Poor forestry practices mean the industry has lost its social licence to operate, and wide-scale forestry felling in Tai Rāwhiti and Wairoa should be stopped immediately, a report has found.
Ministers commissioned former National Cabinet Minister Hekia Parata to lead the report into forestry slash, woody debris and sediment in Tai Rāwhiti and Wairoa after Cyclone Gabrielle devastated those regions and others along the North Island's east coast. Other members of the panel include Matthew McCloy and Dave Brash.
Titled "Outrage to Optimism", the report warns of a perilous situation the government has five to 10 years to turn around, with Ngāti Porou at risk of becoming "homeless and landless".
"While we make findings and recommendations for both Districts, the urgency of the situation across Ngāti Porou is unassailable. An environmental disaster is unfolding in plain sight," the report's foreword says.
It found lives and livelihoods were put at risk by woody debris and sediment, much of it beyond the ability of the local community to clean up on its own. Current plans and regulations were too permissive, consents were ineffective, and monitoring was under-resourced.
State Highway 35 was underfunded and not regularly maintained, and systems meant the government was paying too much for large underperforming contracting companies tied up in procurement processes.
"Decades of underfunding from narrow investment criteria and reactive storm recovery has resulted in a range of 'band-aids' being applied to infrastructure that is already critically failing.
"The impact that has been inflicted upon the Tai Rāwhiti and Wairoa regions is profound. Economic, social and cultural recovery will take years. People reported increased anxiety and depression, fear and paranoia, and feeling overwhelmed, stressed and abandoned.
"Much of the current land use is unsustainable. The unintended consequences of successive government strategies and inadequate local authority intervention have arisen from a failure to recognise the complexity of the regions' well-known geomorphology and people.
"The ETS in its current form has created perverse land use outcomes and elements need to be reviewed."
It said overseas investments had contributed to poor land use and the debris problem, with land not protected enough by Gisborne District Council. The council had also "unilaterally decided not to collaborate with mana whenua", which the panel said was not a Treaty-based partnership in a district where over half the population are Māori.
Parata said the devastation and wider effects were "symptoms of system failure".
She said soil scientists had explained pastoral farming was responsible for over half of the sedimentation in the waterways, but it was possible to heal the gullies, including with better catchment management.
"We have five to 10 years for that to happen before it likely becomes irretrievable and the potential for wide-scale land collapse becomes real."
Over eight weeks, the panel viewed some of the devastation in person, and visited range of forest enterprises. They met with more about 500 people including in hui and community meetings, with local leaders, scientists, researchers, iwi, NZTA, forestry industry representatives and workers.
"We were accosted in the car park, on the street, and in cafes by numerous folk who had attended the gatherings, wished they had, or they didn't, but still wanted us to know how they felt."
Forestry Minister Peeni Henare and Environment Minister David Parker this morning thanked the panel for its "excellent work" in a short timeframe, noting there were 318 submissions.
They said they would promptly and carefully consider the report and announce decisions "as soon as possible".
Gisborne Council, mayor 'extremely disappointed'
Parata said the council had not been on top of its core business, being the provision of plans and regulations.
"Because that has been missing or discretions that should have been used within some of the national statements, we have seen a lot of the devastation that has occured around here."
"We clearly have some leadership and governance failures and we want all lleadership here to be united in a common vision in the common interests of the people of Tai Rāwhiti and of Wairoa."
She said the panel was recommending all resource management requirements at the council be taken over by a government-appointed commissioner.
"I would commend to the Gisborne District Council that they embrace this opportunity, they accept the help that is needed and that will allow the Gisborne District Council to focus on the range of other responsibilities that they have."
In a statement, mayor Rehette Stoltz attacked the recommendations.
"We are extremely disappointed in the findings of the panel and we fundamentally disagree with several recommendations in the report," she said.
"We also have serious concerns with the unsubstantiated commentary in the report as well as commentary which is outside the scope of the inquiry's Terms of Reference.
"We went into this inquiry in good faith with a view to working to ensure that in implementing the recommendations, we had the best interests of our community at heart. This is incredibly disappointing."
She said she would be speaking to the ministers and would not be commenting further until then.
However, Parata rejected the commentary was unsubstantiated, saying she had told Stoltz directly the five appendices to the report - due to be released in a week's time would provide all the evidence.
"I accept that the mayor is unhappy and rejects some or perhaps all. But as to the 'unsubstantiated', I do not agree at all. We can substantiate all of it.
"As to the commentary we've made about the failure of leadership... we can substantiate that but actually so can any ordinary person who can see. Forests are not invisible and we can see a number of them are not planted on lands that they should have been planted on.
"We can all see what has happened to our environment, and that is a result both of poor planning, monitoring and compliance but also of some bad-faith actors in the forestry and land-use communities."
She said she felt the report had been very even-handed in identifying where the accountability lies, and the report was not about blame but focused on what the solutions could be.
'We've got to stop politicising all this' - Tolaga Bay farmer
Tolaga Bay farmer Bridgette Parker whose property was severely damaged by slash is over the moon with the inquiry's recommendations.
She said she was overwhelmed how well the inquiry team has nailed it and its report is similar to her group's submission.
"It's fantastic - we're just thrilled, I can't believe it. We have a huge job ahead and we need billions of money to come back this way and we've got to stop politicising all this.
"It's time for all the politicians and all the people of New Zealand to wake up and throw their energy back into the East Coast and repair the ecological mess."
Parker said it has taken a long time for the people of Tai Rāwhiti to be listened to, but now they have been.
The father of a girl injured by slash at a Gisborne Beach also said it is about time the forestry industry cleans up after itself.
Clint Martson's 10-year-old daughter Juliana fractured her pelvis in two places after being pinned under a large log at a slash-covered Gisborne beach.
He said it was past time the forestry industry take responsibility.
"The issues on the beach come from extracting everything they can out of the land but not tidying up after themselves and ensuring that there's no negative effects of their money making."
The 44-page report includes 90 findings and 49 recommendations, the primary ones being to set up an independent Woody Debris Taskforce with funding and involvement from the three councils and the forestry sector. The government should also immediately restrict large-scale clear-felling of plantation forests in Tai Rāwhiti and Wairoa. It clarified this was region-specific and should not be applied nationally.
One of the biggest overall messages was a move towards a 'mosaic' approach to land use in high-value land including commercial and production activity alongside biodiversity investment.
In the short term, responsibility for recovery efforts should be given to a commissioner, who would oversee all recovery efforts, with a single central fund-holding entity coordinating investments.
The report called for a new law giving legal personhood to the Waiapu and Waipaoa rivers and setting up governance entities, restrictions on plantation forestry, and stronger monitoring of compliance with the rules. This would include a new 'purple' zoning classification for highly erodable land, which would need to be planted with permanent canopy cover like native forests.
The region should be a test region for the government's resource management reforms
On infrastructure, State Highways 2 and 35 should be given sustainable funding and dedicated local contractors should be prioritised for procurement.
A backup water supply and electricity that does not rely on out-of-region networking should also be set up, and the ministers should review Overseas Investment Office decisions.
They should also seek an explanation for why three forestry companies convicted of environmental offences had their Forest Stewardship Council certification renewed.
With Māori land - much of it marginal and with poor accessibility - facing regulatory difficulty and the landowners forced adhere to "each new ad-hoc government imperative for land use".
"It's underlying tenure is multiply owned, many of the blocks now have now hundreds of thousands of shareholding interests. Getting a governance entity that gives them a legal identity is an arduous process through the Māori land court and neither of those activities are funded at all," Parata said.
She noted water infrastructure for Gisborne was hosted by Māori land, and it was time to give back to those iwi and land owners who had provided this public good.
The panel urged funding for a co-investment arrangement for whenua Māori within a year based on the East Coast Exchange approach.
The Emissions Trading Scheme should be complemented by a "biodiversity credit" scheme piloted in the region, which could be applied in an international biodiversity market.
More should be invested into the "Just Transition" including research and development, exploring new industries, and supporting the existing workforce. The Jobs for Nature and Raukumara Pae Maunga programmes should also be given baseline permanent funding.
Parata said the report's recommendations came as a package and there was no single one which would make the difference.
She said if nothing was done, there would be more and greater devastation.
"The risks are very high. We are on the cusp of winter. We can expect more rain and potentially more storms. And so I think that there are actual practical risks.
"People need to be safe, they need to feel safe. I know I have nieces and nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews, who are triggered when the rain starts falling."