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Scoop Feature: West Coast Mayors Prepare To Talk

West Coast Mayors are to meet Government ministers this Thursday to discuss a development package following decisions to end the harvest of beech timber on the West Coast. Trucker Tom Arnold wants the Mayors to take a message to ministers. Scoop's West Coast correspondent John Howard reports.

Tom Arnold is a trucking operator specialising in timber transport. He operates and lives in Hari Hari about an hour south of Hokitika.

Since 1977, Arnold Transport has been carting indigenous timber to timber mills, sometimes as far away as Christchurch. That was fortuitous because he could cart timber one way and bring back superphosphate for farmers on the return journey.

In the transport industry it's called a back-load which makes transport efficient and lowers the cost.

Why Christchurch? Because that's where Lumber Specialties' mill is located, the mill which won the 1994 tender contract from Timberlands for rimu. With their rimu contract probably ending this year they were hoping to move onto beech - but not any more.

"People in the cities just don't seem to realise the huge travelling distances and costs involved. The West Coast is as big as the distance from Auckland to Wellington, but the cities don't care," Tom Arnold says angrily.

Tom Arnold has been carting rimu from South Westland for four years under a 12 month roll-over contract with the SOE Timberlands, which, as long as he was performing, was renewed each year.

But since the coalition Government's announcement to end all harvest of indigenous timber on the West Coast things have slowed down.

For example, the helicopter which lifts out the Government authorised sustainable rimu cut in South Westland is not due to return until 15 April. Meanwhile, at this time of the year, farmers still want fertiliser.

So his trucks are running to Christchurch empty and returning full with the fertiliser.

But when the helicopter returns in April and he'll be hopefully carting logs to Christchurch, the farmers won't want fertiliser, so he'll be going to Christchurch with trucks full of logs and returning empty.

It seems a sure way to go broke in the transport industry and, in fact, that's the direction in which he sees himself heading.

It's not the first time either. When Paynter's Timber closed their mill at Whataroa in 1995 he lost work and around $250,000. That's why he was so relieved when the National Government gave approval for the beech scheme to proceed and the South Westland sustainable rimu harvest to also continue.

Two years ago, he bought a $180,000 timber loader. He did it because the new machine complied with health and safety requirements and had all the safety bells and whistles on it.

He still has two and half years to go to pay it off and he worries about that now that his core business is threatened.

“But won't you be able to cart the exotic (pine) timber to the mill which is promised in the Government's economic package?” Scoop asked.

"There's none of that down here and anyway there's not enough pine available to keep all the mills going on the Coast anyway so some will close. I'll have to travel a huge distance to get the pine and then run it to the mill, do you think my price to cart that timber will win any tender," he blasts out.

I had no answer.

Tom Arnold breathed a sign of relief when four years he got contracts to cart South Westland rimu. But that is also about to end.

Last week I asked Graeme Speden the press secretary to Timberland's minister, Pete Hodgson a question. "Given Pete's answer in the House today, (about ending all indigenous logging on Crown Estate) does this mean that this pre-election promise is now to be broken?"

Pre-election, Labour promised West Coasters in a card sent to Coast households that: "Existing rimu contracts will be managed by the Crown with all profits going to the Trust."

Mr Speden replied last Thursday in answer to that question:

"The Government's pre-election promise was to stop native logging in Crown forests. The reference to existing rimu contracts was made in good faith because it was anticipated that there would be some contracts extending past the time of the election.

“It was not anticipated that there would be eight-year contracts for the good reason that contracts of such duration were unprecedented. In fact it seems more than likely they were drawn up specifically to frustrate Labour from keeping its pre-election promise should it form a Government. The Government does not intend to have the core principles of its pre-election policy on native forests frustrated by these contracts."

I wrote back:

"I have checked the duration of contracts and to the contrary some of them had a 20 year term with right of renewal. The last of that duration and type expired in 1992. The rimu contracts, however, were tendered in 1994 and were awarded in the form of 5 year contracts with renewing clauses to 8 year finite extensions. I can find no evidence that new contracts were drawn up to frustrate Labour. They were renewed last year on the rotation expiration date as is normal business practice."

At the time of writing Graeme Speden has not replied.

It seems, then, that the renewal of the South Westland rimu contracts last August and the promises made to Coaster's, were simply caught up in an election cycle.

It would also be reasonable to think that a political party in opposition would research the substance and background of their policies before releasing them.

Westland's mayor, John Drylie, wrote to Prime Minister, Helen Clark on 15 February seeking clarification and consultation on a number of issues. So far he was not received a reply, only an acknowledgment to his letter.

On Thursday, when the West Coast mayors meet the ministers and officials, it will provide the first tangible evidence of how Labour and the Alliance will convert their rhetoric about regional development into reality.

So far, the West Coast mayors have not received any package details to consider before the meeting.

Westland District mayor, John Drylie said, " It is highly likely we will just receive the Government's ideas and then come home to consider them. There will definitely not be any decisions made by us on Thursday."

But the argument between a development package and compensation will be ongoing. Coasters say the development package is nothing more than other regions are getting and the Government is not telling them to stop development of their natural resources to get it. A development package and compensation are entirely separate, they say.

And Tom Arnold's final word, "I've had my contract and bought machinery around it since 1994 and I have a legitimate expectation that it would continue. Why don't they bloody come and talk to all of us downstream businesses who are suffering."

© Scoop Media

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