Sheep and Rolling Hills

An Open Letter to the Minister for Regional Development, The Hon. Shane Jones

Dear Mr Jones;

Your plan to plant billions of trees has certainly raised a lot of interest, and not a little concern. I read today of a new lobby group, calling itself 50 shades of Green, which has as its motivation a growing concern about the continued viability of rural communities.

Here in Kaipara we’ve seen it all before. Back in the early eighties the then Government (Prime Minister at the time Rob Muldoon) of the day gave consent for a joint venture to be formed between Shell Oil, an overseas company, and New Zealand Forest Products, at that time New Zealand Owned. The joint venture was called Mangakahia Forests, and its stated intention was to establish a forest of 25,000 hectares, largely in the North of the old Hobson County, since 1989 a part of Kaipara District.

They managed to secure 22,000 hectares. In doing so they displaced a quarter of a million stock units, and brought up 83 separate farms. In a very short time it caused a transformation of the District and its economy. There used to be three top dressing aircraft based in Dargaville, almost overnight it dropped to one. There used to be regular ewe fairs, within two years there were none, the number of shearers dropped off; some country schools closed and others were seriously down sized. The loss of that number of Stock units so quickly was a causual factor in the downsizing of the Moerewa Freezing works. The rate take from that 22,000 hectares dropped significantly, once the land became rateable as exotic forestry.

I was the local President of Federated Farmers at the time, and subsequently became involved in local body politics as a Kaipara District Councillor. We learnt some lessons along the way. What we learnt and what we experienced, and what still hasn’t been sorted out, should help you in pursuing your goal of a billion trees, with minimal impact on rural communities. In my opinion there is even a possibility that the impact can be positive, if it is managed right.

Lesson one:

The concerns expressed by local residents were right. As was a study commissioned by the then Northland United Council. The study was in the form of a Masters thesis commissioned by the Council. The conclusion was that a) in the short term the economic and employment prospects for the local economy would be substantially negative; unless b) the forest management included a full silvacultural regime, and there was a processing plant built locally. Of course neither of these two factors happened, though they were promised, and the impact was negative.

A further negativity forecast was that when the profits did flow, they would largely flow out of the District. Indeed as it turns out, out of the country. (as the joint venture under which Mangakahia Forests was established disappeared and was replaced by total foreign ownership.)

Lesson two:

All the studies and forecasts about the impact of logging traffic on our roads were in fact under stated. I still have studies commissioned nearly 40 years ago concluding that the impact of forestry on Northlands Roads would be beyond the capability of the ratepayer base to pay for it.

Similar studies have been done elsewhere in the country with similar conclusions. Here are two examples to make the point:

  1. In 2000 when serious logging of the forests in Pouto started, KDC was faced with an impossible situation. At that stage roading took up nearly 60% of KDC’s total budget. A roading network of 1500 Kilometres, and the Pouto Rd was just over 60 Ks long. But with logging already started, and the road deteriorating fast, that 60k, 4% of the total, was set to take nearly 20% of the roading budget. Fortunately the then Labour Government came to the party with RDF funding(which was allocated via vote economic development rather than vote transport, though it was administered via Transfund). That road upgrade has lasted until now, but Pouto Road is now a major problem again.
  2. According to the NRCs Annual Road Transport report, 60% of all heavy traffic on Northland’s roads are logs or wood products. Anybody travelling on Northlands highways would probably have come to approximately the same conclusion. 60% logging and 40% everything else. Those figures tell the story of road usage and damage, but not contributions. Logging Trucks only pay 75% of the road user charges that other similarly transfigured heavy traffic combinations do. Because they piggy back their trailers on the return empty trip. District roads, are paid for partly by FAR (Financial Assistance Rate), which is partly funded by road transport levies, including road user charges, and partly by ratepayers. Because of the way land is valued by Quotable Value, Forestry as a land use pays very little by way of rates. As an example in KDC where exotic forestry makes up approx. 14% of the total land area, they pay less than 2% of the total rate take. Clearly there is an imbalance here, that urgently needs addressing. The status quo is not sustainable.
  3. Just as an aside, there is also a burgeoning problem with safety in Northland’s logging truck fleet, and the availability of competent drivers. But I suspect you are already aware of that.
Lesson three:

More of an observation really. You, and several Members of Parliament, have consistently railed against traditional pastoral and horticultural industries for being too commodity based. Fair enough, at least in part; but it is curious that you should be promoting a massive land use change to production which is the ultimate in commodity. The timber industry, apart from domestic trade, exports logs, and we export those logs to essentially three markets, and predominantly one.

By contrast both the Meat and Dairy sectors export to over 100 Countries with an ever increasing range of diversified products. The Meat and Dairy sectors both still have significant local ownership, with structures which allow profits to return to the areas in which they were
generated.

Lesson four:

We don’t promote enough, what we do well. Let’s take it as read that we must rapidly move towards carbon neutrality. It is also accepted that trees, to varying degrees sequester carbon. What is not promoted enough is the potential of NZ soil, by building up organic matter, to also sequester carbon. The 2006 NZ Pastoral conference heard a paper contending that the soils potential was probably greater than that of planting trees. Since then numerous Regional Councils, certainly Northland and Bay of Plenty, have shown that slightly tweaking traditional Management systems can result in build ups of organic matter. And also less run off. This is to be applauded and indeed encouraged. I understand that the problem is accurately measuring this build up, but it can’t be technically impossible? If we can measure water use and effluent discharge, using space technology, surely it’s not too big a step to measure carbon/organic build up in the soil?

Lesson five:

Once again well and truly forecast by the locals. Since harvesting in the Mangakahia area has started in earnest, about 2002, the Northern Wairoa river has been silting up at the rate of 3mm per year. Local observers of the river would claim it is more. Some is clearly caused by agricultural practices, but these are improving quite dramatically. Forestry degradation at harvest time can be horrendous. Recently introduced ”best practice” regulations will help, but just the nature of forest harvesting will always make this period problematic.

Lesson six:

Central Government decisions, or lack of decisions, which cause rapid land use change are basically dumb. Allowing the take over of good farm land by a 50% foreign owned entity for conversion to forestry was just as dumb as allowing some of the North Islands central forest land to be clear felled for conversion to dairying. The land taken over by Mangakahia was good farmland, the average stock carrying capacity was 12 su per ha. Clearly with that average some would have been less than 12, and indeed some was down around six or less. This land was clearly better off in trees, either permanently or as a crop. Which leads to the next lesson.

Lesson seven:

Farmers are not averse to planting trees, or embarking on land use change, if it can be demonstrated that it is profitable and necessary. But the message needs to be consistent. In this regard the industry has a long collective memory. Some of us can remember Government initiated schemes such as LANDEL (land development loans) or LIS (livestock investment scheme), which resulted in some questionable pastoral developments, which in the course of time was returned to trees using FEGs(forestry encouragement grants)

Then again, in the early part of the 2nd decade of the 21 st century, farmers showed some enthusiasm for converting low performing pastoral land into plantings that would accrue carbon credits. The maths promoted showing that carbon credits at $15.00 would be considerably better than trying to pastorally farm land only carrying 6 sus per ha.

This enthusiasm was built up by some Regional Councils, and Beef and Lamb NZ; only to have their efforts scuttled by the then Government which effectively collapsed the carbon market, by allowing the purchase of credits from highly questionable overseas sources. This practice was called out by the Paris Accord, and the Government changed tack, appointing Paula Bennet as the Minister in charge of Climate Change. To her credit she was working hard to re-establish trust with land owners, when the election curtailed her efforts. Now it is up to you and your colleagues in the coalition to make sure the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

Conclusion:
  • The Forest Industry is here to stay, and the need for the Country (the world) to move towards carbon neutrality is, in my opinion, beyond doubt.
  • The maintenance, indeed enhancement, of the current farming infrastructures is critical for the future well being of the Regions.
  • Demonstrating that some of the lessons listed above have been learned, or at very least being addressed, is critical if the trust of land owners and the general population of the Regions, is to be gained.
  • There is room for your one billion trees. But it should be promoted as “as well as” rather than the current implied “instead of” existing pastoral industry.
  • We would all feel more comfortable if you were seen to be just as tough on the addiction the general public has towards ever increasing use of carbon based fossil fuels consumption, as you seem to be on livestock farmers.
  • It is appreciated that you are a Minister who likes to get things done, with little patience for bureaucracy, but sometimes less haste makes for more speed.

I am sorry this letter is a little on the longish side. I could have gone on for longer. I haven’t canvassed details of the Forest Industry’s numerous submissions to District and Regional Plans; or their submission to Planning Tribunal hearings regarding their attitude to transport contributions or rating values. I have files on these matters going back nearly 40 years.

At all events I would be happy to have further dialogue with you or your officials on any of the above should you so wish.

Yours faithfully
Richard Alspach

19 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the Minister for Regional Development, The Hon. Shane Jones”

  1. Hi Richard, well written and thanks. The words we could be using is “institutional knowledge”.
    Farming and family owned business’s retain it often,, corporates and politicians rarely.
    Without it we repeat the same mistakes at a later date.

    regards Mark

  2. SHANE Jones would have to be dumb and sitting on his brain not to relate to an incredible letter stating all the facts. He can buy knowledge but not experience like the writer has .Great letter

  3. More power to your pen Richard Alspach. I am right behind you, and I hope the rest of NZ as well.

  4. Taking lessons from what was attempted by a Timber processing Company in Southern Ruapehu District some years ago.They had the situation of the Company asking RDC for ” Rates Relief” ,their argument being the lands they had aquifer for planting would not be producing for X number of years.Their argument was put in such a way as to have some Councillors side with them.But thankfully wiser heads prevailed.They were denied as if said lands had remained in farming production,the rates levied would maintain the status quo.
    Another point as raised in the open letter is damage to roads.Most rural roads are not built to take 45 tonne and upwards.They were built on old class 3 base that is 6/10 ton.
    Now again I see there’s moves afoot to place lands into forestry ,owned by OVERSEAS Corporations,solely for the purpose of CARBON CREDITS OVERSEAS.This was stopped years back,and now it’s back.
    Lots of areas in the King Country have been truly savaged by Forestry firms buying up farms,knocking down houses,fences,farm buildings,causing losses of jobs,schools losing numbers,towns squeezed to death.
    This habit is detrimental to the Kiwi way of life,it must be halted.If big Corporations want their overseas Carbon Credits,go plant in their own Countries.

  5. Huge challenge here is…will Shane Jones and his side kicks actually take the time to read such a worthy letter 🤔.
    Come team (Govt)man up and listen up to people who ‘actually’ know what they are talking about.

  6. Dianne Oliver

    East coast was also promised jobs from the trees planting but communities were lost and all headed for the cities piutting pressure on the over burden infrastructure of housings,jobs.,water resources.

  7. The planting of trees, predominantly pine, may have some positives but one aspect that is rarely addressed is the post logging land management. Soil erosion is one immediate and obvious issue but there are others such as impact of runoff on waterways be they river or coast. Further still is the vegetation recovery which if left to itself will be a random germinatioon of pines producing a worthless ‘wilding pine’ forest. I strongly recommend that for all forests a condition of logging be a well documented post logging land management plan with financial consequences included as guarantees of compliance.

  8. Very well written ! As a district councillor from the other end of the country I can identify and agree totally with what you have said. It’s a great pity that central government politicians don’t listen to the people who know and understand the regions they live in

  9. Richard have you considered standing for a seat in Government? You are knowledgable, articulate and surely would garnish a huge following. It is great to read such common sense about keeping our rural communities alive and vibrant, and producing the much needed food production for the world’s burgeoning population. Your information is not readily available in the media and this needs immediate attention!

  10. Our recent trip to Scotland our guide talked about water degradation in Scotland but they were not blaming farming but Exotic Pine Forests as they were turning everything acidic

  11. Ian Moir - Ahuroa Rodney/Kaipara

    Well written, concise and from one who not only witnessed the big changes in the area but also recognises the lessons to be learnt.
    I support this open letter and all the points held within.

  12. Well written arguments.. we saw loss of community here in s southland when japanese bought up lots of farms for eucalypts. They own the entire value chain.

  13. Should the focus b on planting trees other than pine – Manuka for honey, nut producing trees etc – pine trees leach the soil, cause erosion, & the harvesting is devestating not only to the land but also the roads. The government should b working with existing farmers, not selling off huge hunks to foreigners – it is beyond belief that such an insane policy was even considered – let alone put into effect.

  14. cornelius van Beek

    the lazyness with the “blank” goal of lots of government trees. if the goal was that good the economy would provide it. carbon credits are a financial have. Joe average taken to the cleaners that write rules to suit themselves. there is a lot of noise about trees goodness not there real economic & social damage. The ability to ruin communities from their office in parliament where they make 25 year decisions while their term is only 3 years.

  15. Jennifer Robinson

    Excellent and thoughtful article. Having a PhD in biogeography / remote sensing, with emphasis on biogeochemistry, I have doubts about item 4. Remote sensing of soil carbon, particularly under trees, is extremely challenging if not impossible. Satellite images and GIS, especially topography and rainfall info, could be very useful for sampling design for field studies. But ultimately, soil samples are needed.

  16. The concept of right tree right place is correct too much unsuitable land was cleared with government subsidies in the past, now it’s gone full circle. I don’t blame any farmer who sells to forestry if a pastoral buyer can compete with a forestry offer then good on them. However what mostly seems to go into forestry at present is marginal or harder country that would have fed a store market and carried at low stocking levels irrespective.
    It’s a free market ultimately and to dictate who can buy what is a stroll down the totalarian socialist path that is unwanted.

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