Inquiry must prevent slash devastation from happening again

// Industry

It’s been a little over six weeks since the Eastern North Island felt the brunt of Cyclone Gabrielle and the full extent of the damage remains unknown.

flooded road

My heart goes out to everyone affected in those communities.

Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ) staff have witnessed the devastation while working on the ground and as part of crews flying to reach and speak with farmers, deliver fuel, food, and farming essentials.

Earlier this month I visited Hawke’s Bay farmers in Ōtāne, Rissington, and Glengarry, before travelling to Tolaga Bay, and Ruatōria. I also video called other isolated Tairāwhiti farmers in Pehiri, Wharekōpae, Hangaroa and Rere.

The devastation caused to farms, and rural communities by the intense rain and flooding shocked me. The scale of damage cannot be understated.

This was made much worse by forestry slash washed down hills, into rivers, stacked against bridges, and fences and strewn across farmland. 

Some people have lost their homes because of slash in the flooding, others I talked to had valuable farming land on the flats covered in heavy silt and forestry slash. 

One farmer calculated it would cost $150,000 to restore 50 hectares flats and infrastructure back to production.

Slash has destroyed countless kilometres of fencing and bridges, blocked access to farms in desperate need of help and damaged farm infrastructure that will take farmers years to rebuild, while stock losses are not fully accounted for.

Almost one-third of New Zealand’s sheep and half of New Zealand’s beef cattle are in the North Island regions that were subject to a state of emergency during cyclones Hale and Gabrielle.

Not only are farmers facing significant costs to reinstate their land and infrastructure, but they’ve also lost income and land value.

This inevitably has an economical and environment knock-on effect, from beaches covered in slash to an impact on vets, trucking companies, shearers and the wider economy.

On average, farmers and processors support their communities with approximately $100m of farm-related expenditure every week. There’s no doubt these affected farmers will have to rethink their spending priorities which will put some rural service businesses under even more pressure.

This slash issue must force a re-think.  

The Government previously provided funding to plant much of this exotic forestry and is now encouraging further wholesale land use change from pastoral-based farming into exotic trees via the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). The increasing price of carbon credits is distorting what land is worth and productive farmland is being sold for the future planting of trees.

We are seeing new exotic planting occurring across the country without the required forethought of consequences our rivers and communities will face 30 years from now. 

The rate of whole-farm sales and conversions is out of control. We keep hearing of more and more whole-farm sales for the purposes of exotic carbon farming. This is gutting rural communities and jeopardising the $12 billion income per year our sector generates for New Zealand.

Although the relationship between carbon farming and exotic forestry is a nuanced one, these activities are now tied. We can’t look at the mismanagement of exotic forests without also looking at the complete lack of management of carbon forests, and the relationship to the wider ETS settings.

There is concern that this could happen again with the Government’s ETS and foreign investment settings allowing for large areas of food producing land to be converted into carbon price incentivised forestry.  

Another question is whether the national benefit for foreign forestry investors adequately covers the risk of environmentally unsustainable logging practices.

B+LNZ is not anti-forestry. We know a lot of farmers are looking to integrate trees within farms – exotic and native – and that’s a good thing, and there is absolutely a place for production forestry in New Zealand.

But this Government has a habit for rushing through environment regulations without thinking of how best to achieve the desired outcomes for the environment or about other long-term impacts.

Because of the scale and pace of change, we’ve ended up with a lot of poorly crafted and conflicting rules that have significant negative financial implications for sheep and beef farmers, rural communities, and the wider economy.

One of the biggest issues they’ve created is the urgent need for limits on the number of forestry offsets available in the ETS to fossil fuel emitters, in line with what happens in other countries internationally.

On 23 February, the Government announced that a ministerial inquiry would be held into land use causing woody debris, including forestry slash, and sediment-related damage in Tairāwhiti/Gisborne and Wairoa. 

It’s heartening to see the Government has now made this inquiry more of a public process. B+LNZ will be making its own submission and providing guidance to farmers on what they can include in theirs.

There has been a wide range of people affected, including farmers and rural communities. The inquiry simply must lead to concrete actions so that the scale of devastation is not allowed to happen again.