27 Jan 2023

Forestry slash at beach: 'It is a terrible tragedy'

5:15 pm on 27 January 2023
Slash from the heavy rain in Gisbourne, June 2018.

Slash at a Gisborne beach after heavy rain in 2018. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The death of a child on a slash-covered beach could have been prevented, residents say, and the tragedy has reignited calls for action on forestry slash.

A 12-year-old boy died at Gisborne's Waikanae Beach on Wednesday evening.

Witnesses told local media the child had fallen off a floating log and was then hit by it while standing in the shallows.

Forestry debris, known as slash, washes through the region's waterways and then onto beaches following extreme weather events such as Cyclone Hale.

Read more: Forestry slash: what is the solution?

Nearly 9000 people had signed a petition demanding an independent inquiry into the rules on land use in Tairāwhiti "with a focus on activities (and lack of activity) contributing to erosion, sedimentation and woody debris deposits in waterways and the marine coastal environment".

The petition was presented to Gisborne District Council yesterday.

One of its organisers, Manu Caddie, told Morning Report the rules needed to be tightened urgently to keep forestry and farming from creating ecological damage and dangers that affect the community, and that would take action on several levels.

But in the short term: "We need council to be supporting individual property owners and residents to look at the next weather event - we've had houses taken out, we've had people die in flooded streams and roads regularly taken out, and we need to as communities look at what those risks are - there's immediate risk to property and to life that we need to be looking at."

"I think the whole community's feeling for the whānau and the friends of the poor boy. It is a terrible tragedy, it's affected the community. There was karakia last night at the beach."

Co-founder of Rua Bioscience, Manu Caddie.

Manu Caddie Photo: Supplied

"Looking at what can be done - council say they don't have the power to close the beaches in these situations, but when there's big flood events and they have to open the sewers to let the sewage into the streams they put signs around warning people not to swim.

"We think some signs like that, warning people: actually, it's really dangerous to be in the water with so much heavy debris floating around. You forget how powerful the surges are that can lift the heavy logs. So it's really sad, but there's some of those things that can be done in the community."

Change needed to come from a number of entities, Caddie said.

"The ministers have the power to ... look at who's responsible for what in these situations - there's the council, there's the industry and there's central government. We're ... keen for the council to review their rules around forestry harvesting in particular and land use in general."

The Mangatokerau Bridge on Tolaga Bay's Paroa Rd is littered with logs and debris.

The Mangatokerau Bridge on Tolaga Bay's Paroa Rd, littered with logs and debris earlier this month. Photo: Supplied/Linda Gough

Clean-up work was ongoing, two weeks after the damage caused by Cyclone Hale.

"The tractors and trucks have been busy on the beach and in the city clearing, as well as at Tolaga Bay. There's a lot of wood still coming in off the ocean in the Bay and in the rivers, but they've been working all week trying to clear it. They've been working very hard, but there's still heaps of wood on the beach."

Caddie said the region's economy was reliant on both farming and forestry, and groups petitioning for action on the environmental effects from those industries did not want those industries "shut down".

But: "At the moment the balance is tipped too far in favour of being able to do what you like where you want to do it, and some of that's going to need to change."

Actions taken needed to be enforceable and effective, he said.

"There's been court cases - the council's brought successful prosecutions against a number of companies for previous incursions in consent conditions, but clearly that doesn't seem to be working - the rules doesn't seem to be strict enough. So I think ... rather than more penalties on the companies who will do what they can, we need to make sure that the consents are strict enough and also monitored properly.

"The council say: 'Well, there's some responsibility for central government in setting the rules of what can happen in the industry'. Then there's also at a local level, what can be done there?

"Changing those rules takes some time. And the community's feeling like we don't have that time given we've had four major weather events in the last 12 months, these things are going to be continuing to happen more regularly and more severely. So we really need to get on top of that.

"One of the things that the council can do at the moment is work with the Environment Court, go to the Environment Court and get what's called an enforcement order to require the companies to remove slash off the hillsides, so that there's nothing left to be washed down at the next weather event, and we're keen to see that happen."

An inquiry needed to be led by central government, so it was independent of local interests, but made space for locals to have their say, Caddie said.

The Environmental Defence Society also called for an independent inquiry into exotic forest planting and harvest methods.

Society chief executive Gary Taylor said more slash in waterways was a major problem, but Tairāwhiti was not the only problematic area. The same practices could be seen in Nelson, Northland and the Coromandel Peninsula, he said.

Gisborne District Council said it was investigating where the debris came from, and it supported the call for an inquiry.

Contractors work to clear logs from as river along Paroa Rd north of Tolaga Bay.

Slash debris in a river in February last year, north of Tolaga Bay. Photo: Gisborne Hiabs / Justin Martin

Forest Owners' Association president Grant Dodson said the boy's death was a "huge tragedy", and the beach where he died was currently being cleaned up by one of the forestry companies, who were working their way down the beach.

"The slash on the beach as far as I'm aware, is roughly 50 percent forestry debris, some of it's old, some of it's new, and roughly 50 percent willows and other things that have come down the river from other plantings. So there's a real mix of stuff that's on these beaches, but that doesn't mean that forestry is shying away from fixing it - forestry is in there picking up everything."

The forestry industry supported an inquiry, but wanted it to look at wider resilience problems surrounding land use, not just their sector, Dodson said.

"Forestry fully supports an independent review of resilience and land use on the East Coast. We know we've had over 100 failures in the public roading network, we've had slips and washouts and slash coming down from the forestry, we've had huge amounts of sediment from farmland, power infrastructure's gone out - this is a significant resilience problem. "

Asked why forestry had not already cleaned up its act on slash when community alarm about the issue went back years, Dodson said weak soil geology was partly to blame for the problem.

"The East Coast unfortunately has some of the weakest soil geology in New Zealand, and in fact in the world. It was cleared of native forest last century, that should have never happened.

"It turned into sheep and beef farming - they were devastated in Cyclone Bernie and Cyclone Bowler in the 80s, there was a review then ... the area was substantially put into pine trees to try and stabilise the land. It held the land together for 30 years, but now it's being harvested. We're having other weather events with climate change, and now we're getting sediment.

"It turns out that 30 years ago, when a lot of that stuff was planted, some of it was the wrong species, some of it was in the wrong spot, but you've got a major resilience issue here of land that is crumbling into the sea. You can only make your forest so resilient when your whole hillside comes away.

Ultimately, Dodson agreed the slash was the responsibility of the owners of the land it came from. But the situation was difficult, he said: "This is not just a matter of forestry taking short-cuts, and therefore creating pollution, what you're seeing here is a place where there are higher standards."

National Environmental Standards for Plantation Forestry had been in place for five years, and: "It's working really well," Dodson said. Under those standards, the East Coast was a red zone, with additional criteria to meet.

But Dodson said asking whether East Coast land should be put into forestry at all was "a really valid question."

"There are certainly places, on the worst of that highly eroding soil there, where forestry's been put, where ... the forestry companies don't want this to happen - they don't want to be impacting their neighbours, they don't want to be losing their land and their tree crop into the sea, and they don't want to be having expensive clean up bills like they've got now.

"Everybody is doing their best, there's been huge efforts and huge money spent, and since 2018, when there was similar issues in Tolaga Bay ... forestry companies have really lifted their game, but ... you don't just go into the forest and clean it up over night, it's a 30 year rotation. It's alright to move slash up the hill away from the water course, but when the whole hill fails ... there's only so much resilience you can build in."

Forestry Minister Stuart Nash declined to appear on Morning Report, but released a statement.

Stuart Nash

Stuart Nash Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"I offer condolences to the family and community during this difficult time. I am unable to comment on the specifics of the situation as I understand it has been referred to the coroner.

"I am, however, open to an independent inquiry into land management practices on highly erodible soils in the Tairāwhiti district."

Nash said forestry companies in the region had been proactively trying to reduce the impact of their industry during heavy rain since 2018. This included retiring forestry blocks, better management of slash and rapid replanting.

He agreed the East Coast region had inherently greater risks than other areas, and said government was supporting the local council to understand and reduce the risks to the environment and economy through the forestry service.

The Ministry for the Environment had also begun a work program looking at the risks involved in forestry activities.

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