government in May.

While such a policy would take some time to achieve, the Government and business should use the Institute’s policy principles to guide their strategies in the meantime. If they don’t, our forestry future will be merely an extension of our damaging, degraded and devalued past, planted very large.

This is the latest in a series of Rod Oram’s columns examining key sectors in the Productivity Commission’s final report on New Zealand’s transition to a low-emissions economy

Earlier columns were on:

-The Commission’s report

- Agriculture

Future columns will examine, for example, short-lived versus long-lived agricultural greenhouse gases (GHGs), transport, innovation and socially just transitions.

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