Opinion: Forestry Minister Stuart Nash says he doesn't want to see large tracts of highly productive farmland converted into forestry.
Imagine driving from Cape Reinga to Bluff surrounded, on much of your journey, by towering native trees where indigenous forests haven't existed for 1000 years.
It's not out of the realms of possibility if we come to understand and appreciate the value of native forests as the cornerstone of conservation, guardians of ecological diversity – and sequesters of carbon.
A thousand years ago more than 80 per cent of New Zealand was forested.
However, within 200 years of the arrival of the first humans, around 40 per cent of the forest had been burnt; and by 1840, some 6.7 million hectares of forest had been destroyed.
When the second wave of humans arrived, the rate of destruction increased exponentially; between 1840 and 2000, another 8 million hectares were cleared for farms and cropping.
New Zealand has 10.1 million hectares of forests, covering 38 per cent of our land. Eight million hectares is native forest and 2.1 million hectares is plantation forests.
Of the plantation forest, 1.7 million hectares is productive and the remainder is in reserves or unplanted areas near water and infrastructure.
To put this into perspective, around 50 per cent of New Zealand's total land area, or 13.5 million hectares, is in farmland.
In 2022, forestry – and in particular carbon farming in the form of permanent radiata forests – is now perceived by some in our rural communities to be a threat to the traditional farming way of life.
Research undertaken by BakerAg, on behalf of Beef + Lamb NZ, showed approximately 26,000 hectares of farmland sold since 2017 was to forestry and carbon interests. This equates to just under 0.2 per cent of the total area farmed.
This aside though, the threat is actually real.
The price of carbon has more than doubled in 12 months; from $30 a year ago to over $65 per tonne of emissions now. It is likely the price of carbon will continue to increase as demand for carbon credits outstrips supply.
This makes growing forests, rather than raising sheep and beef, more attractive to many local and overseas investors.
This is where the government wants to ensure we promote long term primary sector sustainability by ensuring the right tree is planted in the right space.
First and foremost, it is not the role of government to tell farmers who they can and cannot sell their farms to, especially if the prospective purchaser is a New Zealander.
As a long time East Coast farmer, Graeme Williams said in the Gisborne Herald on January 14, "I would have sold my farm to carbon if they had been the top bidders, as business is business".
Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Stuart Nash on The Country below:
Williams did agree, however, that government policy has a role in curbing the rising number of farms sold to carbon farmers.
He is right. That is exactly what the NZ Forest Service, the Treasury, Ministry for the Environment and Cabinet Ministers are working on this a top priority. We campaigned on a policy of "right tree right place".
There are four major pieces of work underway to help address Williams – and others' - concerns:
1. Review the process that overseas investors undertake when purchasing farms to convert to forestry.
2. Test the premise that only native forestry should be allowed into the Permanent Forest Category of the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) that comes into force on 1st January 2023;
3. Better determine the sequestration rates of certain native species to better calculate their carbon returns, and thus make carbon farming of native trees more financially attractive.
4. Changes to the National Environmental Standard on Plantation Forestry to give local councils the right to plan where trees should and should not be planted.
This work does take time due to the requirement to consult widely and the potential legislative changes, but is necessary, to ensure the right tree is actually planted for the right reasons in the right place.
It is worth expanding on the Permanent Forest category of the ETS.
The NZ Forest Service has identified around 1.2 million hectares of land that is both uneconomic for farming and for plantation (as opposed to permanent) forestry due to geographic, ecological or conservation reasons.
I believe that land planted under the permanent forest category should be planted in native trees only.
Even though radiata sequesters more carbon per hectare, the reason for a native-only policy is powerful: Radiata pine has a lifespan of around 100 years.
If, for example, 100,000 hectares of degraded East Coast land is planted in permanent exotic forests over the next 10 years, future generations could well be left with a terrible environmental legacy, as large tracts of forest begin to die off as they reach the end of their biological lives.
Mixed species native forests do not carry the same environmental or ecological risk. Nor do mixed species native forests carry the same forest health risk as monoculture left to grow untended.
The NZ Forest Service has identified another 1.2 million hectares of land that is marginal-at-best for agricultural purposes, but suitable for production forestry.
This land should be planted in radiata or Douglas fir or redwood, or other production species, as these have the greatest returns.
Growing numbers of farmers are actually combining production forestry with farming, thereby balancing their portfolio, spreading risk and optimising land use.
I am determined to get this right. I do not want to see large tracts of highly productive farmland converted into forestry of any description. I don't think anyone does, hence the urgency of the work under way.
There is an old Chinese proverb "the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now". There is no time to waste.