Forestry has an important place in our economy, but it’s time to improve the sector’s environmental performance. Gary Taylor explains how. 

The recent serious floods in Marlborough and Tasman and previous extreme weather events on the North Island’s east coast point to an urgent need to tighten up environmental controls on exotic forestry. The old method of allowing large scale clear-felling at harvest on erosion-prone land is no longer fit-for-purpose in a climate changing world.

Having large swathes of hill country denuded of stabilising vegetation for several years between forestry cycles is exacerbating run-off volumes and flood velocity, as well as vastly increasing sediment loads entering the coastal marine area. Sediment smothers and kills marine life.

The Government is about to release a discussion document on the review of the National Environmental Standards for Plantation Forestry (NES-PF). This is the opportunity to fix this problem through setting improved regulations for the sector and moving towards a safer and more environmentally responsible regime for forestry.

In particular, it’s time that forest management on erosion-prone sites (which is usually but not always on steeper land) avoided large scale clear-felling and was managed on a continuous cover or coup basis where smaller blocks of trees are planted and felled on a rotational sequence.

This is common practice in Europe. It will add costs for the forest owner but currently those are being borne by downstream communities and the environment.

The impacts of floods and slash are costs that can be mitigated, at least to some extent, by better forest management practices. The sector needs tighter regulation to better manage its environmental effects.

The review of the NES-PF should also address the burgeoning problem of permanent exotic forests. These are being strongly incentivised by the current high carbon price in the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). They are extensive “plant and leave” forests that effectively lock up that land use forever.

Productive farmland and plantation forestry is replaced by an exotic monoculture at scale and this deprives small rural communities of jobs, unlike plantation forestry or farming.

Exotic forests do sequester carbon quickly. But too many of them will likely prove counterproductive. They will eventually drive down the price of carbon and thereby weaken the incentive to reduce gross emissions.

The Government recently deferred a decision to ban permanent exotic forests from the ETS, which was disappointing. At present, permanent exotic forests will be eligible for credits under the ETS from January 1, 2023. If there is insufficient political courage to carry through with the proposed ban, then there should at least be some more robust protections built into the NES-PF as well as tightening the way such forests are treated in the ETS. The equivalence between a tonne of carbon emitted and amount sequestered in the forest needs careful calibration to account for risks.

With respect to so-called Transition Forests – a concept based on the unproven expectation that pines will transition to natives over time – there should be a bond against performance. That could be a percentage of New Zealand Units (NZUs) held in escrow until the promised transition has occurred. That transition is likely to take 60 or more years – if the theory works in practice.

The changes to the NES-PF should include a requirement for a Forest Management Plan for all permanent or transition forests that would describe how permanence, biosecurity and fire risks will be managed over the entire life of the forest, and where long-term responsibility lies to ensure that this occurs.

There are also important health and safety matters that need addressing, including the implications for any access needs and recreational uses when old exotic trees start falling down. Clear responsibilities need to be explicitly sheeted home to the forester including when it is an overseas owner.

The other big issue that needs addressing is fostering an alternative forestry model. We already have around two million hectares of land in exotic forests in Aotearoa New Zealand. That is more than enough for our construction sector (including switching to timber from steel) and for biofuels. In fact, the sector has done a poor job of adding value given some 70 percent of pine trees are exported to China as logs.

What is needed now is a real effort to restore lost indigenous forests at landscape scale. This will address the biodiversity crisis as well as the longer-term climate one. In other countries they call it rewilding: restoring our natural world.

We need two things: first a reconfigured ETS that front-loads NZUs to recognise that natives sequester more carbon over time than exotics; and secondly a biodiversity grant or payment that helps with initial cashflow for native afforestation of land until the carbon revenues bulk up.

Such an approach would see climate and biodiversity policies joined up instead of siloed as they are at present. It would also recognise that mitigating climate change is a long-lived challenge, not one that can be solved by short-term responses that create further problems for future generations. We have lost around 80 percent of our indigenous coastal forests and it’s time to restore much of that land with the multiple benefits that will create. A sustainable native forests sector could be producing high value timber for a range of domestic uses.      

Forestry has an important place in our economy, but it’s time for a reset to improve the sector’s environmental performance, and to stand up a viable native forest sector. Improving the regulations in the NES-PF, and adjusting the ETS settings, is a good place to start. We need the forestry sector to embrace change and support a reset.

Gary Taylor is the CEO of the Environmental Defence Society.

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