New code ensures best practice forestry
David Rhodes, New Zealand Tree Grower February 2008.
Forestry is one of the New Zealand’s most environmentally friendly industries. Our forests stabilise hillsides, provide clean water, store carbon, provide habitat for endangered flora and fauna, and help offset the environmental ill-effects of other industries elsewhere. They produce a valuable, renewable crop with a minimum of inputs. However to maximise those benefits, forests need to be managed professionally and to standards appropriate for the site.
Standards keep lifting
How we manage our forests – the decisions we make and what we do on the ground – are reflected in the reputation of the industry, the reputation of our businesses and the reputation of each of us as individual operators. But doing the right thing is easier said than done.
Meeting the expected standards is becoming increasingly complex and the standards keep lifting. Topography, climate and soil type are challenging enough. However in achieving high environmental management standards we also need to take into account the law, regional and district plans, conditions of consent, iwi concerns, historic sites, codes of practice, threatened species, water quality and biodiversity.
While doing all these things we have to operate in a safe and economically efficient manner. It is tough, and it will not get any easier in the future. Markets will increasingly demand that our processes are kind to the environment and socially ethical. Forest and product certification are likely to become the norm – forest owners will not only have to meet certification standards, they will have to prove they do.
Unstable weather patterns and more frequent severe storms will mean a greater incidence of wind throw, more floods and higher fire risks. As a result, there will be greater community scrutiny of all land owners and their land management practices.
A practical tool
Both the New Zealand public and overseas markets will demand good environmental stewardship and effective biodiversity protection.
For all these reasons the NZ Forest Owners Association (NZFOA) recently launched its new Environmental Code of Practice for Plantation Forestry. This puts everything in one place, providing decision-making guidance to ensure that all factors are taken into account before a tree is planted or felled, before a forest is spot sprayed or before someone jumps into the driver’s seat of a bulldozer.
When something does go wrong in a forest it is usually because someone did not plan, did not think or did not remember. The code is a practical tool to help owners, managers, planners and operators plan, think and remember – in other words, to make good decisions. In RMA terms, it embodies an assessment of effects on the environment.
In effect, the code is a checklist of things that must be done and factors that must be taken into account when undertaking any forest operation, from site preparation to harvesting. If these decisions are written down, and we strongly advise that they should be, they provide an audit trail. If an operator is in doubt, all they need to do is check the code field guide.
The code is not the law and it is not a ‘how-to’ manual. It does not tell you how to build a track, construct a culvert or fell a tree, but it does highlight the key things people should take into account before they do. Follow the code and nothing will fall through the cracks.
It also directs users to key technical references, such as the 400 page Forest Roading Manual. Members of the NZFOA are expected to comply with the principles of the code. They are also expected to comply with the rules. There is more discretion when it comes to the guidelines. This allows forest managers to weigh competing values such as safety, environmental and economic, to make the best decision for a particular site
Guides to industry best practice
Even if someone is not a member of an industry organisation, the code should be taken seriously. Where a manager, supervisor or operator decides to depart from the code, they would be well-advised to have a good reason for doing so. They should write that reason down so there is an audit trail. Codes of practice are treated in law as being guides to industry best practice. Failure to comply with best practice can be used as evidence of negligence if everything turns to custard.
Some in our industry may see the code as an unwelcome addition to the paper war that plagues our workplaces, but this is not the case.
The forest industry is heavily regulated already and we do not want to make it worse. The code has not created any new regulations, rules or standards. It has simply brought them together in one document, along with advice about the best ways to comply with them.
Stop and think
For a small woodlot in the middle of farmland on the plains, the Best Environmental Management Practice checklists will take only five minutes to complete. The important thing is to stop and think. Who knows, this may be the one block you will work in which harbours endangered species, or contains an unmarked urupa. People will find the code is a great help in identifying the many things they do need to take into account.
For forests on demanding hill country, the checklists will take longer to complete, but it is important to consider everything. Those extra few minutes spent planning may save you many hours of remedial work afterwards or, worse still, fines for failing to comply with conditions of consent. In many cases, the relevant processes of the code will provide a means of fulfilling most of the requirements for resource consent applications.
The code is not intended to be adopted into district or regional plans or to provide a library of standard resource consent conditions. However we expect councils to look kindly on forest owners, especially those who are third party certified, who can demonstrate that they followed code processes when making decisions.
Some councils are already saying that forest operations conducted in accordance with the code and which meet standards defined under the RMA, may be considered a permitted activity or given approved operator status.
Even under current district plans, the checklists in the code can provide a much more comprehensive and transparent assessment of risks and effects than standard council forms. A completed checklist attached to the ‘assessment of effects’ forms included with a consent application is far more transparent to both parties. Those forest owners who have already done this have found them well received by councils.
If someone complains to the council once operations are under way, the decision-making process provides an audit trail – the ability to demonstrate that all relevant factors were taken into account during planning and implemented during operations.
How is the code structured?
The first part is made up of 18 best environmental management practices (BEPs). These cover everything from operational planning and mechanical land preparation, through to slash management and harvesting. The next parts cover ‘Recognising environmental values’, ‘Planning for good environmental outcomes’, ‘Environmental legislation’, and ‘Training – the code as a training tool’. There are also several useful appendices.
Each BEP includes an objective, compulsory rules, guidelines and guidance notes. There are also some ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’. The terms are usually interchangeable, but even with a ‘must’ there needs to be discretion to allow for factors which are specific to a location, such as soil type, topography and access limitations. For example, some councils may choose to override the minimum five metre streamside riparian margin – requiring forest owners to plant trees right up to the stream edge to protect erodable stream banks, and to prevent weed infestations, especially in new forests. Similarly, there are circumstances where the only sensible means of access to a site may be along a gravel riverbed.
BEPs are not intended to be used in isolation. When an environmental risk has been identified as part of the assessment of effects, the BEP and the actions to mitigate that risk should be documented against the risk. This may include selecting appropriate guidelines from two or more relevant BEPs. Consider two examples.
The Earthworks BEP first explains what the BEP applies to, then goes on to the objectives. For those needing an explanation of technical terms or concepts such as catchment hydrology there is a glossary, or on the web version, a link.
Then there is the BEP itself – divided into compulsory rules and guidelines.
The first two rules read –
- Earthworks must be planned, designed, supervised and constructed by appropriately trained personnel
- Comply with council requirements, resource consent conditions, historic places and any other legal requirements, including mining regulations for quarries and the building code for structures.
It is self-evident that you would need very good reasons to depart from these rules. The guidelines are more flexible. But even so, they should be taken seriously into account when planning operations.
For example, the first two guidelines read –
- Programme earthworks to enable best use of seasonal conditions and allow stabilisation before use
- Undertake work in suitable weather for the site conditions.
These both assume that the weather is to some extent predictable but, as we all know, there are times when operations must be carried out in marginal conditions. However if we look further down the list of guidelines we see the emphasis on water control. If you are working on a rain-prone site in hill country it would be very difficult to find good reasons for not installing adequate culverts, for example.
Finally, the BEP highlights nine other BEPs and other key supporting references.
Fuel and oil BEP
The guidelines range from the virtually non-negotiable, for example no-one should be present when a hydraulic hose bursts, through to the desirable. The BEPs are followed by cross-references to ERMA’s draft Code of Practice for stationary container systems and to the HSNO fuel and oil management guide for forest operations. There are also guidance notes explaining the potential adverse effects of fuel and oil on the environment and some basic information on cleaning up after spills.
Managing landscape change
Part of the code covers –
- Soil and water conservation values
- Scenic and landscape values
- Cultural and historic and heritage values
- Scientific values
- Ecological values
- Recreational values
This part of the code provides the reasoning behind the BEPs. It is not the sort of information you would normally read in the forest, or expect a bulldozer operator to read, so it is not included the field handbook. But it is on the website and in the main code document itself. It is well-written and a requirement for everyone involved in forest planning and management.
Some of our neighbours would like our forests never to be cut down. However, there are ways to manage the landscape change during the harvest cycle that will help build the reputation of the forest owner and of forestry as a land use. For example, giving advance notice of an upcoming harvest is an important way to manage community expectations.
Clarify your thinking
Part three, the section that covers planning for good environmental outcomes, is a great tool for forest owners and managers. It will be particularly useful for those owners who planted their first forests in the 1970s and now see them reaching maturity. The planning flow chart will help clarify their thinking, although some may decide to ask a professional forest manager to take over.
The resources and references section covers the main Acts of Parliament that govern what we do in our forests. While the information provided will not substitute for a good lawyer if the RMA going gets tough, it does provide a useful outline of your obligations. An excellent feature once again is the use of flow charts covering the things we need to do, or take account of, when managing or operating in a forest.
This section ends with the New Zealand Forest Accord of 1991, which in some respects is where the code all began. That landmark agreement with Forest & Bird and the other conservation and outdoor recreation organisations flowed into the principles for commercial plantation forest management of 1995. Those principles and the Accord itself have stood the test of time and they underpin much of the thinking that the code is based upon.
The code will be adopted by most forest owners during the next 12 months, although some larger companies will continue to have environmental management systems with provisions that are complementary to or more specific than those in the code. The widespread adoption of the code will provide a greater level of consistency throughout the industry. This will make it easier for contractors and others to know what is expected of them regardless of whose forest they are working in. It will provides a framework for good decision-making and the adoption of practices that reflect well on the reputation of the industry, the reputation of our businesses and the reputation of each of us as individuals.
David Rhodes is chief executive of the NZ Forest Owners Association.