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Have we abandoned the RMA fundamentals?

We appear to be headed for full circle on NZ land use regulation.  In recent history this started with Catchment Boards and local authorities making all the rules based on what they thought best, then moved to what looked like a giant step forward with Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA).  This change moved the dial to balancing environmental, social, and economic impacts of any land use activity as the guiding principle.

Now we have the Labour Party proposing to amend the National Environmental Standard – Plantation Forestry (NES-PF) to allow Councils to set land use rules based on what they think is best.  Specifically, on what classes of land plantation forestry investments can or cannot take place.

It is fair to say the implementation of the RMA has not met its original intent.  Should we be surprised?  Councils are made up of elected representatives that bring skills, but also personal values and bias to any decisions.  The RMA required impartial and facts-based analysis of environmental, social, and economic impacts of land use activities, but with so much going on and multiple objectives, scientific and impartial analysis is a challenging task.  The principles of the RMA remain totally in NZ Inc.’s best interests.  But the chances of those principles being applied in practice have been dealt a blow by the recent Labour Party announcement.

Land use flexibility has been a cornerstone of New Zealand’s economic prosperity for nearly two centuries.  Our primary industries are forever evolving to meet new global challenges and markets.  A current example is the displacement of citrus and other horticultural crops with gold kiwifruit.  Why?  1.  Kiwifruit demand is expanding faster than citrus, and NZ has competitive advantages in kiwifruit. 2. Kiwifruit is a considerably more capital-intensive land use than citrus.  With our best horticultural soils in limited supply, and abundant local and international investment funds, we can expect land use to gravitate to more capital-intensive uses. 

Why should the same principle not apply to our much more extensive hill country?  Plantation forestry is way more capital intensive than dry stock farming.  While food is in good demand, it has some headwinds with laboratory manufactured protein.  What substitute is less energy intensive and more greenhouse-friendly for basic building, packaging, and biofuel/bio-chemical material than wood?

Should the Government intervene in land use flexibility?  In some special cases yes.  Pukekohe volcanic soils are so unique, well-located and productive at growing vegetables that it makes sense to build houses somewhere else.  But forestry vs. dry stock farming – really?  What are we seeking to protect and at what cost to NZ Inc.?

The reference in press releases to protecting our “highly productive” farmland is interesting.  How is this “productivity” defined and assessed?  We have, over the past year, published and widely shared publicly accessible data that clearly illustrates that plantation forestry eclipses dry stock farming in average ROI, earnings per ha, export earnings per ha and employment per ha once off-site processing is taken into account.  There may be other measures of “productivity” but you get the picture.

For example the per hectare employment level for forestry is greater than in the red meat sector.  The forestry and wood processing sector employees 35,000 people in communities all over the country, the Red meat sector in the order of 65,000 people.  But forestry uses only one fifth of the land area used for the red meat sector.

Our land is New Zealand’s most significant natural capital by far.  Allowing land use flexibility subject to environmental, social, and economic impacts is smart national economic management.  Allowing local councils to decide the best land use on a particular LUC of land is not.