Forest owners: pines are “organic superglue” against climate change.
In this opinion piece, Don Carson, communications manager at the New Zealand Forest Owners Association, says more trees are needed to protect the vulnerable soils of Tairāwhiti – andland use solutions shouldn’t be delivered by Wellington alone.
Climate change is attacking trees – our frontline defence against its perils.
In many places overseas, climate change has created a vicious cycle: tinder-dry conditions have generated forest fires, which release carbon from the trees, thus making the climate hotter, to in turn burn more trees.
In Aotearoa New Zealand, the wet side of climate change is attacking trees differently, washing them out. A warmer atmosphere causes more storms and carries more moisture. On top of the sodden landscape brought on by Cyclone Hale less than a month before, Cyclone Gabrielle poured more than 700 mm into the rain gauges in back country Tairāwhiti in just one day.
A tsunami of rainwater tore out and carried all before it. Satellite images reveal stark wounds where instant waterfalls sluiced pastures off farming slopes in avalanches of sediment not seen since Cyclone Bola in 1988.
In some production pine forests, where no harvesting had taken place for years, the slopes still gave way. Native trees too, which in the past would have been old and secure enough to withstand the worst weather, succumbed and were driven downstream.
Climate change is causing extreme weather. There will be more rain, but also more dry periods. NIWA climate projections are that Tairāwhiti and Northern Hawke’s Bay will lead the North Island into more droughts. An already notoriously summer-dry countryside will get worse and make it harder to farm sheep and beef and its touted replacement – native tree afforestation.
We usually expect nature to work for us. Occasionally we’re reminded that it doesn’t. Gabrielle was a horrendous and widespread reminder, with lives lost and dreams shattered.
The lesson of Bola was to pull back farming and plant pine forests to re-stabilise the landscape pioneer European settlers deforested more than 100 years ago.
The lesson of Gabrielle for the region will undoubtedly be to plant even more trees. They are the organic superglue needed to hold back water and keep soil on the slopes.
Pines are best at growing quickly, and the easiest, quick-carbon volume storers. Without growing more of them, we have no hope of reaching our greenhouse gas emission targets.
The fact is they already re-absorb most of the carbon dioxide which Aotearoa New Zealand’s industry and transport emit. They also work as a sheltering transition for indigenous trees and ecosystems to evolve.
In Tairāwhiti, forest companies have substantial firefighting capacity to protect those forest assets. Similar fire protection would need to be extended to new native forests, along with ongoing and expensive pest and weed control.
Equally though, pine foresters must learn the lesson of increased weather fragility by not trying to harvest those trees where unstable soils conspire to make the operation too risky. Even with extensive forest engineering and management improvements over the past five years, what used to be safe practice is not protective enough against new intensities of rainfall.
Economic abandonment of the livelihoods of 60,000 people in the region can’t b contemplated. The current ministerial inquiry into land use in Tairāwhiti will look to other options, most probably ways to use the wood which is currently wasted.
This will be the challenge, to turn wood into energy or even bio-products, as close to its source as possible to minimise transport costs.
Undoubtedly the world is turning to using a lot more wood in a bio-economy to ward off climate change. Timber construction to replace carbon-emitting concrete and steel is expanding rapidly. Add to that the development of petrochemical-substituting wood-based materials for other day-to-day uses.
For any of this to work for Tairāwhiti, there remains a vital ingredient. The solutions to controlling erosion, without destroying the local economy, can’t just be delivered by Wellington.
Only the locals know the region and its foibles and how to breathe life into its possibilities. It is their enthusiasm, investment and imagination which can transform Tairāwhiti faster than climate change can try to tear it down.