The reaction to Juken NZ's announcement last week that it planned to spend many millions of dollars upgrading its triboard mill in Kaitaia was disappointing, albeit predictable.
The media almost unfailingly focused on the negative — the expectation that the upgrade would cost a so far unspecified number of jobs — and ignored the positive, that the mill will have a future.
The Northland Age knew that Juken was to make an announcement on Tuesday morning. It feared the worst, that the mill was to be closed. In fact it was what Mayor John Carter rightly described as great news for Kaitaia, the Far North and Northland. He was sorry that some jobs would be lost, but the bigger picture was a very positive one. Hear hear.
'In fact the Far North has very good reason to regard Juken NZ, or Juken Nissho as it was when it bought the plant and cutting rights from Northern Pulp in 1990, as an excellent corporate citizen.'
SHARE THIS QUOTE:
Perhaps there was never any real chance that the plant would be mothballed, at least while the wood supply lasts, given that the wood has to go somewhere.
Building a new processing plant would be expensive and no doubt problematic from a planning point of view, let alone raising the spectre of logging trucks travelling much greater distances on public roads than they already do, but the continued operation of the mill has never been a given.
The company's decision to invest heavily in upgrading it, thus restoring it to profitability, was the best news that the people who depend upon it for their livelihoods could have hoped for.
In fact the Far North has very good reason to regard Juken NZ, or Juken Nissho as it was when it bought the plant and cutting rights from Northern Pulp in 1990, as an excellent corporate citizen. It's in the business to make money, of course, but there was no guarantee that the very Far North would continue to benefit from a wood processing industry when Northern Pulp pulled the plug.
JNL's decision to buy the plant was properly celebrated as the salvation of the local economy, thanks in no small measure to to efforts made by former Mangonui County chairman and then the Far North's first Mayor, Millie Srhoj, and then local MP John Carter.
Over following years the mill survived a global collapse in the market for construction board, and a three-month strike over the negotiation of a new collective agreement.
That strike gave Kaitaia a small taste of what life would be like without the mill. Anyone who remembers it, and the fact that many people, and businesses, stopped paying their bills because they couldn't afford to, will be particularly pleased by last week's confirmation that the mill's future appears to be secure.
Juken's credentials as a good corporate citizen go beyond that though. The writer promised not to publish two stories that portrayed JNL in an especially good light, one of them arising from the collapse in the construction board market.
It will not publish them now; the promise is as binding as it was all those years ago. Suffice it to say, JNL wasn't the rapacious outfit some regarded it as.
There is no reason to believe that its philosophy has changed. It certainly didn't deserve last week's Facebook post 'That is disgusting! Profit over people in a town who can least afford it. Bloody DISGUSTED. THEY SHOULD NOT BE ABLE TO DO THIS.' Such tends to be the level of discussion on social media.
One suspects that the poster of that broadside has not considered the alternative to the loss of some jobs in the interests of restoring the mill to profitability.
Antipathy actually began rearing its head within months of Juken buying the plant, for reasons that the writer has never understood. Much of it was probably based on dislike of foreign ownership, regardless of who the owner might be, but that was not the prevailing mood when the mill was bought in 1990. JNL was hailed then as Kaitaia's saviour.
It still is, and last week's decision to invest in upgrading the plant should have been greeted with delight.
There is no natural law that says Kaitaia, and the Far North in general, must benefit economically from trees grown there. In fact much of the thanks for the fact that Juken's triboard and veneer mills continue to underpin Kaitaia's economy should probably go to whoever it was who for years resisted Millie Srhoj's pleas for the extension of the national railway network to the Far North.
The Northland Age argued then, and still does, that extending rail to Kaitaia would be the death knell for local processing of timber. The easier it was to cart logs to another site, probably Marsden Point, for processing, the less likely it was that processors would establish plants north of the region's port.
Mr Srhoj and the Age agreed to differ, but it seems safe to say that on this rare occasion, the man who was widely regarded as the Far North's greatest champion since Col Allen Bell was wrong.
The pity is that the Far North is not home to more wood processing than it is. This newspaper has always believed that distance from markets, and more importantly a port, was and is the best argument the industry would ever have for the establishment of processing in all manner of forms, to reduce the cost and difficulties of transporting logs for the benefits of others, elsewhere in New Zealand or overseas.
Large-scale processing, apart from Juken's triboard and veneer, has never been mooted, which at least spared the community the torturous planning process that would no doubt have been involved. Indeed, Northern Pulp did not find it easy to gain planning approval for its triboard mill.
It originally wanted to build the plant closer to Aupouri (now Te Hiku) Forest, in the Sweetwater/Lake Ngatu area, but that attracted staunch opposition on environmental grounds. It was finally agreed that it would be built on the outskirts of Kaitaia, a Kaitaia Borough councillor telling the writer years later that Northern Pulp had told the council that if that proposal wasn't approved it would walk away from the Kaitaia district altogether.
Once the mill was up and running, and after its purchase by Juken in 1990, it faced complaints from a number of residents, in its immediate vicinity and in Donald Rd, that they were being poisoned. That was never proved, but led to the establishment of a community liaison committee (which one assumes has been consigned to history) and the spending of substantial sums by Juken on purifying its emissions.
The biggest worry now is that the trees the mill needs will dry up. Juken said last week that production was severely constrained by inadequate and uncertain log supply in Northland, which was contributing to the substantial losses it was making. The company alone could do nothing about that, but was in "early but constructive discussions" with the government about the shortage and how it could be solved.
The 'wall of wood' that Northland was promised was coming many years ago did arrive, but might now be dwindling. The Far North, and the industry in general, has a good friend and ally in Minister of Forestry Shane Jones, who understands the importance of the industry, but correcting a shortage of wood will not be achieved overnight.
Perhaps those who know the importance of wood processing to the Far North should keep their fingers crossed for a little longer yet.