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The Great Forestry Debate

By Oscar Savage, Graduate Planner, Baseline Group Marlborough | Mar 21, 2023

Plantation forestry have been promoted as a cure for many of our societal ills, with benefits towards alleviating the climate crisis, generation of income from marginal land, and providing economic benefits via widespread employment. However, recent extreme weather events have highlighted some of the flaws of plantation forestry. This has forced central governments to reconsider if widespread plantation forestry a land use deserving of our continued active support. Or is it time to manage the industry differently seeking better environmental outcomes for all?

Landowners have been able to obtain financial support from the government to plant both native and exotic forests through the One Billion Trees Fund, which allocated $176 million of funding to support the establishment of forests. The project sought to plant more natives than exotics; however, the result is a vast majority of the funded tree plantings are exotic pine forests. The forestry industry also has the benefit of streamlined regulatory support under the National Environmental Standards for Plantation forestry (NES-PF). This document provides national level management for key forestry activities instead of regional and district plans on a region-by-region basis. The NES-PF provides a consistent regulatory environment which overrides any local provisions and allows foresters to carry out activities that would require specific consideration through a resource consent for operators outside of the forestry industry.

Plantation Forestry can provide significant benefits compared to other land uses. Exotic forestry sequesters significantly more carbon than native forests, and can provide more income than low intensity agricultural grazing. The conversion of as little as 5% of New Zealand’s dry stock farms is theorised to be capable of generation $760 million in profit per year for the rural economy.

Forestry’s benefits can come at a cost, and recent extreme weather events have brought this to the public eye again. Storms in 2018 resulted in $1.3 million in fines being levied against Forestry companies by Gisborne District Council for damage caused by forest effects. Recent storms in 2023 including Cyclone Gabrielle have shown the how forestry’s uncleared slash continues to exacerbate flooding effects, and forests caught in their post-harvest window of vulnerability can send astounding quantities of silt downstream from erosion prone sites, burying productive land downstream.

Given the often-prominent position of forestry in the headwaters of catchments, it is now being debated by some as to whether this is truly a safe and sustainable land use, or if this industry needs to be managed with more local input. Is the national management of forestry under the NES-PF suitable given the repeated damage from natural hazards to communities in Tairāwhiti made worse by forestry harvesting methods? Ministerial enquiries due at the end of April may spark changes in the forestry industry in light of the damage seen.

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