Listen to what the history of our trees is telling us

The aftermath of the Tolaga Bay storm last June, which Dame Anne Salmond says highlighted New Zealand's poor forestry practices. File picture by Liam Clayton
A family of three were rescued after spending four hours on the roof of their home during the flooding in Tolaga Bay in June last year. Picture supplied
Three houses were damaged by floodwaters and the log and forestry deluge. This one is in Kopua Road, downstream from the evacuated house. Picture supplied
Dame Anne Salmond says no more taxpayer funding should go into establishing short-rotation, clear-felled, exotic monoculture plantation forests on highly erodible lands. "That would be crazy. It’s time to start planting the right trees in the right places." Picture supplied
In 1988, Cyclone Bola hit the East Coast - which has some of the most fragile soils in the world. Gisborne Herald file picture

OPINION PIECE

In June 2018, many Kiwis looked aghast at images of a house marooned in a sea of logs at Tolaga Bay, with huge piles of logs choking the rivers, and on farmland and beaches. Gazing at this catastrophe, they asked, “How on earth did this happen?”

It’s a long story. For more than 80 million years, Aotearoa New Zealand was a land of forests, at the heart of the world’s largest ocean. As trees, rivers, plants and animals evolved together, unique life forms emerged. As the biologist Jared Diamond has said, this is the nearest we can find to “life on another planet”.

It wasn’t until about 800 years ago that the first people came ashore. These first settlers were gardeners, fishers, hunters and gatherers, who cleared forests for gardens and settlements, usually close to the coast, on plains or along major rivers. They hunted birds and brought with them kuri (Polynesian dogs) and kiore (Polynesian rats) that ate eggs, chicks and reptiles — and the human transformation of our forests began.

When the first Europeans landed in Aotearoa almost 250 years ago, they were amazed at the height and girth of the trees that grew across the country.

Once European settlement got under way in the early 19th century, forests were felled in vast quantities — for ships’ masts and spars, for buildings in the settler colonies of New Zealand and Australia, for firewood and other purposes. For a long time, the supply seemed inexhaustible.

Forests were also cleared for settlements and farms with great “burns”. The woods dwindled, and the land began to slip.

Warning signs were noted by the mid-19th century, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that New Zealanders became sufficiently concerned about the loss of our forests to mobilise.

When the New Zealand Forest Service was set up in 1921, its vision was to sustainably harvest native forests and to plant exotic forests (mostly Pinus radiata), which began to be felled during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. As the demand for inexpensive housing grew, the rate of felling native forests also accelerated, and New Zealanders rallied to fight to protect what remained in national parks.

The “forest wars” of the 1970s left bitter memories of a Forest Service dedicated to felling native forests, rather than managing them sustainably for future generations. As a result, conservationists largely dedicated themselves to protecting the remnants, while the Forest Service was left to concentrate on planting and harvesting exotic forests.

In many ways, this has been a disaster. A radical division between exotic commercial forests and indigenous conservation forests in Aotearoa New Zealand has meant that the possibility of truly sustainable, “close to nature” silviculture has been ignored.

From the late 1980s, when privatisation took hold and many state forests were sold to private enterprise, even those exotic forests that had been planted to stabilise highly erodible landscapes were sold, and harvested. In regions like the East Coast, with some of the most fragile soils in the world, this led to devastating erosion, choking rivers and coastlines with sediment and slash, flooding, and ruining farmland.

In 1988, after Cyclone Bola ravaged the region, more exotic forests were planted in an effort to stabilise the land, and these are now also being harvested, with predictably disastrous effects, as we saw in Tolaga Bay last year. That kind of planting is still going on.

In New Zealand, almost all silvicultural research, expertise and commercial forestry is devoted to exotic, short-rotation monocultures, despite the devastating environmental impacts we have seen.

Back in the 1950s, on the other hand, countries like Germany realised that “close to nature” silviculture, based on indigenous mixed forests, with no clear felling, little spraying and an emphasis on natural regeneration, was a smart alternative to exotic plantation forests. Today almost three quarters of German forests are in mixed stands, with an emphasis on biodiversity and soil enrichment.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, as we confront a climate crisis, we can’t keep on repeating the same old mistakes. At present, the Emissions Trading Scheme and government schemes heavily subsidise the planting of exotic species, even in regions where the planting and harvest of exotic forests has wreaked environmental havoc.

The Billion Trees programme and other initiatives give us a chance to take stock, and change course. On red- and orange-zoned land (our most erodible landscapes), current types of forestry must be required to transform to more sustainable models.

If “close to nature” forestry can work in Germany, there is no reason it cannot also work here, with our magnificent native timbers. Certainly, no more taxpayer funding should go into establishing short-rotation, clear-felled, exotic monoculture plantation forests on highly erodible lands. That would be crazy. It’s time to start planting the right trees in the right places.

With “close to nature” silviculture, Aotearoa could be a land of forests again, where the rivers run clear and clean, and there are no more piles of logs on beaches. If this can happen in Europe, at the heart of great industrial nations, it can happen in our “clean, green land” at the heart of the Pacific Ocean.

Dame Anne Salmond leads the Te Awaroa: Voice of the River project. She was the 2013 New Zealander of the Year.

In June 2018, many Kiwis looked aghast at images of a house marooned in a sea of logs at Tolaga Bay, with huge piles of logs choking the rivers, and on farmland and beaches. Gazing at this catastrophe, they asked, “How on earth did this happen?”

It’s a long story. For more than 80 million years, Aotearoa New Zealand was a land of forests, at the heart of the world’s largest ocean. As trees, rivers, plants and animals evolved together, unique life forms emerged. As the biologist Jared Diamond has said, this is the nearest we can find to “life on another planet”.

It wasn’t until about 800 years ago that the first people came ashore. These first settlers were gardeners, fishers, hunters and gatherers, who cleared forests for gardens and settlements, usually close to the coast, on plains or along major rivers. They hunted birds and brought with them kuri (Polynesian dogs) and kiore (Polynesian rats) that ate eggs, chicks and reptiles — and the human transformation of our forests began.

When the first Europeans landed in Aotearoa almost 250 years ago, they were amazed at the height and girth of the trees that grew across the country.

Once European settlement got under way in the early 19th century, forests were felled in vast quantities — for ships’ masts and spars, for buildings in the settler colonies of New Zealand and Australia, for firewood and other purposes. For a long time, the supply seemed inexhaustible.

Forests were also cleared for settlements and farms with great “burns”. The woods dwindled, and the land began to slip.

Warning signs were noted by the mid-19th century, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that New Zealanders became sufficiently concerned about the loss of our forests to mobilise.

When the New Zealand Forest Service was set up in 1921, its vision was to sustainably harvest native forests and to plant exotic forests (mostly Pinus radiata), which began to be felled during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. As the demand for inexpensive housing grew, the rate of felling native forests also accelerated, and New Zealanders rallied to fight to protect what remained in national parks.

The “forest wars” of the 1970s left bitter memories of a Forest Service dedicated to felling native forests, rather than managing them sustainably for future generations. As a result, conservationists largely dedicated themselves to protecting the remnants, while the Forest Service was left to concentrate on planting and harvesting exotic forests.

In many ways, this has been a disaster. A radical division between exotic commercial forests and indigenous conservation forests in Aotearoa New Zealand has meant that the possibility of truly sustainable, “close to nature” silviculture has been ignored.

From the late 1980s, when privatisation took hold and many state forests were sold to private enterprise, even those exotic forests that had been planted to stabilise highly erodible landscapes were sold, and harvested. In regions like the East Coast, with some of the most fragile soils in the world, this led to devastating erosion, choking rivers and coastlines with sediment and slash, flooding, and ruining farmland.

In 1988, after Cyclone Bola ravaged the region, more exotic forests were planted in an effort to stabilise the land, and these are now also being harvested, with predictably disastrous effects, as we saw in Tolaga Bay last year. That kind of planting is still going on.

In New Zealand, almost all silvicultural research, expertise and commercial forestry is devoted to exotic, short-rotation monocultures, despite the devastating environmental impacts we have seen.

Back in the 1950s, on the other hand, countries like Germany realised that “close to nature” silviculture, based on indigenous mixed forests, with no clear felling, little spraying and an emphasis on natural regeneration, was a smart alternative to exotic plantation forests. Today almost three quarters of German forests are in mixed stands, with an emphasis on biodiversity and soil enrichment.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, as we confront a climate crisis, we can’t keep on repeating the same old mistakes. At present, the Emissions Trading Scheme and government schemes heavily subsidise the planting of exotic species, even in regions where the planting and harvest of exotic forests has wreaked environmental havoc.

The Billion Trees programme and other initiatives give us a chance to take stock, and change course. On red- and orange-zoned land (our most erodible landscapes), current types of forestry must be required to transform to more sustainable models.

If “close to nature” forestry can work in Germany, there is no reason it cannot also work here, with our magnificent native timbers. Certainly, no more taxpayer funding should go into establishing short-rotation, clear-felled, exotic monoculture plantation forests on highly erodible lands. That would be crazy. It’s time to start planting the right trees in the right places.

With “close to nature” silviculture, Aotearoa could be a land of forests again, where the rivers run clear and clean, and there are no more piles of logs on beaches. If this can happen in Europe, at the heart of great industrial nations, it can happen in our “clean, green land” at the heart of the Pacific Ocean.

Dame Anne Salmond leads the Te Awaroa: Voice of the River project. She was the 2013 New Zealander of the Year.

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David, Auckland - 4 months ago
Right on the button - NZ's focus on exotic timber production has been an ecological disaster.

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