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Be more informed about the NES

Ian Cairns, New Zealand Tree Grower August 2011.

Many farm foresters may not know that a National Environmental Standard for plantation forestry (NES) is in preparation. Should the Minister for the Environment Dr Nick Smith give the green light, the NES will replace most, if not all, regional and district council RMA regulations affecting forestry. It is imperative that the forestry industry should continue to be informed and involved in the development of these new regulations.

An initial discussion paper, authored by the Ministry for the Environment with assistance from the Forest Owners Association, was published in September 2010. The paper received many submissions including three from the NZFFA − Wellington, Hawke’s Bay and the National Office. In the light of comments received, a working group comprised of government departments, environmental organisations, and forestry organisations including the NZFFA, put together a revised proposal which was published in May 2011.

The NZFFA was represented at working group meetings by Don Wallace, Wellington Branch President, and Ian Cairns. More recently, Gabrielle Walton from the Bay of Plenty and Angus Gordon from the National Executive have become involved. Currently the Ministry for the Environment is preparing a report on the comments received on the second discussion paper and has commissioned a cost benefit analysis.

The intended scope of the NES includes the activities of afforestation, replanting, mechanical land preparation, harvesting, pruning and thinning to waste, earthworks, quarrying and river crossings. Issues are unavoidably complex and both discussion papers ran to hundreds of pages. Some 11 objectives are listed in the May 2011 paper including −

  • Reduced litigation of plan provisions
  • Unnecessary resource consents reduced.

It all depends

Will the NES make it easier or more difficult for farm foresters to plant, replant or otherwise manage their forests? Well, it all depends.

The NES will regulate forestry according to the erosion susceptibility of the land rather than regional and district boundaries. The Canterbury School of Forestry has developed a four-way erosion classification −

  • Green − low susceptibility
  • Yellow − moderate susceptibility
  • Orange − high susceptibility
  • Red − very high susceptibility.

Their classification is essentially a regrouping of the New Zealand Land Resource Inventory eight-class system that dates back to the 1970s. You can check out the report and the classification of your land, at least at the 1:50,000 scale, by visiting the MFE website and searching on erosion susceptibility.

It is the land classification in combination with the NES rule set that will determine what forestry activities are permitted or require consent. The May 2011 document shows how the two aspects will mesh. For example, if your forest is in a green area, harvesting would be permitted, but if your forest is on earthflow country in an orange area, harvesting would be restricted discretionary.

It follows that if the NES goes ahead in its present form, while some farm foresters would be less regulated than they are at present, others would be more so. For example, in the Hawkes Bay region, all harvesting is currently permitted. Under the NES, harvesting in ‘orange’ earthflow country would become restricted discretionary.

Effect on afforestation

Possibly the $64,000 question is whether such an NES will boost new planting or reduce compliance costs for existing forests. It will certainly tip new forestry investors to purchasing land in green and yellow areas where, other things being equal, forestry activities would be permitted. But whether or not this actually occurs remains to be seen. The price of this land could be too high for forestry and dictate continuation in farming. On orange and red land in general, NES requirements will make it more expensive to plant and replant.

Turning to compliance costs more generally, scale of operation is certainly a factor. At the farm forestry scale, the NES model may prove more costly. Farm foresters have enjoyed considerable support and free advice from regional land management staff. If regional councils restructure in line with the change in their function, farm foresters may find it will be more expensive to obtain the advice they need from private consultants.

Cross boundary issues

Many forestry companies have forests in more than one region or district, and face different regulations and regulatory approaches. These differences are a source of frustration for them, and to an extent which will be revealed in a cost benefit analysis, may result in unnecessary costs. In the companies’ view, another reason why an NES should result in increased rates of afforestation is that investors will have much greater certainty about the regulatory regime. By far the majority of farm foresters own land in only one district. Inconsistency is less of a problem since we only deal with one council.

Summary

In the author’s assessment, while the NES as currently proposed may make it easier for some, for most farm foresters, it will become more difficult and expensive to plant or replant. This is not to say that the present collection of RMA planning provisions cannot be improved on. But possibly more might be achieved by a thorough, nationally-led review of these provisions rather than wholesale replacement with an untried system which may well have unintended consequences.

As a final point, farm forestry representatives have recently been interviewed by the consultants doing the cost benefit work. Their report will go to the Minister of the Environment. If he decides to continue, the Ministry will prepare advice on the subject matter of the standard. The final wording will be decided and the proposed standard made law.

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