The powerful forestry lobby was marshalling its forces well ahead of the Government’s announcement there would be a ministerial inquiry into destructive forestry debris - but for storm-battered East Coasters, the Beehive is very late to something they’ve known for years.
For them, plantation forestry has not just lost its social licence – its waste has become a lethal weapon that regularly blitzes their homes, land, livelihoods and infrastructure, then drains their pockets to pay for clean-ups.
The fact that forestry is a cornerstone of the Tairāwhiti-Gisborne economy becomes a tired old song when a child dies playing in logs on your beach, your community is cut off by a broken bridge, your property looks like a war zone and you have no power or phone for days.
While local forestry companies – several of them foreign-owned – argue the debris issue is “complex”, that they’re victims of poor decisions about planting on fragile soils, made and incentivised by governments decades ago, and climate change is the real culprit, recent photos and videos of carnage-by-wood are impossible to misinterpret.
It was Cyclone Gabrielle this month that jolted the Beehive into action. But it was Cyclone Hale in January that pushed residents to publicly revolt against the now regular event of forestry logs and waste hurtling in a rolling maul down crumbling hillsides, borne by flood waters, to scour the land and riverbanks, smash bridges, roads, private property and desecrate their beaches.
Before Hale there was the 2018 storm that cost the region $10 million in damage and resulted in a swag of prosecutions of forestry companies for breaches of their resource consents, and before that cyclones Bola and Bernie.
Professor Dame Anne Salmond, environmentalist, academic anthropologist and local resident, says it’s gone beyond local forestry losing its social licence.
“It’s now about economic licence because of the scale of the damage. Reports coming in now are of the destruction of entire communities.
“From East Cape right down to Hawke’s Bay, the scale of the damage is unbelievable. In [Hawke’s Bay] the Esk Valley people talked about logs hitting the walls of houses and bridges.”
Salmond wants people to understand just how many whole logs make up forestry slash.
Bridges all over the East Coast were destroyed by logs, she says, and it was logs that took out the Hikuwai Bridge between Tolaga Bay and Gisborne, cutting off Gisborne. Doubters only need to look at images of Coast beaches, she says.
“They’re all cut logs. People say this is a viable industry but is it?
“I think there will be class actions [collective legal actions] come out of this - just because of the sheer scale of loss of property and life,” says Salmond, principal investigator in the Marsden Fund river research project, Let the River Speak.
Not only do East Coast-Tairāwhiti ratepayers have to pick up much of the cost of clean-ups, but taxpayers are also hit by the cost of restoring public infrastructure such as bridges, which often carry power and telecommunications across rivers, she says.
“If you were an individual and you took a bulldozer onto a property and destroyed their crops, knocked down their house and put lives at risk, you’d be in jail. And this is happening to hundreds of people, maybe thousands. This is not an Act of God, it’s an act of companies that put profit before environmental responsibility.”
For Salmond and fellow critics, it’s the industry’s (perfectly legal) practice of clear-felling - harvesting thousands of trees at once over large areas - that needs to be stopped. They say native, long-lived trees should be planted on the region’s highly erosion-prone soils, not short-lived, shallow-rooted pinus radiata.
Not so fast, say foresters.
In Gisborne, they say, the industry provides more than 1000 full-time equivalent jobs. It is the largest GDP contributor to the East Coast economy, with forestry exports through the local port valued at $438m in the 2020 financial year.
Even critics of slash don’t deny the industry’s economic importance.
Manu Caddie, a Ruatoria resident and co-organiser of a major residents’ petition this year calling for an inquiry into land use in Tairāwhiti, says there has been a lot of support for pine plantation forestry from regional leaders over many decades in recognition of its economic and environmental benefits. But he echoes Salmond’s concern in noting that the “horrific” woody debris that has destroyed bridges and communities includes whole logs, not just “slash offcuts”.
Caddie says the industry “knows it has lost its social licence and will soon lose its legal licence to clear-fell harvest trees on erosion-prone land…which is 88 per cent of all land in the region”.
But he agrees with foresters that the slash issue is “complex” with several drivers at play – “it comes down to our communities needing sustainable jobs and erosion control”.
“The facts are clear – it’s not just about removing slash and unwanted logs from hillsides. Clearing the land for pasture initially and now for logs is inconsistent with soil conservation.”
The Eastland Wood Council (EWC), which represents 80 per cent of production forestry in the region, says the industry’s foundations were laid long before climate change was heard of. And no one expected the volumes of wood that entered the harvesting system after mass government planting dating back to the 1960s in a soil conservation effort. These plantings used old techniques in an effort to counter severe pasture erosion, which resulted in sheep stations being abandoned or sold. More plantings were made after the 1988 Cyclone Bola.
EWC chief executive Philip Hope says that under several industry changes after Bola, old techniques such as planting on waterways and on steep slopes no longer happen.
In another twist of history, while these plantations were originally established as conservation forests, in the free-market frenzy of Rogernomics in the 1980s and early 90s, they were sold to commercial forestry companies as harvestable.
EWC’s Hope says Tairāwhiti needs more trees, not fewer of them. He says the estimated volume of erosion in the region is 40 million tonnes per year. Based on Landcare estimates, the value of that soil loss amounts to many millions of dollars.
But Caddie believes the pine plantation and harvesting industry in Tairāwhiti “is on its way out, or certainly will be reduced in scale very significantly” as rules tighten.
He notes, however, that the erosion issue isn’t just about forestry. “Many of my neighbours have a metre or more of sediment sitting on their property as a result of successive weather events.”
Those events continue to scour soil from hillsides, into waterways and onto flood plains, and the problem gets worse, says Caddie, every time it rains. This is because stream and river beds are rising from more sediment and rocks being deposited as more hillsides erode.
Environmental Defence Society (EDS) chief executive Gary Taylor wryly notes that the new Minister of Forestry, Stuart Nash, is also the Minister for Oceans and Fisheries. “Of course, it’s the marine environment where all this crap ends up.”
Taylor says the damage to marine life from slash is “appalling”. The EDS is currently litigating an Environment Court case against clear-fell harvesting in Pelorus Sound, at the top of the South Island, arguing it is “unlawfully permitted”.
Asked why logs are in the flood debris, a Forest Owners’ Association spokesperson said it had been “standard practice” to remove non-harvest big logs to landings.
“But frequently they would be left on site to safely rot back into the soil. What appears to have happened with Gabrielle is that even with the heavy rain, the logs themselves didn’t shift, but the land they were on couldn’t handle the water flow and slipped and took the logs with them.
“We acknowledge the weather has now changed, especially on the East Coast, and rainfall of this volume and intensity will now happen and slopes will fail no matter what.
“So we have to do better to get these logs and slash off vulnerable land from now on, reduce the proportion of broken logs at harvest and get effective barriers established, such as more riparian planting, to stop mobilised slash getting into waterways.”
Sounds good, but the language of the industry remains defensive.
One industry insider told the Herald an inquiry that focused just on forestry waste was completely unacceptable. The sector meanwhile prefers to call any upcoming probe “a review of land use”.
Asked if forestry has lost its social licence, Neil Woods, chief executive of one of the region’s biggest companies, Aratu Forests, responded that the issue was “really complex” and that “a large portion of the community still rely on this as an income”.
(Local Federated Farmers leader Toby Williams doesn’t entirely buy the jobs defence. He notes that forestry employment is very seasonal and research shows other sectors such as education employ more people full-time.)
Aratu was among the companies prosecuted by the Gisborne District Council after the June 2018 storm. The council said large amounts of slash, forestry debris, logs and sediment from six forests had collapsed and damaged watercourses within and outside the forests.
“The storm also resulted in Tolaga Bay beach becoming inundated with forestry slash,” the council told the Herald. Aratu’s Te Marunga forest was fined $229,000 by the court, with reparation costs of $125,000 imposed for 83 collapsed skid (wood landing) sites and damage outside the forest, and to Tolaga Bay.
Woods, who had 100 workers out with machines in the clean-up when the Herald called, says he understands the public is upset - “probably more urban than rural”.
“We’ve done a lot of work in the last four years particularly to make things more resilient but some of this is just nature and landslides.”
But aren’t East Coast people entitled to be sick of this happening again and again?
“We’re all sick of it frankly but storms are more frequent and intense. Also, vast areas of farmland have slipped in a similar state to Bola. The silt from that doesn’t get measured as an output like logs. Logs are more visible so we face that as well.
“We take the brunt of it [criticism] but not all wood you see is from plantation forestry by any means. It’s hard on our people too.”
Woods said stopping clear-felling would not halt the movement of debris.
“It’s in the pipeline from practices in the past. Our infrastructure has been remarkably resilient. We could [still] work within our forests but the slopes above roads have fallen onto roads.
“If there was a moratorium on harvesting, 200 people of ours would be out of work immediately and there would be flow-through to the trucking guys and then the port. And that’s just us.
“Harvesting can [still] be done but it’s got to be done differently perhaps, in recognition of how fragile these soils are. We’ve learned a lot since 2018 and now we have infrastructure which doesn’t fail, but we have this legacy.”
Woods says this year Aratu has been surprised to lose trees only 10-15 years old as “whole hillsides let go”.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if 50 per cent of what we are seeing is mobilisation of that material into waterways.”
The financial cost of losing such a crop was “huge”.
The EDS’ Taylor says the East Coast forestry sector is “explicitly” responsible for the damage from woody debris and sediment run-off. It was EDS which first called this year for an inquiry into forestry on the Coast.
Taylor claims it is a “low trust sector” given the number of prosecutions, and because its “commentary is still very defensive and can be misleading”.
“It doesn’t have a social licence for that reason. It is misleading to pretend the regulatory settings that apply to forestry are fit for purpose. Clearly, they are not.”
Those settings are the National Environmental Standards on Plantation forestry, which permit clear-felling on steep, erosion-prone land.
“Those practices were okay in the 1970s, but not any more because of climate change. The law allows them to do this. I say the law is an ass.
“It needs to be changed and brought up to date. They’re continuing to rely on the red letter of the law argument, but they know very well clear-felling has had its day on that land – and around the country. They’re not facing up to the changing circumstances.
“Forestry continues to get away with stuff because regulatory settings aren’t appropriate anymore.”
Taylor says the current review of the law is under way, but its scope and terms of reference are limited to addressing issues relating to permanent exotic carbon forest – not a review of clear-felling.
Otago-based Grant Dodson, president of the Forest Owners’ Association, says the $6 billion sector’s social licence “has certainly been under significant pressure”.
“There is no doubt, particularly on those red zone East Coast soils, that forestry has an issue with slash.
“The industry really needs to rethink how it goes about its business.”
While not as defensive as some in the industry, Dodson joins them in pointing a finger at farming.
“If you look at the massive silt flows in Hawke’s Bay, most of that has come from farmland. There’s a real need to look at land use on the Coast and we are all for a constructive inquiry that does that.”
Dodson doesn’t support a blanket ban on clear-felling.
“Certainly in very high-risk areas, I think we need to have a good think about it. [But] If you take half the trees out and leave the other half [of a forest] standing, and the whole slope gives way … it makes the problem a hell of a lot worse.
“Everything needs to be carefully assessed through a scientific lens on quite specific forests and specific slopes. It isn’t a simple question and answer.”
Federated Farmers’ Williams says forestry lost its social licence “a long time ago”.
“We’ve had improvements but we’ve been calling for improved harvesting practices. We know they’ve improved skid sites and replanting [areas]. But what hasn’t improved is the way they are harvesting and the volume of waste timber left on sites.
“There appears to be a desire by Wellington to plant the entire East Coast. We can’t.”
Salmond is among those extremely concerned about the independence of the East Coast inquiry.
“It shouldn’t be run by the Minister of Forestry because there are vested interests in there. The minister is accountable to the people of New Zealand, not the forestry companies.”
Forestry has formidable lobbying power and deep pockets, she says.
Like EDS’ Taylor, Salmond she says the inquiry must allow expert witnesses and cross-examination.
“Thousands of people are affected by this. It has to be investigated in a way that is completely impartial.”