Forestry practices need updating to meet acceptable environmental bottom lines

Opinion: The cycle of environmental damage caused by plantation forestry operations must stop. It is time to rein in damaging planting and harvesting practices with a fundamental reset of the rules that govern the sector.

Increasing frequencies of severe storm events that mobilise massive quantities of slash and sediment, combined with higher public expectations of environmental performance, mean that large-scale clear-felling of exotic forests is no longer tenable or acceptable in many areas.  

Recent pictures from Tairāwhiti are shocking. The devastation inflicted on land and homes, and the swathes of marine life dead on log-strewn coastlines, are deeply distressing to see. It is a major environmental disaster and points to a serious failure of public policy. It requires more than the provision of ad hoc financial assistance to those affected, and for an environmental clean-up.  

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Forestry Minister Stuart Nash appears to have accepted that an inquiry focused on land resilience on the East Coast is required. That decision was made after repeated calls from the Environmental Defence Society (EDS), and from the Gisborne District Council, Federated Farmers and thousands of locals via a petition. The forest industry itself even belatedly agreed.

The inquiry needs to be truly independent. EDS contends that a Public Inquiry, under the Inquiries Act 2013, is the most appropriate course of action. With powers to summon witnesses and take evidence under oath, that form of inquiry was devised by the Law Commission precisely for these types of breakdowns in public policy.

However, more is needed. The debate about plantation forestry should also include consideration of its negative impacts beyond Tairāwhiti and consider the rest of Aotearoa. A nationwide review is required that examines the adequacy of the policy settings for plantation forestry.

The rules managing the sector are largely contained in the National Environmental Standards for Plantation Forestry (NES-PF), but that instrument is far too permissive, deeply flawed, out of date and needs an urgent overhaul. It is being reviewed but subject to narrow terms of reference focused on permanent carbon forests, not environmental outcomes.

In some locations a review of the rules might mean a ban on large-scale clear-felling of the same monoculture and age-class, and a shift towards the European approach of coupe or continuous cover harvesting

Climate change-related events reinforce claims that those rules are no longer fit-for-purpose. Given extreme weather events are the new normal, should clear-felling across large swathes of steep, erosion-prone land be allowed to continue, largely as a permitted activity, with all of the consequences that follow? 

In the Marlborough Sounds, for example, high rainfall events during the ‘window of vulnerability’, which is about five to seven years post-plantation forestry harvest, cause massive amounts of sediment and slash to be washed into estuaries and the coastal marine area, with seriously damaging impacts on marine life. EDS has just commenced legal proceedings challenging the way clear-felling on high erosion risk land is allowed there.

A review of the NES-PF should look to international best practice in forest management, take proper account of Aotearoa’s geomorphology and erosion susceptibility, examine the significant environmental effects of forest harvesting including slash and sediment, and recommend a new modus operandi for the sector. This exercise has to go further than coming up with slogans such as ‘the right tree in the right place’.

In some locations a review of the rules might mean a ban on large-scale clear-felling of the same monoculture and age-class, and a shift towards the European approach of coupe or continuous cover harvesting. It might also mean a targeted ban on plantation forestry altogether on steep and erosion-prone land. And to complement tighter rules, we’ll need to create more favourable settings to incentivise permanent native forests to rehabilitate damaged land.

Such a review also needs to be separate from the agencies that have allowed the present failed policy settings to evolve. EDS argues that a review of the NES-PF should be led by the Ministry for the Environment. It is anomalous that the Ministry for Primary Industries should have stewardship of that Resource Management Act instrument when every other environmental regulation is under the Ministry for the Environment’s control.

Plantation forestry is an important part of our economy and employs a lot of people. It supplies timber for building homes and arguably has a key role to play in climate change mitigation. But forestry practices need updating. Plantation forestry, like every other part of our economy, must meet acceptable environmental bottom lines.

Gary Taylor is the CEO of the Environmental Defence Society.

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