3 Aug 2023

Government's Tai Rāwhiti and Wairoa forestry plan 'too little too late'

8:00 pm on 3 August 2023
In Tairāwhiti, farmers near Tolaga Bay saw forestry slash and land damage from winds and heavy rain as a result of Cyclone Gabrielle.

Farmers near Tolaga Bay saw forestry slash and land damage from winds and heavy rain as a result of Cyclone Gabrielle. Photo: Supplied / Bridget Parker

The government's plan to shake up forestry in Tai Rāwhiti and Wairoa has been met with frustration and disappointment by locals, with some members of the public meeting storming out in protest.

Forestry Minister Peeni Henare announced a four-step action plan in Gisborne on Thursday morning, which included an immediate ramping up of efforts to clear woody debris.

But the rest of the initiatives were less solid: Support for Gisborne District Council on land use management, improved national guidance on forestry management, two new roles to strengthen regional partnerships.

It comes two months after a report Outrage to Optimism was published off the back of an independent review commissioned by the government into land-use in Tai Rāwhiti and Wairoa.

After slash and silt devastated the coast during Cyclones Hale and Gabrielle, it was clear something needed to change.

But on hearing the government's plan, locals accused them of kicking the can down the road.

Forestry Minister Peeni Henare announced a four-step Tai Rāwhiti and Wairoa action plan in Gisborne on 3 August, 2023.

Forestry Minister Peeni Henare speaks to a local at the forestry public meeting in Gisborne. Photo: RNZ / Kate Green

Local man John Kape said it contained no substantive measures to address soil erosion, despite this being pinpointed as a key concern for the region in the report.

"There's a lack of detail," Kape said. "There's a welcome measure around a resource management facilitator, but we're expected to wait for a couple of years while the planning process is gone through.

"It looks like the government has kicked the issue out of the election cycle."

Kape said it felt like the minister had completely dodged the issue of clear-felling on erodable land - something the independent inquiry panel called for an immediate halt to.

The inquiry also identified urgent and sweeping implications for mana whenua, going so far as to say Ngāti Porou was at risk of becoming homeless and landless if nothing changed.

Ngāti Porou spokesperson Hilton Collier said he, too, would have liked to see the government take a stronger stance.

"Especially those elements around mana whenua involvement, because ultimately, mana whenua will be here in 100 years, so I'm pretty confident my great-grandchildren will live with decisions we make today."

The government's action plan included a new facilitator role, to build partnerships between the government and the forestry industry, landowners and Māori.

Anaura Bay local Hera Ngata, of Te Aitanga a Hauiti, said they must represent a local voice.

She said for many, it was "too little too late," and the announcement was "too light" on detail.

Her iwi was yet to even be consulted, she said, and they wanted meaningful engagement with the government - not just a one-off conversation.

The most tangible part of the action plan was the news that the removal of woody debris would be given immediate priority.

While that was welcome news to many, iwi researcher and Uawa local Tui Warmenhoven said slash and silt were not her biggest concern - she was looking long- term.

"What I'm worried about is the next event," she said. "No planting, no real measures taking place to ensure we don't lose more land, and the deluge that happens."

Forestry Minister Peeni Henare announced a four-step Tai Rāwhiti and Wairoa action plan in Gisborne on 3 August, 2023.

People at a Tai Rāwhiti and Wairoa forestry public meeting. Photo: RNZ / Kate Green

And the mood was ripe for change.

"There's only a small cohort that wants to continue to do the things that they've always done, that have created this catastrophe, this wicked, wicked problem that we are trying to deal with."

East Coast Exchange project lead Renee Raroa agreed that the government's four key actions were underwhelming.

"I think a lot of people will be quite hurt that the hope that we felt come through the inquiry, feels like in this statement, we've backtracked."

She said there were no answers to the question of how the work would be resourced, and the plan made no mention of the restoration of native bush, which the science told us could improve ground stability and reduce erosion - and therefore, cut down silt.

When challenged on it during the meeting, the minister prompted walkouts and cries of disagreement from the audience when he said native bush cover was not an appropriate blanket solution to the problem of erosion.

Raroa said the outrage was understandable.

"That really riled people up, because we know that's our land-use history, and we know and we have wisdoms that teach us how to live in harmony with our forest system covers that we can reclaim, and we are talking about a mosaic of land use, but to be told that it's not suitable for us, and the soils aren't right for that, is quite heartbreaking."

With the election approaching, people said they were not sure if these plans would even get a chance to eventuate.

Henare said things were already changing, for example, decisions about road repairs and how to fund them. Some things, though, would take longer to make sure everyone was consulted, and the right solutions found.

Much of the work around land-use would come as part of existing workstreams, like the reworking of the Resource Management Act (RMA) and the National Environmental Standards for Plantation Forestry (NES-PF), he said.

In a statement Environment Minister David Parker said: "Responsibility for more active controls on forestry harvesting in the region rests with the Gisborne District Council, through specific measures in its regional plan that it is now updating".

Henare and Parker were expected to report to Cabinet by the end of the year on the plan's progress.

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