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Permanent Forest Sink Initiative and trees for protection and profit

Mark Belton, New Zealand Tree Grower August 2012.

Forestry is often seen as a threat to farming communities, especially where entire hill country farms are sold up and planted wall-to-wall with radiata pine. However, there are many roles for trees on farms which are complementary to usual farming practices. These can include enhancing business resilience by reducing the risk of extreme climate problems or for securing environmental best practice accreditation which coul improve access to premium markets.

Specific roles for trees on farms include –

  • Landscape plantings for amenity
  • Riparian plantings to improve water quality
  • Soil conservation plantings with deciduous species on erodible hill country to reduce erosion risk
  • For fodder, shelter or special purpose timber
  • Providing safe feeding and nesting habitat for birds
  • Trees producing nectar and pollen for bees,
  • Woodlots managed to maximise carbon sequestration
  • Fuel wood and biofuel
  • Commercial timber plantations
  • Recovery of indigenous forest habitat.

All these functions of trees should be complementary to the aim of sustainable farming. They are part of integrated sustainable land use, helping with the risk reduction of the farming business, diversifying income streams and producing environmental and aesthetic values. None of this will be news to the farm forestry community who make good use of trees. However, for many landowners, the use of trees to enhance core farming business has hardly begun, and affordability of tree planting continues to be seen as a game stopper.

Examples of uses for trees on farms

Maintain and enhance pasture production Focus trees on marginal and less productive land areas. Elsewhere use wide-spaced deciduous species
Improve livestock welfare with shelter and alternative feeds Shelter plantings on margins of most productive areas. Alternative feed includes tree lucerne, willows and poplar
Protect against soil loss and soil degradation Dedicated long term soil conservation plantings, higher density plantings on acute areas, wide spaced elsewhere
Prevent soil erosion damage to infrastructure As above, but locate plantings to protect infrastructure
Future proof against catastrophic storm damage Focus on high erosion risk land across whole farm
Provide for alternative sources of income such as from carbon Carbon income is optimised by growing maximum biomass quickly, and maintaining the forest long-term, with light thinning regimes
Alternative sources of income, such as timber Timber income can be maximised by growing short rotation intensively managed timber crops on sheltered and easy to access sites
Regenerate native forest with biodiversity gains Encourage native forest regeneration, use nurse crops, planting or natural
Bee hive sites along with nectar and pollen for bees Provide sheltered sites for apiaries, and tree species rich in nectar and pollen

Carbon farming with trees

What is news is the potential for farmers to generate carbon income from all of the above options with trees, and that carbon has the potential to provide an income stream for farming business. Perhaps for the first time, thanks to the opportunity to sell carbon, the statement ‘money can grow on trees’ has a ring of truth for all types of tree. The amount of income from carbon relative to the cost of the various tree options is quite variable, some regimes having higher and lower costs with higher and lower sequestration rates.

Our company has been evaluating carbon forestry regimes for the last seven years for clients who range from big funds with returns of over 20 per cent a year, to private farming business and not for profit trusts. We have evaluated natural recovery of natives, plantings of selected native species, regimes which combine clear-fell timber and ETS forestry regimes, as well as those which focus on growing the maximum amount of carbon at least possible cost and carbon replacement risk.

What the PFSI could do

From this experience we believe landowners who wish to maximise carbon income and environmental co-benefits should look closely at the Permanent Forest Sink Initiative or PFSI scheme. The PFSI fits well with all the roles for trees on farms except for short rotation clear-fell forestry.

The PFSI requires tree cover to be maintained on the land in question for 99 years but with an option to exit at any time after 50 years. Therefore the minimum term is effectively 50 years. During the 99 year period, low intensity selection harvesting for commercial timber sales is allowed. There is no restriction on thinning if a Kyoto forest is maintained over the registered PFSI forest area.

The Kyoto forest rules applicable in New Zealand require the forest or tree cover has potential to have a height at maturity taller than five metres, and a canopy cover on any one hectare not less than 30 per cent cover. In reality this can be achieved with stockings of mature trees as low as 30 trees a hectare. So even low density park land plantings or wide spaced soil conservation plantings can comply.

The main feature of the PFSI is that it requires commitment to long term management of tree cover. Many readers will appreciate this as being positive because trees and forest ecosystems can take a long time to reach maturity and produce their full environmental benefits. Long term tree cover should be fully compatible with integrated sustainable farm forestry practices. These include wide spaced soil conservation and amenity plantings, native forest recovery areas or special purpose timber species suited for continuous cover sustainable harvesting regimes.

However, fewer farm foresters will appreciate the fact that dedicated PFSI forests can be many times more efficient at sequestering carbon than a forest which is clear felled. For example, a radiata forest maintained for over 50 years will store four times as much carbon per hectare as the same forest under a timber regime involving clear felling every 25 to 30 years.

Advantages of the PFSI

The PFSI opens the prospect of selling to more discerning markets which value carbon sourced from projects that have attributes of permanence and environmental benefits. Not all carbon is created equal.

The values of the PFSI have enabled voluntary markets to be developed for pre 2008 carbon. The PFSI means planning for the longer term and challenges strategic thinking for environmental and economic sustainability involving a diversity of regimes matched to different land types.

Long lived PFSI forests sequester more carbon and produce more abundant environmental benefits. Steep erosion-prone land with permanent forest cover avoids risks associated with clear fell harvesting and associated roading earthworks. They also avoid the carbon repayment liability dilemma associated with commercial timber harvest.

The scheme provides for dedicated long term management of trees for carbon farming, environmental protection and sustainable harvesting. The commitment to long term management of tree cover is what distinguishes the PFSI scheme. Farm foresters who wany generate income from carbon should look at the option of being committed carbon farmers under the PFSI.


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