Smart landowners welcome trees

The campaign against forestry, most recently run by Federated Farmers Vice President Andrew Hoggard, assists neither the fight against global warming, nor the interests of New Zealand landowning farmers.

Andrew Hoggard has told the Environment Select Committee (Thurs 8 August eds) that trees only last 30 years and forestry is killing local communities.

The longevity of the individual tree is neither here nor there.  Nearly all of our 1.7 million hectares of plantation forest are harvested at different times and then replanted with new seedlings. The forests themselves effectively go on forever, continuing to lock up massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.

Forestry adds to local employment, especially as the forests mature.  The forest owners may not employ the workers directly, as they usually do on farms, but the forest workforce per hectare is considerably higher than that for sheep and beef farming.  New forestry fosters local communities, not diminishes them.

In contrast, the number of farm workers on sheep and beef properties has been steadily decreasing for decades. 

With a larger forestry workforce, goes a larger return on the same area.  Per hectare, per year, the return from forestry is a number of times greater than that from farming sheep and cattle.

It’s also Mr Hoggard’s organisation’s membership which appears to be realising these economics and doing most of the planting. 

Recent foreign investment in planting new forests is negligible.  Of the estimated 30,000 hectares of forest conversions along the east coast of the North Island this year, more than 90 percent are planting by New Zealand owners.  Only four properties have been approved for new forest plantings by the Overseas Investment Office for all of New Zealand since new rules were introduced in 2017.

However, given the capital-intensive requirements prior to harvest returns, the area of conversion which will be required to meet our international greenhouse gas commitments is unlikely to be met through just domestic funding.

There is also more indigenous biodiversity in plantation forests than on pasture land. Year in, year out, trees also hold the steeper terrain better than any other land use.  The water is cleaner under trees.

The recent National Environmental Standard for Plantation Forestry effectively removes harvest rotations from the more vulnerable landscapes.  Plantation foresters want to avoid another Tolaga Bay debris flood and so they wish to plant more stable land.

But it is the capacity of trees to combat climate change and sequester carbon from the atmosphere, which has particularly provoked the campaigner insult that forestry is ‘lucrative’.

Of course, trees are not a permanent solution to climate change, no matter how many countries are planting huge numbers of trees.  But trees offer an absolutely crucial transition to other technologies, in particular those replacing fossil fuels. 

A rising price of carbon units will indeed be a factor in enticing landowners to invest in trees as the most effective machines to fight climate change.  For farmers, investing in trees is a healthy risk mitigation against the government moving them into large Emissions Trading Scheme obligations.  They are offsetting on their own properties.  Trees can give then resilience to both increasing carbon prices and becoming accountable for a larger percentage of these at the farm level.

Emitters, not taxpayers, are paying for the units the foresters receive. This is how the system is meant to work, though the price will have to rise even further to force these emitters to cut back substantially.

Those who own the hill country estate are best placed to take advantage of the fight against climate change.

The landowners have options of how much, and on what terms, they increase their forest commitment and take advantage of the carbon income stream.

The reports of world record temperatures in Europe last month, and imminent predictions of even worse, are terrifying. Unless the climate trend is reversed, buying New Zealand lamb might be the last consideration for consumers living under 50-degree heatwaves and facing rising seas.

Unless there is substantial planting of production forests, New Zealand will not only fail to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets, but endure even deeper forced cuts in other parts of the economy, including emitters in agriculture.

For the most part, exotic trees are needed to achieve the climate change goals.  Through their early decades, the carbon sequestration rate of pines and eucalypts is some six times greater than the carbon capture of kauri or totara.

With further investment in pine tree breeding, the growth speed of exotic pines can double in the next 30 years.  The forests can absorb just as much carbon, and produce just as much timber, but they will be capable of doing it off half the land area.

A developing world bio-economy will create more jobs in new timber regions to construct new products.

Farm leaders would do well to see trees as a means for farm survival – not its demise.

Nonetheless it is inconceivable that sheep and beef farming will do other than continue to dominate the hill country.

With the right support and adequate transition assistance from central and local government, farmers will adapt to the new land use challenges, continue to decrease their emissions, and carry on feeding satisfied customers throughout the world.

Trees are only an interim solution for combating climate change.  We must wean ourselves off fossil fuels and then wean ourselves off carbon-capture trees.

In the meantime, plantation forestry, both large scale and woodlot, offers the only viable political or technical solution.

Trees globally, in a literal sense, give us a breathing space, both for us and our overseas customers.

As reported by Peter Clark, former President, Forest Owners Assoc