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Billion Trees backlash

Forestry Minister Shane Jones has defended the Government’s One Billion Trees policy in the face of mounting criticism from the rural sector, saying the rise of forestry shows that land use in New Zealand is “in transition”.

Increased tree planting has drawn flak in parts of the country, with pastoral land going into forestry, aided by what some see as overseas investment rules that favour forestry, making properties easier to sell to foreign interests while the rules around pastoral land remain tight.

Real Estate Institute of NZ rural spokesman Brian Peacocke in June said that overseas investment rules and other factors such as tighter credit conditions were making their presence felt in the rural sector.

“On the rural front, discontent smoulders strongly in a number of regions, fanned particularly by the ongoing emergence of evidence of sales of good pastoral land to forestry interests, this activity being aided and abetted by the Overseas Investment Office providing an environment conducive to investment from offshore interests,” he said.

This factor, coupled with compliance issues and an evident hardening of lending criteria from within the banking sector, was adding to a mood of widespread concern and caution within the rural sector.

Govt looking into investment patterns in forestryMr Jones told The NZ Herald that the Government was looking at investment patterns in forestry.

“We are monitoring the transactions that are going through the Overseas Investment Office because an allegation was made that we had incentivised investment in forestry, which would lead to whole farm conversions,” he said.

“What we are seeing, predominantly, is forestry interests trading with each other,” he said.

“It’s an area from the Wairarapa to Wairoa — certainly an area that we are watching carefully — but we have not seen anything profligate in terms of mountains of foreign capital pouring into that area.”

On other fronts, forestry is facing opposition from the farmer-funded Beef and Lamb New Zealand, which says large scale conversion of sheep and beef farms to forestry will have a significant negative impact on rural New Zealand.

A Beef and Lamb NZ-commissioned study of Wairoa showed forestry provided fewer jobs than sheep and beef farms.

In Wairoa, 8486 hectares of sheep and beef farmland had been, or was in the process of being, converted to forestry, Beef and Lamb said.

Beef and Lamb asked consultancy BakerAg to compare the economic and employment effects of the conversion of sheep and beef farms into forestry.

Its report said that if all the sheep and beef farms in Wairoa were converted to forestry, then Wairoa would see a net loss of nearly 700 local jobs and net $23.5 million less spent in the local economy when compared to blanket forestry — excluding harvest year.

“This report illustrates the huge risks of unintended consequences from poorly designed policy and emissions targets, which will incentivise a high level of afforestation and result in a devastating impact on rural communities,” Beef and Lamb said in a statement.

“The current targets for methane are excessive given the science on what is needed to limit warming, while at the same time there is unfettered access to offsets for fossil fuel emitters in the Zero Carbon Bill, despite fossil fuel consumption having to actually decrease,” it said.

“The net result is that it’s a real possibility that many districts like Wairoa across the country could see all their sheep and beef farms converted into forestry with disastrous consequences for the local community,” it said.

Forestry does provide some employment opportunities. These typically come in the final year of a pine plantation at harvest — usually the 30th year — and the nature of these jobs often sees them performed by crews who are based out of larger provincial centres rather than smaller rural towns.

Jones said forestry was important in helping New Zealand meet its international climate change obligations. By putting a price on greenhouse gases, the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) encouraged landowners to establish and manage forests in a way that increased carbon storage.

“The role that the ETS plays in the climate change mitigation strategy is actually bigger than just forestry because that is the primary incentive platform.

“The (One Billion Tree) grants are not driving cockies off the land. They are designed to keep cockies on their land.

“I wonder if the beef and lamb industry itself has now got to look at the farm forestry model so that they can keep their own members on the land.

“I have some sympathy for what they are saying but I do not believe that the One Billion Tree strategy has all of a sudden made this problem intolerable.”

New Zealand land use was in transition, he said.

“I’m in a political riddle. What do they want me to do? Should you need a resource consent to convert a farm to forestry? I’m quite allergic to regulation, philosophically. I am a great believer in property rights.

“At the end of the day, it’s individuals selling their farms and they are selling their farms for a land conversion strategy which is not exclusively trees, but more trees and less pasture land — certainly in the areas where the slopes and the country is precipitous.

“It’s contested space. I welcome their observations. I’ve got no drama with them serving these alternative narratives up. But on a deeper level, in the face of climate change and environmental expectations, land use is in transition.

“We want to see more trees, less erosion, and more permanent forest in those hill country areas that are no longer fit for farming.”

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