Forests and climate change policy - Subtle as an artillery barrage

By: Chris Perley

When you create policies that are flawed, you cannot expect people to lie down and roll over

Forests and climate change policy - Subtle as an artillery barrage
Forests and climate change policy - Subtle as an artillery barrage

The government’s climate change policies relating to forestry are an example of some of the simplest and poorest thinking possible, and a new land use alliance of forest growers and agricultural developers has come out publicly against one of its many glaring failures of vision.

If the government wanted to crush the confidence in forest growing, it couldn’t have come up with anything more destructive than its climate change policy. Ironic, considering it claims to want to encourage the growing of trees to offset the carbon emissions from agriculture and industry. Bewilderingly inconsistent when you think that it is doing little or nothing to actually reduce the emissions created by those non-forestry sectors of the economy. Forestry sucks the stuff up that the others emit, so all we have to do, apparently, is beat those forest growers with a stick until they learn to sit up and beg. Yeah, that’ll work.  


Beat them with a stick

Amongst the government’s proposals is the charging of forest owners – at least those holding forests in excess of 50 hectares – the carbon value of any pre-1990 forests they choose to fell and not replant after 31 December, 2007. That value depends on the international value of carbon and the amount any mature forest may hold. Figures of $13,000 per hectare were used last year, but the alliance is claiming that future per hectare values might get to as high as $65,000 per hectare; two to three times the value of the wood. If a forest grower cuts down a forest and does not replant, then they are liable for that amount.

It makes for scary uncertainties, especially when there are areas currently under forest that is actually rubbish land for growing trees. Trees are there because no one else wanted the land, but now they do.  Most submitters opposed this deforestation tax on the basis that it was inequitable, shattered an already fragile confidence in tree growing, and would lead to less, not more, forest planting. Submissions also said that not being allowed to cut down one hectare in one place and plant it in another without the deforestation tax still applying was loading inequity on inequity.

This is the focus of the land use alliance’s submission on the climate change legislation.  They point out that the patterns of land use have always been dynamic, and that MAF’s assumption that it ought to be otherwise is going to create all sorts of undesirable consequences. Besides that, if you cut down some areas of forest in one area and replant them in another, then the net effect on the carbon balance is neutral, or may be in fact a great deal better where the land replanted is a better growing site.  
So why not allow the flexibility? The Green party agrees. Naturally, the National party will also agree just to contradict the government. Yet the government still defends a policy that is not so much subtle as a brick, as subtle as an artillery barrage. If you’re looking for finesse, don’t bother. But then, are some of the members of this new alliance any different? We’ll see.

Land use changes

There are two examples of the change in land use away from forests over the last five years.  The first relates to forests planted on what were once considered very poor soils on the Canterbury Plains. They were not much better than river gravels covered with four inches of dust. The reason why they were planted in trees was because no self-respecting farmer wanted such droughty, infertile pieces of land. They ended up in council or government hands, who had the choice of letting them revert to broom or planting them in trees. Now, of course, vineyards just love such hungry land, especially if it’s hot and dry. The Gimblett Gravels of the Heretaunga Plains around Hasting are an example. The soils were once considered so poor that the subdivision of Flaxmere was plonked on top of them. Now Flaxmere is considered by most that don’t live there, and probably many that do, as a waste of good wine space. Dairy farmers also like those lands. The soils don’t pug up under heavy stock pressure, and fertility and droughtiness are nothing a bit of fertiliser and irrigation won’t fix.  

The curious thing from the forest growers’ point of view is that they are expected to pay higher rates on land whose value suddenly goes ballistic, with growth rates that make something on the sub-Antarctic Campbell Island look enviable, and then get charged even more if they want to stop losing money by giving up on that land and moving their forest to the moister hill soils, some of which are in desperate need of protection from soil erosion.  
What’s worse, these policies discriminate against not just forest growing, but also against those other benefits that trees provide besides carbon sequestration; that is, biodiversity, clean water, already mentioned soil conservation, as well as microsite economics and farm viability. The government emphasis also diminishes, if not ignores, the costs of intensive agriculture to community and the environment.  

Farther north, the other example of conversion out of forests is a little more complicated.  There has already been a large-scale conversion of close to 30,000 hectares of ex-Carter Holt Harvey forest around Taupo out of trees and into dairy farming. The government’s own Landcorp is one of the developers, and another of the land use alliance’s members, Fonterra, is obviously very interested in seeing the conversion continue. The difference with the Canterbury Plains example is that these Taupo lands are not poor forest growing sites, though they are still looked upon enviously by pastoral land developers. Much of this land was planted in the 1930s as part of the Perpetual Forest investment, which subsequently became NZ Forest Products and then Carter Holt Harvey, centred around the pulp mill in Tokoroa.  There was expansion into forest planting even after the soil cobalt deficiency that created ‘bush sickness’ in stock was discovered.  

However, there is growing concern about the effects of dairy intensification in these areas, especially with the effects on water quality. Converting land from trees that provide biodiversity and water quality to a land use that does the opposite, and more, on a system already under considerable stress, is not going to go down well on the local regional council, Environment Waikato. Interestingly enough, it also sees the problem as the forest growers fault for converting, rather than the intensive land use practices that actually do the polluting.  So, Environment Waikato is trying to restrict the forest growers while giving land use intensifiers a comparatively free hand. Who needs logic when power politics will suffice? Where’s the environment & people?

It is in these areas around Taupo where things get a bit more cynical. For all the rational ‘land use dynamics’ arguments, some forest growers in this area are more interested in those land values being offered by the dairy developers than in trying to increase the value of their forest estate. Yes, they ought to be able to replace one hectare with another in cheaper hill country land, but let’s not be deluded into thinking this alliance is interested in broader issues other than simple finance. Community and environmental concerns are distinctly lacking from their advocacy of what is otherwise a common sense suggestion. That is a concern that both the land use alliance, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, and the government, needs to consider. Rural communities and environmental consequences matter. Blanket planting of hill country in forests, particularly of one species, is as brutish response to a problem as creating a treeless nirvana for dairy sheds.

Ironically, it is the alliance’s use of the phrase ‘highest and best use’ that may create more problems for themselves through public scepticism by implicitly suggesting that all the lowland areas ought to be converted to intensive pastoral management, while all the 800,000 hectares of erodible hill country should be in forests, simply because finance deems it ‘rational’. The public won’t like the sound of it, and may be unlikely to trust, and therefore support, the organisations involved in the alliance. Ask yourself whether you would like to see all the forest land north of Taupo in dairy farms, or all the hill country from Taranaki and the Wairarapa to East Cape clothed in trees, mostly radiata pine. We implicitly like a patchwork quilt; a little variety to please the eye; the hum of community to complement the drone of machinery.

It’s a conflict of the government’s own making, and the forest owner’s dogs of war don’t look like lying down just yet. The government has to take most of the blame for showing an inability to see, let alone realise, a vision of a rural landscape that is both economically vibrant and with the values that make for a better environment and community. The government has demonstrated unsubtle footwork, and the forest owners are now replying in kind. Both need to show a little more finesse.

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