Last week, I spoke to TVNZ’s Q & A programme about Grey District Council’s proposal to allow logging of native forests on three council-owned reserves.
Over the years, the Green Party has been involved with efforts to stop logging our native forests, not least by fighting the labyrinthine legislation that the National Government has put up to allow it.
Chainsaws on conservation land
In 2014, National rammed through changes to the Conservation Act that allowed loggers and their chainsaws onto public conservation land. The legislation was pushed through under urgency with no select committee scrutiny and no chance for public submissions.
The Green Party strongly opposed those 2014 law changes because for more than 25 years the law had protected forests on conservation land from logging, recognising that the West Coast rain forests have more inestimable value as standing forests; nature’s living cathedrals; than as sawn timber.
Since then, loggers have removed hundreds of rimu and some beech trees, which had been knocked down during Cyclone Ita. In the forest ecosystem, fallen trees support life, from fungi to insects they help recycle nutrients as they decay.
New York-owned logging company NZ Sustainable Forest Products has been the major beneficiary of National’s weakening of the Conservation Act. The company has taken out more trees than any other operator and is now pushing for native forest logging on the West Coast to restart on an even bigger scale. It is behind the Grey District Council’s request for public comment to open up Mt Buckley and possibly two other council reserves to chainsaws and logging
The council reserves on Mt Sewell and Mt Buckley in the Grey Valley are steep sites. As well as the forest damage, and the loss of older rimu and beech trees, which are critical for hole-nesting species such as kaka, there is a potential risk of significant erosion as trees are cleared and removed. The third area at scenic Lake Brunner’s Cashmere Bay involves logging podocarp forest, which is a magnificent part of the backdrop to the lake.
There is a clear agenda in the National Government’s September 2016 regional development report for the West Coast to restart native forest logging in the region on an even larger scale by further law changes to both the Conservation Act and the Forests Act. The forestry section in the “West Coast Growth Opportunities Report” (p 147 in PDF version) says:
“The opportunity is to amend the legislation to allow windblown timber on conservation estate to be removed by approved processors after any major weather event or at the discretion of the Minister. (my emphasis). This will allow operators to extract such timber on a broader basis and post-2019.
“Aligned with this, a more significant and longer-term opportunity is to incentivise the expansion of indigenous timber forestry and processing from production plantations on the West Coast by reviewing and reducing current market barriers (e.g., export restrictions, building standards).”
The law changes allowing windblown trees to be logged from conservation land expire in 2019 and the report advocates broadening this to allow the Minister to approve logging after further windthrow events or whenever s/he chooses.
Chopping down the Forests Act
The other law change that the 2016 report flags is to weaken import restrictions on the export of native timber in the Forests Act.
Since 1993, the milling of all native timber has required the approval of the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) to be legal. The Forests Act (section 67C) bans the export of native timber, sawn logs and woodchips and all native timber except for personal effects, stumps, and finished or manufactured indigenous timber products. The saga of the export of Northland swamp kauri logs has shown how poorly MPI enforces the “finished or manufactured” part of the Forests Act.
It is these provisions that native forest loggers want to be changed so that they can export raw logs and presumably also wood chips overseas because of the small local demand for native timber.
Changes to the Forests Act in 1993 were a major conservation victory in stopping woodchip exports. Before this, Nelson, West Coast and Southland beech forests were being logged and chipped on a large scale. There were massive piles of wood chips on wharves in Nelson and Bluff for export to China and elsewhere. The law change that halted this destructive trade helped protect the forests by ensuring that native trees were only felled for timber for the domestic market and further processing in New Zealand.
Is more native forest logging in our future?
National needs to come clean and say whether, as part of its economic policy, it proposes to make more changes to the Conservation and Forests Act to increase native forest logging on the West Coast and elsewhere.
This would renege on the expectation when the Government gave the West Coast Development Trust $120 million in 2001 that native forest logging on public land had ended for good. Since then tens of millions of dollars have been spent by DoC and central Government constructing new infrastructure for nature-based tourism on the West Coast. This spending includes the Old Ghost Road mountain bike track, upgrades to Oparara Valley Road at Karamea and tracks in the Basin, a major upgrade to the Heaphy Track, and the West Coast Wilderness Cycleway.
Despite booming tourism numbers, the National Government seem reluctant to grasp that the future is in encouraging people to experience and enjoy nature, rather than allowing a private overseas owned company to trash our ancient rainforests for short term gain.