Comment: seeing trees for the wood

One Billion Trees overview.
One Billion Trees. This handy infographic shows what's involved to achieve the ambitious goal.

The forestry sector is fired up with discussion about how to meet the Government’s One Billion Trees planting initiative. Partnering with red meat farmers to help them achieve what they want to achieve with trees in their businesses will be important to persuade any change of land-use, those attending a recent conference heard.

Delegates from throughout the forestry sector were in Wellington last month at ForestWood 2018 (21 March), a pan-sector conference drawing people from forestry companies to wood and paper manufacturers.

One Billion Trees (OBT) is not only aimed at meeting New Zealand’s climate change commitments made in the signing of the Paris Agreement, it is also a way of making some Māori land more productive and bringing jobs and prosperity to New Zealand’s regional economies, explained the new Minister of Forestry and Regional Development the Hon Shane Jones. The ambitious plan promises to be transformative, both for New Zealand and the forestry sector.

A new Cabinet Paper is being drawn up by the Ministry for Primary Industries for the new forest agency looking at all the elements for the expansion of the forestry sector, while meeting the expectations of foreign direct investors. The red meat sector will be giving input to its development.

The conference, facilitated by Dr Scott Champion, considered where one billion trees are going to actually go. While there will be increased plantings on existing forestry plantations and on Crown Land, government needs to look elsewhere for planting opportunities and its eyes are on Department of Conservation (DOC) land and private landholders, specifically Māori and pastoral farmers.

The Department of Conservation’s focus is on planting for landscape restoration and fresh water, not strictly on tree planting, though there is plenty of work going on with local volunteer groups. Getting the right tree planted in the right place for pest control and restoration of forest and fresh water is a key aim for the government agency.

New Zealand’s largest freehold forest landlords, Māori iwi and hapu, need to be convinced that trees make sense for them again. For iwi, this could be a difficult task given those on post-1989 land’s still have a strong sense of injustice following their experience with forestry leases. Totiu Te Waonui director Kim von Lanthen gave an excellent roundup of the situation and postulated around 500,000 ha – enough ha to meet the billion tree target by itself – could possibly be usefully brought back into forestry raising GDP and returns for iwi, and possible remedies.

Pastoral farming’s perspective was in the hands of Federated Farmers vice-president, Andrew Hoggard. He outlined his organisation’s work on climate adaptation had established an average of around six percent of a sheep and beef farm’s total land area could be used for carbon sequestration with minimal impact on farm production at the rate of around 300 trees per hectare. In comparison, a pine plantation plants about 1,000 stems a hectare and thins to about 600. Totalling a potential 559,680ha, again, the land area would be more than enough to meet the OBT target on its own. For dairy, around 15 trees per hectare was viewed as a good figure, he suggested.

Hoggard was right in saying forestry needs to change the dialogue from being a threat to farmers’ productive land to partnering with them to achieve what they need for their farm businesses. Trees are needed on-farm: for shade/shelter and boundary fences; climate change carbon capture; biosecurity “to stop noses going through fences and licking each other,”; biodiversity; erosion control, water quality; and, finally, firewood.

Helping farmers with these, tree management issues and showing how farm businesses can make more money from tree crops on their less productive land, without affecting their core farm business, will be important to persuade them to change land-use, alongside easily accessible information about what tree species is suitable for their conditions, he suggested.

There was some debate over native versus the choice of ‘exotic’ tree crops. It was noted the use of native trees is very important to Māori, and also to a lesser extent to DOC supporters and farmers, but these are slow growing and so sequester carbon more slowly. There is a place for the faster growing exotic trees in the mix, such as pinus radiata or poplars for erosion control or drought feed. Co-planting species might be an option, it was acknowledged.

It was also suggested, in later discussion, that reinstating farmers’ ability to harvest a native tree occasionally to help future generations get kids through university or into a house or the farm would be a nice gesture towards changing dialogue.

Hoggard also made the point that New Zealand is one of the best food producers in the world at low carbon cost.

“To me, it makes little sense to grow trees here for climate change if it comes at the expense of food. While it makes awesome sense if it adds to your business and makes your farm more productive … it makes more sense to take food production out of hands of the worst producers around the globe and plant trees there, rather than New Zealand,” he said.

So, not all trees are dead wood. Some red meat farm owners, like Pāmu Farms of NZ (Landcorp), are already adding forestry to their business mix, but those who are considering it can find out more at the MPI website.  Financial assistance with establishing plantations is available via the Afforestation Grant Scheme, or other grants for erosion control and hill country erosion.

Winter tree planting will potentially provide employment for workers in the regions, including off-season meat workers. It remains to be seen, however, how forestry’s drive to encourage workers into that sector, from plantation work through to further processing, will impact on this sector’s own current drive to attract well qualified people.

For more information and presentations from ForestWood 2018, click here


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