In parts of Tairāwhiti over the past weeks, it has at times been hard to see the floods for the trees.
Walls of wood have tumbled down deluged waterways once again as the hills disgorged incredible levels of lumber.
Authorities in Tairāwhiti declared a state of emergency after the district was hit by torrential rain from ex-cyclone Hale, which tracked south over the country last Wednesday. Yesterday, the rains returned to the already drenched East Coast.
As if the water and mud weren’t enough, pieces of trees have heaped mayhem on the misery. Linda Gough, who lives inland in Tolaga Bay, next to the Mangatokerau River, says a sea of logs is now where a river used to be, ruining her entire property.
“We can’t get out our driveway, our fences are gone, the gate’s gone, there’s not a paddock left - everything is covered in silt and logs. It’s just not fair and it wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t for the logs.”
Gisborne District Council has developed extensive policies and protocols around the forestry “slash” or the leftovers from culling trees. Despite this, the hills continue to discharge damaging debris.
Five companies were prosecuted by the council in the wake of two successive weather events in 2018 that unleashed an estimated 400,000 cubic metres of wood debris, damming rivers and swathing usually picturesque beaches, particularly Uawa/Tolaga Bay.
The companies admitted unlawfully discharging contaminants — sediment and waste wood — into waterways or on to land where it could reach water, and the penalties ranged between $124,700 and $379,500.
The Gisborne Herald reported Judge Brian Dwyer remarked on the need for fines to be a deterrent and “more than just the cost of doing business” but also criticised the council’s failure to properly monitor harvesting operations as “disgraceful”.
Forest Owners Association Grant Dodson told RNZ this week there was no easy solution. “These are highly erodible catchments and forestry was put in these catchments 30 to 40 years ago to try and stabilise them but they’re still eroding. All that can be done, has been done.”
The days of shrugging it off may, at last, be numbered under the proposed overhaul of New Zealand’s Resource Management system.
A Natural and Built Environment Bill before Parliament would increase fines for environmental offences by individuals from $300,000 to $1 million and raise fines for companies from $600,000 to $10 million.
As well as larger fines, powers of environmental enforcement agencies such as regional councils would also increase, as would the scope of orders courts could make against such offenders.
There would be additional fines of up to $10,000 for each day or part-day that offending continued.
Yes, landslips and diverted waterways may flush out forestry slash once thought stable but the cost to companies that have toiled the terrain may become such that leaving the slash to fate might become too expensive.
For the sake of the long-suffering people of Tairāwhiti, such as Linda Gough, let’s hope so.