Right now, we are in a Covid-19 recovery phase and an election year. Farmers feel good about keeping the economy going, but are challenged by climate change, freshwater regulations and afforestation. Some press releases strongly defend pastoral farming against encroaching forests, as if we are fighting over land use. We’re not. What both the farming and forestry sectors are doing is searching for the best way forward, post-covid, in terms of investing and adapting.
What neither sector needs are knee-jerk regulations that distract from finding real solutions of mutual benefit. A diverse range of viewpoints is good for innovation, so let’s encourage it. The NZ Farm Forestry Association suggests we should avoid the myths, maintain perspective and share some new ideas.
The long-term perspective is that land use change has and should occur in response to developing markets and scientific guidance. As land values rose from 2002 to 2018 approximately 258,000ha was converted from plantation forests to pasture.
Currently, about 16,000ha/year to 35,000ha/year of pasture is being converted into plantation forests. These figures suggest that both farms and forests have been moving, leaving one class of land for another as markets have driven change.
In general, forests have moved from flat to rolling land in the central North Island to steeper and more remote areas of hill country. Since there is about 12.5 million ha of pasture land in NZ, afforestation of pasture is occurring at less than 0.3 per cent per year. This is hardly blanketing the landscape with forests, or significantly impacting on of food production. But this planting might help with the impending carbon bill we will pass to our children.
The proposed Labour Party policy regulates only better land – Land Use Classes 1 to 5 – and most of the recent planting is occurring on cheaper marginal hill country that is outside this range. Nonetheless, the NZFFA clearly recognises there is public concern, and we need to explore better ways of achieving the intended goal of meeting New Zealand’s targets for carbon sequestration.
Some alternative ideas are emerging. As one example, while pines are quick, cheap and profitable, higher value exotics like redwoods, fir and cypress may be better suited for harvesting on steep, erodible country. The latest report ‘Fit for a Better World – Accelerating our Economic Potential’ acknowledges the value of this diversity.
As another example, permanent carbon forests need to be fast-growing and long-lived; and while native species don’t have the growth rates to meet the urgency of the situation, they can be used together with exotics to offer both a short and a long term solution. Mixtures of radically different tree types give resilience to biosecurity risks and improve aesthetics. Most natural forest systems are mixtures.
In the longer term, we may need to harvest such mixed forests with new low-impact technologies, perhaps selectively taking and replacing the valuable species. If not, we leave it to future generations to decide. In the very long-term, fast-growing exotics forests will naturally convert to native forests.
Government regulation has its place in protecting human wellbeing, fair trade and the environment. We’d like it to do that and still leave us with land use flexibility. These are uncertain times, we need to have responsive land use, not regulated land use.