It begins as a plausible, if defensive, response to the Government’s hastily arranged inquiry into the floods of forestry slash that washed up on the North Island’s east coast.

The Forest Owners Association – whose members manage about 1.2 million hectares of plantation forests; about the same size as Fiordland National Park – says in its submission it supports an independent probe into land use in the aftermath of Cyclones Hale and Gabrielle.

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Slash from production forestry “has to be reduced”, the association concedes, while also stating woody debris careening down rivers and collecting on beaches “cannot be prevented”. Something else that’s unable to be eliminated, the submission says, is runoff of silt or sediment – some of which, it’s pointed out, comes from farms.

If forestry becomes unviable in significant areas a Government contribution to a “just transition” might be needed.

On page 36 of the association’s submission, the tone changes.

It warns the inquiry panel, led by former National Party minister Hekia Parata, that if tighter regulations ensue, “the viability of forestry here, when already under pressure, becomes questionable”.

“A net retreat from forestry in Gisborne and Wairoa will have significant economic impacts for the communities here who depend on the sector to create a living. If the forest gates are locked, and the land is unmanaged, a much greater problem could be generated.”

That’s a threatening message, says Gary Taylor, chief executive of Environmental Defence Society, a long-time critic of forestry management practices and regulations.

“They seem to be saying that we will have a little nuancing around what we do but we don’t want to do much more than that – and if we did then we’re going to close the gate.”

Asked about the “lock the gates” message, Forest Owners Association president Grant Dodson says: “No, no, no, no, it isn’t a threat.”

He then dives, at some depth, into the economics of forestry in Tairāwhiti.

The costs of production are significantly higher than the rest of the country, Dodson says, making some forests stranded assets, “to a point”.

Greater compliance is inevitable, he admits – “we know that, we appreciate that, we know we need to do more, and we will”. But crank it up too much and some members might tip over.

“There comes a point where those assets become uneconomical, and people walk off the land. Now, where that point is nobody knows, but it’s a valid point.”

What happens when businesses don’t make money for years, he asks. “They disappear, don’t they? And if that’s going to be the case in forestry, well, are we going to get a different outcome? Probably not.”

The floods of wood in Tairāwhiti were destructive: “In rivers. On farms. On the coastline. Piled up outside people’s homes. Everywhere,” reported 1News journalist John Campbell

But Dodson maintains the biggest problem isn’t forestry slash in rivers. “The real enemy here is abject poverty on the Coast.”

The implication is people need jobs, and forestry provides those jobs. People rely on them to make a living.

But, in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle, is that enough?

The only thing that seems to be eroding more quickly than Tairāwhiti’s slip-prone slopes is forestry’s social licence to operate there. Before the ministerial inquiry was announced, National leader Christopher Luxon called the industry out.

Arguments about a precarious industry – potentially sunk by time-consuming and costly bureaucracy – now compete with arguments about a precarious existence, particularly for those living nearer the coast, in areas deluged by wood and silt from far away.

Experts tell us weather events will increase in frequency and severity because of climate change. Plantation forest harvests in Tairāwhiti are predicted to “rapidly increase” after 2026.

It’s unsettling stuff.

There’s an obvious way to improve land stability, the Forest Owners Association tells the inquiry. Given what happened just weeks ago, some might say it seems audacious and somewhat self-serving.

That solution is “more trees”.

How did we get here?

A potted history. Between the 1880s and 1920s, there was extensive clearance of native vegetation on the east coast to make way for farming. Decades of intensive grazing led to increased erosion.

In 1988, Cyclone Bola sparked significant landslides, which sent the country’s leaders scurrying; looking for ways to stabilise slopes.

Four years later, the Government established the East Coast Forestry Project.

Its aims were noble – controlling soil erosion, and providing for the environment, while developing the region economically and creating jobs, by subsidising large-scale forestry.

The project initially focused on commercial plantation forestry – with pinus radiata preferred – and was eventually tweaked to include indigenous trees. By then, though, the East Coast, including many steep slopes, was smothered in pines, planted with the intention of being harvested. This raises issues, ironically, about re-activating land instability.

Now, the East Coast and Wairoa have, between them, almost 220,000 hectares of plantation forestry, the exports of which earn hundreds of millions of dollars each year. In Gisborne, more than 1000 people have forestry jobs.

But this economic juggernaut has also caused significant environmental damage, with critics pointing to clear-felling of fast-growing, exotic trees on steep and erosion-prone hill country.

The unfortunate poster-child was Tolaga Bay in 2018, when storms swept massive volumes of forestry debris down rivers, causing property and environmental damage.

“Is this the end for forestry on the East Coast?”, read one RNZ headline at the time.

The Gisborne District Council (which, despite its name, is a unitary authority, combining the powers of a regional council) prosecuted five forestry companies for storm-related damage from forest debris and sediment.

Forestry is again in the firing line after deadly Cyclone Gabrielle prompted the ministerial inquiry.

A press statement from the Forest Owners Association, released yesterday, is headed: Forest owners back more trees for Tairāwhiti.

“Forestry is still very much part of the solution,” Dodson, the president, declares. “It’s well known that trees do hold the land together, in most cases, and we’d like to see that continue.”

The association’s submission points to the unique circumstances of having two major storms within weeks of each other. It calls for outside input and investment to help find a fix, and cautions against rushing in.

“Cyclones Hale and Gabrielle provided new storm precedents that nobody anticipated,” the submission says.

Forestry-focused Crown research institute Scion is investigating portable, container-sized mini-factories to process forestry waste on-site. But, says the association, “Government funding would be required to get the initiative started”.

Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, meanwhile, submitted funding bids to the Business Ministry’s Endeavour Fund to develop an “operation-level, fit-for-purpose” mapping tool to discern debris flow and erosion susceptibility. However, the bids weren’t successful.

While alternative forest management approaches have potential, the association’s submission says “care needs to be taken to ensure that other, greater, problems such and health and safety risks, or greater susceptibility to windthrow, are not created”.

It notes: “The difficulties of establishing indigenous trees across Tairāwhiti to restore the original plant cover should not be underestimated.”

“Attempts to impose more stringent controls have received vigorous pushback from the forestry sector.”
– Gisborne District Council

Gisborne District Council staff gave evidence to the inquiry panel on April 4.

The council’s written submission, released to Newsroom, centres on plantation forestry, and the effects of clear-felling.

Harvest volumes have “significantly increased” over the past decade, the council says, and moved into steeper, more vulnerable land. At the same time, the frequency of storms and cyclones has increased.

(Tairāwhiti covers 8 percent of the North Island’s land area but has 25 percent of the island’s severe-to-extreme soil erosion.)

There’s a substantial legacy to deal with.

The council estimates four million tonnes of woody debris might have been deposited in Tairāwhiti forests over the past eight years. A “very substantial” volume of material is “yet to be mobilised”, some of it trapped in so-called birds’ nests, described as “huge wood dams in steep gullies”.

The council’s hands have been tied, it says, by the introduction of a National Environment Standard for Plantation Forestry in 2018, which cut across regional powers, imposing a one-size-fits-most set of rules for the country.

The standard was permissive for the clear-felling of plantation forestry (removing all trees from a large area, all at once), and attempts to impose more stringent controls had received vigorous pushback from the forestry sector.

Gary Taylor, the EDS chief executive, calls the standard “excessively permissive and out-of-date”.

(The Forest Owners Association’s submission says it’s “completely incorrect” to call the Standard overly permissive, and it “reflected the upper end of regulation that existed at the time”.)

Gisborne’s council says there’s no incentive or requirement for forestry companies or contractors to reduce volumes of slash and woody debris left after harvesting because, even in known slip-prone areas, called red zones, most operations are deemed permitted or controlled activities, meaning if certain conditions are met, consents can’t be refused.

The council says ground-based harvesting can scar the land, leaving it vulnerable and exposed to erosion. Soil can be compacted by heavy machinery and logs, and larger roads built in steeper areas are more likely to trigger erosion and landslides.

Urgent changes to national policies and regulations, and Government intervention and investment are needed, the council says – something much quicker than its review of the Tairāwhiti Resource Management Plan.

It suggests plantation forestry should be banned from “extreme risk” zones, with areas re-planted in native species such as mānuka, kānuka, tutu and rōhutu. Wood debris should be safely stored and removed, especially on so-called landing areas, where harvested material is collected.

These changes should be paired with tougher prosecutions, with higher maximum fines, and giving councils the ability to recover more money from prosecutions. Removing the option of jury trials would also speed up prosecutions and reduce costs.

The parting shot in the council’s submission is aimed at the Government itself.

“The council is disappointed that after some initial reluctance on the part of the Government to hold this inquiry at all, it is not a binding inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2013. We sincerely hope the outcomes and solutions are given due consideration that results in action as our community needs there to be intervention.”

Wrong tree, wrong place?

The Environmental Defence Society released its strongly worded submission, written jointly with green growth charity Pure Advantage, this past weekend.

Forest management in Aotearoa is “very high trust”, they say, with a heavy reliance on industry self-policing.

“It is a tragedy for the communities of Tairāwhiti and Wairoa that a series of forestry policy failures borne out of visionless, short-term, siloed thinking, together with poor industry practice – plainly evident for many years – have resulted in utter devastation of their lands, coasts, rivers, homes, livelihoods, and community infrastructure, and worse, the loss of lives,” the submission says.

While they say the inquiry’s focus is rightly on Tairāwhiti and Wairoa, it should spark a more comprehensive national strategy for ecological, climate and community-resilient land use, allowing biodiverse productive and permanent native forests to thrive.

The organisations are calling for investigations into the consequences of convictions for Overseas Investment Office approvals and Forestry Stewardship Council certification.

Taylor, of EDS, tells Newsroom: “We are heading into an era of frequent, severe storm events that necessitate an urgent revisiting of the environmental controls over forestry.

“And that’s not to say that we don’t need trees. Nobody is arguing that the forest sector should be shut down.

“What we’re arguing is that we don’t currently have the right tree in the right place, and we don’t have the right harvest method.”

Dodson, the Forest Owners Association’s president, says changes to deal with woody debris at harvest sites has already happened. “It’s continuing to happen; it’s happened since 2018 and it’ll happen again now.” 

He argues the industry is taking responsibility for its mess.

This view is very hard to reconcile with reports from the ground. An excellent article by Stuff’s Kirsty Johnston notes that, in 2018, help from some forestry companies was extremely slow, and landowners only paid part of their clean-up costs.

In sentencing Ernslaw One Ltd last year, Judge Brian Dwyer noted the Malaysian-owned forestry company’s “obdurate” attitude.

Dodson says the answer for Tairāwhiti is catchment-by-catchment solutions: “That looks at public infrastructure, where people have got their houses, where they’re putting their orchards, where the farms are, where the forests are, what type of trees we’ve got, where we harvest, where we don’t.”

Depending on your outlook, that sounds a lot like moving things out of harm’s way, as if that harm is inevitable.

“If anybody in New Zealand thinks that we’re going to make a few changes in forestry and nothing more is going to come down the hill then that’s naive,” Dodson says, “because it won’t matter whether it’s native forestry or some other form of species or radiata pine or farmland or whatever you put on there, when the whole hill collapses and comes down the river that’s still going to happen.”

Nobody expects the problems in Tairāwhiti to stop overnight. But forestry critics argue what will help is if private companies stop leaving an estimated 500,000 tonnes of potentially damaging woody waste at harvest sites each year.

The Hekia Parata-led inquiry is expected to make recommendations to Ministers by the end of this month.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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