Forest shrink puts paid to carbon sinks

8 Feb 2006

New Zealand's plantation forests are shrinking, according to provisional statistics released by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

"This confirms the conclusion in an official review of government climate change policies that those relating to forestry need overhauling," says Forest Owners Association chief executive David Rhodes.

"New Zealand was relying on a growing area of plantation forestry to provide a carbon sink, locking up greenhouse gases produced elsewhere in the economy. In fact, the forested area has declined, partly because of the government's Kyoto policies."

In its annual review of forest planting rates, MAF provisionally estimates that 6000 hectares of new forest land and 32,000 ha of harvested land were planted in the winter of 2005. This compares with 10,600 ha and 40,600 ha respectively the year before.

New plantings peaked at 98,000 hectares in 1994 and are now at their lowest level since 1960.

The review estimates that 7000 ha of the 39,000 ha harvested during the year were deforested. With only 6000 ha of new plantings, this means there was a net loss of 1000 ha of plantation forest.

However, MAF says the rapid increase in deforestation since 2004 had complicated its calculations and the figures will need to be reviewed in 12 months, when returns from the annual census of forest owners are analysed.

Mr Rhodes says ministers have given an undertaking that the forest growing sector will continue to have input in the policy development process and this further engagement is expected soon.

He says the decline in the area of plantation forestry will not affect downstream employment in the short-term, because of high planting rates from the 1970s to 1990s. However, deforestation is putting at risk many important conservation values associated with forestry.

"This is not just about Kyoto. Forests protect hillsides from erosion and reduce the risk of downstream flooding," he says.

"Trees are also important for nutrient management in sensitive catchments, enabling land to remain in productive use while protecting lakes and rivers from nitrogen and phosphate pollution."

Mr Rhodes says that on average, 15 percent or more of the land holdings of forest owners are in indigenous vegetation. In these privately-owned areas, endangered native flora and fauna are actively protected.

"The government needs to be looking at plantation forestry as an asset with multiple values to society. If growers are rewarded only for its value as a cash crop, taxpayers will end up paying for the environmental costs of land-use conversions.

"Kyoto carbon sinks, catchment protection and lake nutrient management … there's a lot at stake."

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For more information, please contact: David Rhodes, chief executive, NZFOA. Tel: 04 473 4769. Mobile: 0274 955 525

For a copy of the MAF document, please contact: Trevor Walton, Tel 04 380 9991