Council forestry rules a mishmash

14 September 2015

A forest owners' spokesman says council rules for forestry are a mishmash which vary from district to district without good cause. Often they are also more stringent for forests than for farms on the same country.

Forest Owners Association environmental committee chair Peter Weir says a proposed National Environmental Standard (NES) aims to straighten out the mess. It was drafted by a group that included environmental groups, forest owners and three local bodies, with input from technical experts.

"It's all about creating certainty and improving overall standards of environmental stewardship," he says.

"Forestry is the country's third biggest export earner and is environmentally more benign than livestock farming, but you wouldn't know it from some of the commentary – mostly from local body councillors and council staff – who want to keep the current mishmash of rules."

Mr Weir says the NES will create one core set of rules nation-wide, with councils able to set consent conditions for harvest and earthworks in areas of high erosion risk.

"There are more than 10,000 forest owners in New Zealand. To build access roads and to prune and harvest their trees they use contractors, most of whom work across several different regional and district councils, all with different rules," he says.

"Having one core standard that is defensible and appropriately stringent means foresters and contractors will know what is expected of them. It will be easier to train operators in best-practice and if someone comes up with a better way of doing things, it can easily be applied across the whole country.

"At the moment some councils have strict rules for good reason. Some have no rules, where there should be rules. Some have rules that are the outcome of petty parish politics, rather than best environmental practice. It's a total muddle."

Mr Weir says under the NES foresters will have to prepare harvest plans in all districts, regardless of the erosion risk of the land, and an erosion and sediment control plan if undertaking earthworks. Waterways will be no-go areas when native and introduced fish species are spawning.

"The risk of wilding spread will need to be taken into account when planting, and local councils for the first time will be able to ban the planting of clear-fell forests on very high erosion-risk land," he says.

"These and other changes represent a significant tightening of rules across the country. Yet some councillors – pointing to logs on beaches or silt in streams – are saying they can do a better job of managing the environment than the proposed NES rules.

"They fail to see irony that the logs and silt come from land that is already being managed under council rules. Even more ironical is the criticism of NES rules from representatives of councils that have no equivalent rules."

Mr Weir says long-term studies have shown conclusively that planted forests generate much less silt run-off than farmland on similar terrain. The only time that forests don't perform so well is in replanted forests, three to five years after harvest.

"In this window, there is the risk of soil and harvest residue being washed downhill and into streams. Foresters are getting much better at managing this risk. But there is only so much we can do to withstand weather bombs. In heavy rainfall, slips will occur on steep slopes, even in virgin native bush," he says.

"The landslides that regularly block Haast Pass and the Buller, Manawatu and Waioeka gorges, occur despite the mature native forest cover."

Mr Weir says many forests now being harvested from steep hill country were planted by Crown agencies or with public funding. He says many of these forests which were planted to prevent erosion on farmland are marginally economic and extremely difficult to harvest without leaving harvest residue in locations where it can be swept into streams during floods.

"There is now a growing recognition that tree species destined for clearfell harvesting are not suited to some of our most erosion-prone country, an issue that is addressed in the NES. No-one wants to see logs and trash on the beaches, but unfortunately this is the legacy of decisions made with the best of intentions many decades ago."

For more information, contact Peter Weir, Tel 027 454 7873