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Trees pledge requires new vision

Opinion Piece

Given this country’s need for more trees, whether natives or exotics, the new Government’s pledge to supercharge tree cultivation is commendable. A billion by the end of a decade! Credible, or fanciful? OK, it’s a notional figure, and no one’s going to keep count, but a worthy cause will be discredited if seen as unrealistic. Surely, though, we want this to work.

Ninety percent of our forestry estate is of the productive radiata pine and it seems that the dominant species for this programme is radiata — new Forestry Minister Shane Jones has a symbolic potted pine seedling in his office. But little has been said as to the range of species, and their management.

A 100,000 hectares is targeted for planting annually, with much of it private land. How will landowners be induced to plant these trees? Will there be enough skilled and motivated labour available for planting and silviculture?

Radiata makes a great contribution to our economy and soil conservation, but there are downsides. Logging can be an environmentally traumatic exercise. Further, wide-scale blanket afforestation of contiguous properties has negative social consequences. Districts are deserted of landowning residents and their permanent staff, with their schools, services and security.

No doubt natives will also be part of the plan. Such regimes involve high numbers per hectare; far more, actually, than productive forestry. Still, as valued emotionally as they are, they are not economically productive. Establishment is costly, with the need for follow-up weed control, and who will pay land ownership costs of capital servicing, rates, etc?

I believe that the approach should be to look first at the land resource, and work back from there by determining how trees can be matched to it. So the trees accommodate the land, not the land accommodating a billion trees. The objective should be to minimise loss of current productivity patterns — maybe even enhancement them — rather than committing to a lofty figure conjured up for politics.

There will be a place for blanket plantings of natives, and of productive exotics — pines, eucalypts, redwoods, douglas fir, or whatever. But we need to approach this cause with the widest vision and imagination that will excite the community, for soil, water and atmospheric health is our collective responsibility.

One of the opportunities we need to develop is silvopastoral, where timber production can overlay productive pasture by cultivating that extraordinary genus poplar. We’ve been planting poplars for soil conservation over pastureland for decades, but to be widely accepted we need to capitalise economically on its cultivation. This means management of the tree (long-since accepted with pine), and market exploitation (poplar is a major timber globally).

For too long we have been, quite literally, sticking poplar poles in the ground and thereafter forgetting about them. If we do not control them — we aren’t — they’ll control us (they will). This, of course, can apply to all trees.

To bequeath to future landowners a landscape of massive, worthless trees increasingly impeding livestock production is visionless and immoral. Through silvopastoralism we can increase our forestry estate substantially with the meshing of economic and environmental benefits — and of wood with livestock production.

But let’s not stop there. Consider the opportunities for inspired amenity and recreational plantings through town and country. The benefits are exciting and lasting but, in terms of adding to the magic billion trees target, the contribution will be minimal.

¦ Ewan McGregor is a former deputy chairman of the HB Regional Council and the recipient of a number of forestry and environmental awards.