Foresters welcome Government’s ambitious tree-planting target

In November 12, 2017

Farm foresters have joined forest owners and timber processors in welcoming the new Coalition Government’s plans to revitalise forestry as a shot in the arm for the industry.

The New Zealand Farm Forestry Association believes the Government’s commitment to plant one billion trees over the next 10 years is an achievable target and that farm foresters have a role to play.

But association president Neil Cullen says this ambitious target presents a number of challenges – sourcing enough seedlings, having enough people in the right areas to plant trees and finding enough suitable land.

“New Zealand needs to reverse its growing greenhouse gas emission status, it needs to plant more trees than are harvested for a growing industry and it needs to cloak eroding hill country in trees,” Cullen said.

He said New Zealand’s total forest estate had shrunk in recent years, so the Government’s commitment to plant more trees was encouraging for the industry, especially for processors who were concerned about sourcing logs in future.

“It will give them some confidence to invest in mills and infrastructure and gives the whole industry a boost,” he said.

However, it would take nurseries a while to gear up.

“Nurseries have just planted their crop for next winter, so there won’t be anything like that number available for the next planting season, but they have got the capacity to increase seedling numbers significantly.

“The problem will be getting the people to plant them, I think,” he said.

Cullen believed the Government may have to look at planting trees on Crown or Māori-owned land in the first few years to meet its planting targets.

“We only have a broad sketch of what they are intending. We don’t know the details yet and what incentives they are going to use to get people to plant those trees.”

Forestry was a profitable and rewarding land use that was the best option for large areas of New Zealand, he said.

The Farm Forestry Association supported “sensible afforestation of marginal pastoral land” and wanted to see erosion-prone hill country and other land requiring improved water quality and lower sediment yields prioritised for planting.

“Rather than blanket planting of forests, as large companies are inclined to do for efficiency reasons, we would advocate retaining the better classes of land for farming while siting forests on the less productive areas.”

He said the association could offer advice on where to site trees on farmland and encouraged people to consider alternative species to Pinus radiata – including eucalypts, cypresses, redwoods and indigenous species – because they may be the best options in many areas.

Cullen cited manuka as an example of a promising new forest species in parts of the North Island where it grew well. It qualified as a forest under the Emissions Trading Scheme.

He also welcomed the Government’s initiative to re-establish the New Zealand Forest Service, create an independent Climate Commission and pass a Zero Carbon Act.

“We believe that regulatory encouragement of forestry is required, along with an industry that has regulatory certainty. These can be provided by a dedicated Forest Service and an independent Climate Commission,” he said.

In recent years, foresters had been discouraged by sudden changes in the ETS scheme which triggered an overnight drop in the value of carbon credits, so an independent agency like the Climate Commission would be an advantage to the industry.

“Having a separate agency outside the immediate control of the government of the day gives more certainty to the industry when it is thinking about getting into the Emissions Trading Scheme,” he said.

Cullen said he was looking forward to working with new Forests Minister Shane Jones, who brought a lot of enthusiasm and energy to the role, and Climate Change Minister James Shaw, who was “a level-headed guy with a good business background”.

Meanwhile, the Forest Owners’ Association agrees the Government’s target of an additional 50,000 hectares of planting a year is “optimistic but achievable”.

Association president Peter Clark said the Government had a huge challenge to double the current annual forest planting rate.

“For most of the 1990s, the new planting rate was more than 50,000 hectares a year. In 1994 it was 100,000 hectares beyond keeping up with replanting,” he said.

Clark said forest owners had been talking with Jones and the minister was in no doubt about the difficulties of planting more trees after more than a decade of no growth.

Foresters were struggling to plant enough trees to maintain present forests and needed to build up the labour force to step up plantings, a role Jones may be able to help with as Regional Development Minister.

Clark believed the partial introduction of agriculture into the Emissions Trading Scheme would also give a boost to forest planting on farms.

“The initial major planting will be on Crown and Māori land. But if the Government gives farmers an option of growing trees to absorb carbon and offset the greenhouse gas emissions from their stock, then I’m sure we’ll see farmers planting out woodlots with a view to getting a return on eventually harvesting those trees.”

Clark said the idea of a separate Forest Service also sounded like a good idea.

“We don’t know what functions it will have, so we have to wait for that. But with forestry under the Ministry for Primary Industries we weren’t getting the attention an industry should get when it earns $6 billion a year in exports.”

Clark also believed James Shaw’s role as Climate Change Minister was significant.

“As Green Party leader, his influence will keep the Government focus on doing something practical about climate change. The only practical solution is planting more trees. That’s the only currently available technology to significantly pull down our level of carbon emissions.”

The forest and wood processing industry is looking forward to greater use of timber in New Zealand under the Coalition Government.

But Wood Council chairman Brian Stanley said the Government needed to introduce a wood-first policy for Government buildings as well.

“We’ve got a new drive from the top for more plantings, a greater thrust for forestry in regional development and a commitment to use trees for carbon sequestration,” he said.

“The missing link, though, is the Government specifying wooden construction as the first choice for its new buildings.”

Stanley said new developments in wood engineering, such as cross-laminated timber, allowed medium and high-rise buildings to be built with timber.

This technology was being used around the world, but apart from a few examples like Sir Bob Jones’ 12-storey office tower in Wellington or the Nelson Airport terminal, New Zealand was being left behind.

Wood construction had many benefits, such as locally sourced use of a renewable resource and quicker construction. But New Zealand architects and specifiers were not familiar with modern construction methods and it needed the Government to take a lead.

Stanley said the timber industry was not looking for preferential treatment, because wood frequently outperformed other traditional building materials, particularly in earthquakes where the in-built flexibility of wood excelled.