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Consistent rules for plantation forestry

Julian Bateson, New Zealand Tree Grower February 2015.

I attended one of the recent workshops for small-scale forest growers organise and run by Ministry for Primary Industries. The aim of the exercise was for more consistent rules across the country when it comes to managing plantation forestry. Various ministries have been calling this process the National Environmental Standard for plantation forestry. It was a good idea for the relevant people in MPI to now try and communicate more effectively with small-scale forest owners about these discussions and get some feedback.

Over a number of years I have heard various expressions of dismay, annoyance and irritation from those who were involved in trying to get to grips with what was happening with these standards, along with the fact that each region seemed to have different versions of their own rules and guidelines. Apparently the discussions have been going for at least seven years.

I was always confused, and often very quickly bored, when the subject of national standards was raised as it was all a bit of a blur. It seemed that those talking about it know a lot and assumed most of their audience also knew what was going on. In my experience this is not the case and I am fairly certain most other members of the NZFFA were short on relevant information.

Avoiding the jargon

The day started in Bulls. At first the MPI team were unable to get the key to let us in to the Town Hall where the meeting was being held. This seemed to be a poor start but was not their fault, as they were sent from one side of town to the other and then back, before being given the missing key. Eventually around 25 people turned up for the meeting of which about 20 were small-scale foresters who also all seemed to be members of the NZFFA.

There were three or four people from MPI and one attendee representing corporate forestry - Peter Weir. He said that he had been involved in plantation standards discussions on behalf of corporate forestry discussions for over seven years, with two government departments and two full consultation rounds. He sounded a bit jaded with it all and said that in his opinion the Horizons One Plan would be the best to adopt. However he noted that many others did not want this to be the standard.

There was a lot of jargon in the meeting which was irritating and unnecessary. ‘Stringency and scope tables’ was a good, or rather a bad start, followed by rule sets, delivering outcomes, activity status cascade, walk-out aims and a range of others. If people spoke and wrote in plain English it would make life a lot simpler. I am sure that those of you reading this are pleased you did not have to listen to it all and that I will not be using this jargon again.

The discussions

We were given a lot of paperwork before and during the meeting covering the large number of planning rules being worked on. Two of the main rules we discussed as examples involved setback from streams or other water and planting on land prone to erosion. These rules were discussed at length.

One of the recommendations is about not planting trees within prescribed distances from a stream, river, wetlands, roads and adjoining property. For small streams, for example, the setback or area which is not to be planted is five metres from each bank and for others 10 metres. However to follow the rules you need to know what a stream is and where the edges are. These might seem to be stupid questions but apparently even if the stream is just a few inches wide, it is still a stream.

Is the stream permanent and if so, what is the definition of permanent? Do the very small streams have to run every day of the year? If so, who carries out the monitoring to make sure it is or is not an official stream? If it is a small stream in a wide gully the set-back would have to be measured from the edges of the gully which could be quite indistinct. If you have land with a number of such streams and have to avoid planting in the areas specified, it could seriously reduce the available land for trees to be planted.

Steep land prone to erosion

Then we got on to planting, or not, on steep land. The rules use green, yellow, orange and red zones as sub- divisions of other definitions − permitted, controlled or restricted. This was complicated and seemed to be odd on occasions. One of the aims of this project is to reduce environmental effects and sediment in waterways. Therefore planting on steep land particularly close to streams should be encouraged not discouraged. As far as I know, the closer you plant to the stream or river, the better. This reduces sediment in the streams, prevents the banks from being eroded and improves the water quality for native fish. These are all prime objectives for the standards being developed.

I raised this point but was told I was wrong. I disputed this, as I tend to do, and after discussion was then told that I was right. But I knew that. The concern seems to revolve around harvesting when erosion and sediment can end up in the water. The 30 or so years leading up to the harvest, when the riparian areas can have protective vegetation, seem to get forgotten.

Different aims and different requirements

There was more discussion about allowing riparian regeneration or carrying out riparian planting within the setbacks. This seemed to be an acceptable compromise, and a very good idea, but the comment from corporate forestry was that this would all be trashed when they harvest, so there was no point. It seemed a rather harsh attitude.

As with all problems, the aims and objectives of those involved who shout the loudest usually decide the results. Corporate forestry is generally only interested in the bottom line, in other words, the financial return from growing then harvesting radiata pine at its optimum size. This is understandable, if not always acceptable. Not acceptable is that this is virtually always based on clear felling large tracts of trees. It may be economic but is it the right thing to do?

Small-scale forestry and farm forestry have a number of different aims. Money from trees is certainly quite important but aesthetics, erosion control, shelter and sustainability are likely to over-ride or modify the process of income generation. Growing different tree species and harvesting in a more limited manner are other priorities which are very different from the corporate forestry requirements.

Corporate forestry has been very closely involved with developing the new plantation standards and as a result their viewpoint seemed to be have been given a strong priority by MPI. Small-scale forestry has been kept up to date, but the owners of such forests have not been not closely involved. These points were made towards the end of the meeting and drew a comment from the corporate forestry representative. He said that small-scale forestry has plenty of involvement via companies such as PF Olsen who manage many small forests. The question was then asked how many owners in the room used PF Olsen to manage their forests. The answer was none and the potential argument lost.

Where to from here

The good news from all this was that MPI had understood that until now small-scale forestry had generally been left out of the discussions on the proposed standards. It was the reason for the workshops. They, MPI that is, agreed that small-scale forestry needs to be kept much more involved and must be consulted on a regular basis, or so I understood form this meeting. MPI also agreed that the costs of any consents involved need to be affordable by the owners of small forests and not designed just to suit owners of large forests.

Overall it was a very good meeting and MPI are to be congratulated for this consultation, even if it is a little bit later than it should have been.

In April next year the recommendations will be put to the government for a decision to proceed. Assuming that goes ahead, there will then be a period of more formal consultation over the following 18 months. This would mean that final approval of National Environmental Standards for plantation forestry would be towards the end of 2016. But knowing how these matters always take longer than planned, I would not bet on the dates.

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