On the day Cyclone Gabrielle was smashing into Tairāwhiti, Environment Minister David Parker was already passing the buck.  Aaron Smale reports.

On Monday February 14, Cyclone Gabrielle hit Tairāwhiti causing forestry waste to barrel down the river valleys of Ngāti Porou – blocking rivers, wiping out bridges, and pushing water and silt and trash into communities and out along the coast.

Manu Caddie from Ruatorea had been trying for weeks to get a response from David Parker, Minister for the Environment, about a petition regarding forestry waste and other land use issues. That afternoon when the cyclone was hitting its peak, Parker’s office sent a short, bland message – it’s not his responsibility.

Caddie had been involved in a petition that was signed by more than 10,000 people asking for an independent inquiry into land use in Tairāwhiti, particularly the impact of forestry slash – the off-cuts and waste from forestry harvesting.

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On February 2, Caddie emailed Parker with a subject line “Public Inquiry into Tairāwhiti land use”, asking for a response to the petition: “I’m one of the local organisers of a petition with nearly 10,000 signatures calling for a Public Inquiry into land use in Tairāwhiti. Could someone from the Minister’s office please contact me today to have a talk about this?”

A week later, on Feb 9, Caddie hadn’t heard anything so emailed again: “Hello? I’ve emailed and phoned three times asking for a response. No reply a week later.”

Five days later on Monday the 14th as Cyclone Gabrielle was smashing into the East Coast and Hawkes Bay an email came through from Parker’s office at 1.48pm: “I apologise for the delay in getting back to you. The matters you have raised fall under the portfolio responsibilities of Hon Stuart Nash, Minister of Forestry, so you may like to contact his office with some more information.”

Caddie sent back a terse reply: “The matters raised are not just about forestry, but about land use including farming and indigenous regeneration.

“The matter clearly sits with the Minister for the Environment – please let David Parker, Stuart Nash, Kiritapu Allan and Meka Whaitiri’s offices know that if Cabinet tries to make this situation just about the forestry industry we will be very clear in our criticism of Labour’s handling of the petition.”

The petition was built on the frustration and anger from many in Tairāwhiti over years of damage from forestry slash that has blocked up rivers, damaged and destroyed bridges and flooded houses and communities repeatedly.

“We presented the petition to council on the 26th of January. Then there was a meeting with industry and council and we didn’t get invited to it. But they were talking about the petition and what the response was going to be. And I think that industry and iwi who have forestry interests were keen to set the terms of reference for any kind of review.

“In our view that needed to be really independent, to have any credibility and things rather than being directed locally, because everyone’s got an interest in what’s going on into it. Council are stakeholders because of their regulator role and potentially are responsible, iwi have their forestry companies, and the other forestry companies have interests, so we didn’t want that group setting the terms of reference for their own investigation.”

Caddie says the timing of the email and the attempt to limit the issue to forestry was unacceptable.

“We presented the petition to council they sent it on to MfE (Ministry for the Environment), and then wrote a letter to a bunch of ministers explaining that they expected fully independent inquiry rather than a review, which has been talked about by some local interests.”

He said repeatedly tried to contact David Parker to get clarification whether the Ministry for the Environment would heed the call of the petition to have an independent inquiry and a letter had been sent by the Gisborne District Council to Parker and other ministers supporting the petition.

“Then on the day of Cyclone Gabrielle, I got an email from David Parker’s office saying, ‘Thank you for your correspondence. We’ve passed this over to Stuart Nash’s office, Minister for Forestry.’ And I wrote back a terse email saying but that’s not acceptable from our perspective.”

Caddie said Nash was too close to the industry and has tried to claim that it is improving.

“We sort of just felt like he [Nash] is too close to the industry. He was quoted yesterday saying the industry has changed. And yet there’s two new prosecutions that council have just launched in the courts for breaches of consents last year. If they are changing, it’s not fast enough for making the changes that are actually required.”

Hera Ngata-Gibson started the petition and she said the damage caused by forestry waste has been a long-standing problem on the East Coast.

“It’s been an issue for a long time. And, you know, we just, we’re just over it. There’s the stuff you see down in the townships and on the beaches, but if you follow those river catchments there are just logs, slash, debris, and 70 percent of it has been identified as forestry debris. It’s all over people’s farms properties. It’s littering the waterways all the way back into the forest itself. It just waits for the next storm to lift that load up and move it a bit further down the river to someone else’s place.”

Te Araroa resident Tina Ngata says she found it inexplicable that Parker considered the issue of slash did not come under the Ministry for the Environment.

“It’s a climate change issue. It’s a freshwater issue. It’s a coastal marine issue. It’s an RMA (Resource Management Act) issue. It’s a natural and built environment issue. How is it not a Ministry for the Environment issue? To be sending us an email [that day – February 14] to say it’s not a Ministry for the Environment issue at the same time as whole bridges are washing down the river, houses are being evacuated. We’re watching whole pine trees float past us down the Waiapu River, and David Parker has the audacity, his office has the audacity, to choose that day to write to us and say that he doesn’t consider it an environmental issue.”

Parker is also currently Attorney-General. 

Ngata said there have been half a dozen weather events on the East Coast over the past year and slash causing damage every time.

Many of the trees that are now being harvested were planted after Cyclone Bola hit the same region in 1988.

Caddie requested information on all the resource consents granted by the Gisborne District Council for forestry harvesting and there are more than 230 resource consents for this activity.

The Resource Management Act comes under the Ministry for the Environment. After flooding in Tolaga Bay in 2018 the Crown prosecuted five companies for breaches of the Resource Management Act in the Environment Court.

Ernslaw One Ltd was the last of five companies to be sentenced by Environment Court Judge Brian Dwyer in December last year, and was fined $225,000 and ordered to pay victims $130,000.

Other companies had pleaded guilty early, while Ernslaw initially denied their offending and were going to defend their charges in a jury trial. It eventually entered guilty pleas in January last year and then had a disputed facts hearing in June

Malaysian-owned Ernslaw is one of the largest forest owners and the second-largest private landowner in the country, which had earned $53.8 million between 2014 and 2018.

Four other companies were fined between $124,700 and $379,000.

About 400,000 cubic metres of woody debris was spread across the Uawa catchment, which feeds into the town of Tolaga Bay. Nearly 50,000 cubic metres of debris was deposited on the beach.

Crown prosecutor Michael Blaschke said the Tolaga Bay storm involved “an unprecedented scale of environmental offending.” He said Ernslaw One’s was more serious due to the level of breaches of consent conditions.

Aaron Smale is Newsroom's Māori Issues Editor. Twitter: @ikon_media

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