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Clarky's Comment - August 2011

In response to both the Emissions Trading Scheme and evidence of increasing demand for sustainably sourced construction lumber, PF Olsen is anticipating that the rate of new planting in New Zealand will expand in 2012 and beyond. One response to trees replacing pasture in some of our hill country may be the resurrection of rural community concerns over the perceived loss of employment, reduced stock carrying capacity and reduced viability of rural schools and services. When confronted with such concerns it is important to revert to some core principles and truths about rural land use in New Zealand.

Since the clearing of indigenous forests, first by Maori and then early pakeha settlers to make way for crops and pasture, New Zealand's economic and social development has been premised on flexibility and changing land use in response to changing product demand. In recent decades we have seen periods of plantation forest expansion and contraction, and the expansion of dairy at the expense of dry stock. Intensive cropping and viticulture associated with irrigated valleys and flats has expanded rapidly.

As New Zealand society recognises that environmental values are really important to us, both from a place to live and an economic and trade perspective, we are seeing higher values being placed on clean water, biodiversity, soil protection, landscape and heritage. These values may be expressed in monetary terms e.g. a price of carbon, or in regulatory terms e.g. new or more rigorously enforced land use and consent rules. A consequence of these changing societal demands will be that some land use will change. That is a good thing.

So how can expanded plantation forestry help to enhance our "clean-green" image that is such an important brand for tourism and trade in all our primary products? The ability of forests to absorb atmospheric carbon and lock some of that up in long-lived wood products is now well understood. There is also wide recognition of the role forests play in protecting soil from erosion and enhancing stream water quality and native fish habitat. What is not well understood is the role plantation forests play in providing habitat for our unique indigenous flora and fauna.

A May 2010 report from Scion and Wildland Consultants Ltd[1] suggests that Department of Conservation records show 118 species of native fish, invertebrates, mammals and plants classified as threatened, occur in plantations.

As pine forests mature and the canopy closes after 10 or 15 years, the heavy shade beneath the trees is perfect for the growth of not only ferns, but a whole range of understorey species such as five finger, various coprosmas, putaputaweta, pate and hangehange.

Native falcons (the world's fastest hunting bird) like the combination of forest cover plus clearcut areas for hunting prey and nesting. Kereru and long-tailed cuckoo are benefiting from the combination of protected indigenous reserves surrounded or linked by plantation forest. The endangered fernbird is benefiting from wetlands protected within plantation forest estates. Kiwi, being eaters of grubs, slugs worms and insects, can probably reach higher densities in pines than in native bush. As referenced later in this Wood Matters, the highly endangered kokako is thriving in indigenous forest near Rotorua that is adjacent to and supported by plantation forest next door.

Existing plantation forest owners and new investors can feel proud that their investments are not only generating economic wealth but also environmental capital for New Zealand.

[1] Pawson, S.M. et al. 2010. New Zealand's exotic plantation Forests as habitats for threatened indigenous species. New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2010) 34(3): 342-355