Large forestry companies say they will need more foreign workers if they are to hit the Government's goal of planting one billion trees in 10 years.
Regional Development Minister and NZ First MP Shane Jones planted the first of the trees today, starting the clock ticking on an ambitious scheme designed to create jobs, protect New Zealand's land, and reduce climate emissions.
Commercial operators are expected to plant half of the trees, and Jones said they had asked him to extend the seasonal workers scheme to give them a hand.
Jones, whose party campaigned on big immigration cuts, said the coalition Government did not want to depend on foreign labour to reach its goal.
"Some of the heavy-hitters in the forestry industry want to move straight to an extension of the RSE scheme and rely on Melanesian workers," he said.
"That's not the position of the Government at this stage. We are going to focus on bringing our own young people into the workforce."
The seasonal worker scheme is currently capped at 11,100, most of whom work in the horticulture and viticulture sectors. The cap has been lifted in each of the last four years.
Jones conceded that reaching the target would require an enormous increase in workers.
"We are going to have to train up battalions of labour. I personally am a supporter of the RSE scheme. But … as a Maori, I want to be judged not only on getting natives planted, but getting my native nephews working."
One of the other obstacles to reaching the target is uncertainty in the forestry sector about how much their trees will be worth under the Emissions Trading Scheme.
The trading scheme, which allows forestry and farmers to earn carbon credits through their carbon-absorbing trees, is being reviewed by the Government.
Climate Change Minister James Shaw said last week that he expected the review and any subsequent changes to be completed at the end of next year.
"I am working closely with James Shaw to bring greater certainty to carbon pricing," Jones said.
"Many landowners have told me once that is stabilised, they're more than capable of joining the fray to meet the one billion trees target."
The other half of the billion trees will be planted by the non-commercial sector – community organisations, the Department of Conservation and other Crown-led programmes.
Jones said he expected planting to ramp up to 100 million a year by 2020, and exceed that rate in the following years.
"I don't have a sliver of doubt that we'll hit our target come 10 years' time."
The first five trees – kōwhai, tōtara, kahikatea, puriri and matai - were planted at Manutuke Primary School in Tairawhiti, Gisborne.
The location was chosen because it is the first place in New Zealand to see the sun. But it is also the site of the worst erosion in New Zealand because of its poor soil quality and vulnerability to severe weather.
"The landscape is scarred on the East Coast," Jones said. "Unless we do something quite radical and re-clothe a lot of this erodible land it is going to continue to disappear into the Pacific".
A Ministry for the Environment report last week said that New Zealand was losing 192 million tonnes of soil a year.
Compared with the national mean rate of soil erosion - 720 tonnes per square kilometre per year - Gisborne's annual rate was 4844 tonnes per square kilometre.