The reservations, or perhaps we should say open opposition, expressed about the billion trees programme in the Chronicle (June 14) probably does express the opinion of many rural inhabitants.
However, some of us think there is a real danger of throwing a potentially very vigorous baby out with the bath water. So, not for the first time, I'll stick my head above the parapets and say I think there is a strong case for the billion trees, and even more, on our sheep and beef country.
But I also believe that it needs to be done with care and sensible planning, and that depends on the actions, including sale habits, of existing land owners.
First, I will agree with the majority in saying I am not a fan of the permanent, boundary to boundary carbon sink forests. However there is space for such permanent sinks on land unsuited for commercial use, be it forestry or pastoral, and for environmental or economic reasons.
Basically this is already identified as the red zone land under the National Environmental Standard for Plantation Forestry. This classification seldom, if ever, applies to whole properties, rather it is the most fragile land forms distributed through our landscapes and mostly needs permanent, woody, vegetative cover to avoid serious erosion.
Nor do I believe there should be, or perceived to be, any favours for foreign investment in forestry ahead of other investments. And I do believe that livestock farmers should be able to offset their methane emissions with trees as recommended by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.
But I also believe that forestry integrated with other land uses can produce very positive economic and environmental returns for landowners. I also strongly favour production forestry rather than permanent sinks, noting that the IPCC in its fourth assessment unambiguously supported production forestry as a more effective way of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions. Wood can be a very useful substitute for fossil fuels.
Some points I see as relevant:
1. Forestry is a better, much better, earner of export dollars than sheep and beef farming. According to StatsNZ in the period 2011-15 our 1.7 million hectares of production forestry earned the country, on average, $4.747 billion/year, or $2819/ha/year. Our 5.4 million hectares of sheep and beef pasture land, earned, on average, $7.033 billion, (meat, wool and hides), or $1470/ha/year. Forestry has outperformed sheep and beef farming as an export earner at least since the 1960s
2. Not all farm woodlot harvests come out sunny side up but the recent NZFFA conference revealed many satisfied growers reporting forestry returns four to five times sheep and beef returns on class V, VI and VII land. I have achieved $40,000 to $50,000/ha for 28-year-old trees on class VI/VII sand dunes, but that looks pretty meek beside $60,000 to $70,000/ha returns in the Bay of Plenty. Admittedly, on more difficult hauler country and where access is a problem you do need scale.
3. Put these first two points together and I suggest that forestry doesn't necessarily deserve the poorer land, it's just that it doesn't need the better land. The Horizons Sustainable Land Use Initiative (SLUI) programme can give you good advice on an appropriate planting programme for your property.
4. Should all food production take priority over forestry? Well NZ hill country does not feed the hungry hordes in the way arable land does. Rather in the words of former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Morgan Williams, we "pleasure the palates of the prosperous". Taking 10-20 per cent of our poorer hill country out of food production won't be what the Paris Accord signatories had in mind.
5. People are, understandably, worried about further depopulation of rural areas with the rise of forestry, but the main driver of depopulation in recent decades has been the steady amalgamation of farms and the rise of rural commuters. The employment figures being quoted for forestry and farming employment are very suspect. The last academic study by Fairweather et al. around 2000 concluded there wasn't much difference, though figures varied round the country. Anyway, we don't need to run our forestry according to the corporate model. In my experience well managed, pruned and thinned woodlots (my recommendation because it provides more options at harvest), are definitely more labour intensive than sheep and beef. I have employed people only because of the tree work and forestry has paid the wages. Today you can use government subsidies and/or carbon to pay the wages. Perhaps all sheep and beef trainees should learn how to use planting spades, pruning loppers and chainsaws to bolster employment opportunities.
6. If a monoculture of radiata pine bores, or even repels you, rest assured that there are numerous other production species with proven performance and excellent timbers that farm foresters are growing around the country. There is certainly demand for alternative timbers though the necessary processing and marketing infrastructure is under-developed. I think we could justify some government assistance here — a small version of radiata's support in the 50s and 60s.
7. My final suggestion is that if you want to keep the forestry corporates and carbon foresters at bay, get out and plant trees. They want bare land, not a mass of woodlots. My property with 40 different woodlots of different species, age, silviculture, etc, may be more a mess of woodlots, but would certainly scare them away.
So grab the opportunity. It's never been easier to add an extra commercial string to your bow.