Forestry's uncertain future on the East Coast

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 21 February 2023

January's flooding and Cyclone Gabrielle sent debris from forestry land frothing into the ocean, crowding major highways, and through people's homes. It's a deadly problem, but who's going to clean it up?

In Tairāwhiti, farmers near Tolaga Bay saw forestry slash and land damage from winds and heavy rain as a result of Cyclone Gabrielle.

In Tairāwhiti, 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

In 1978, as a young journalist, Mike Smith went to cover the tree protest in the central North Island's Pureora Forest, where activists climbed ancient tōtara to stop them being felled.

He reckons the battle on the East Coast over forestry slash is this generation's Pureora Forest fight.

"The environment is fighting back against land production and cyclones are like climate change battles. We really need a Ukraine-type effort to save the East Coast," he says.

Rotorua-based Smith, who still writes about forestry more than 40 years later, says it's the government's responsibility - more than the forestry companies' - to do something about it.

"The government sold the rights to cut those trees down, fully knowing that if they cut the trees down that disasters are going to happen," Smith tells The Detail.

Pureora was turned into a conservation park and is now home to the famous Timber Trail cycleway, and Smith says the same should be done for East Coast forestry.

The future of the region's commercial forests will be reviewed in an inquiry into land use, that will involve several government ministers, forest owners, communities and individuals affected by the damaging waste.

In January a 12-year old boy died on Gisborne's Waikanae Beach after being struck by a floating log.

Local people and groups, including Federated Farmers, have joined calls to halt harvesting in the region until solutions can be found for clearing and using the slash.

Slash is a waste product from commercial forestry, anything from small branches to whole trees. It is the detritus from logged trees left behind on the land when other wood is harvested. Wood takes a long time to biodegrade, so slash can remain on patches of land for years. 

South Island forestry consultant and manager Allan Laurie says the industry is deeply concerned about the damage caused by recent storms, but forestry debris is not entirely to blame, particularly in the most recent event.

But he says the disaster has been a wake-up call for forestry, an industry worth more than $6 billion and growing. 

"We know that those forests have performed a great service to the region both economically and in terms of land stability in the intervening 30 years.

"But there's no question that we really do need to visit harvesting practises and determine whether catchment clearfell is the appropriate way to go," he says.

The big question, says Laurie, is what to replant the land with, if and when the current pine trees are harvested.

Scion principal scientist Dr Tim Payn tells The Detail why he believes forestry is a phenomenal industry and why New Zealand is so good at it.

He lays out some of the slash solutions that are already being explored in the region and other parts of the country, including collecting and burning it in local boilers to provide energy, riparian planting to keep waste away from waterways, and slash traps.

Smith calls forestry the new gold rush and describes climate change as a war that affects everyone. He explains the background to planting forests as an historic stabilising solution on the East Coast, which has some of the world's most fragile land.

Hear more about the past and future of forestry in New Zealand in the full podcast episode.

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