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A well-meaning step backwards for conservation?



The resignation of a top Timberlands West Coast manager yesterday after the Prime Minister's call for him to be sacked has rocketted the issue into the public consciousness again. Next week (Wednesday) court action will start against the government for breach of contract, and (probably on Tuesday) the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment will announce an independent investigation into the future of indigenous forestry in New Zealand. Allegations of Labour party having funded Native Forest Action have been made and denied but the debate on that will probably persist. There is an urgent need for better background information to reach the populus to get past the personal attacks and misleading slogans. It is clear that many well-meaning preservationists have believed that the TWC proposal meant the same old destruction of the forest and pressure on the birds and bats as in the past. The reality is quite different and somehow the urban populus need to understand that their opposition is likely in fact to harm global biodiversity rather than help it. That is my professional opinion as a conservation biologist of 22 years experience.

It has been particularly impossible to get the real story out in the North Island, yet ironically, this is where Labour's main votes came from.

The feature article below is an attempt to start the education process. The diagrams of simulated forest structure would ram the main message home - this is nothing to do with clear-felling or 'destruction' of forests.

CAPTION: Left: The forest now.
2nd From Left: Predicted forest after 250 years of harvest using misrepresentation of tree selection proposed
3rd from left: Predicted forest after 250 years of harvest using actual tree selection proposed
Right: Predicted forest in 250 years without timber harvest.

Sustainable beech harvest gets the chop: a well-meaning step backwards for conservation?

By Dr Henrik Moller, Senior lecturer, University of Otago and Co-director, Ecosystems Consultants Ltd.

The Timberlands West Coast debate is degenerating into personal attacks amongst foresters, ecological scientists, preservationists, our Prime Minister and our Minister of science. What are the facts behind the furore and were well-meaning voters misled before the election? Ecologist Dr Henrik Moller from the University of Otago thinks they were.

Within hours our new Labour government silenced a RMA hearing of Timberlands proposal to sustainably harvest beech trees. Was this a bold blow to save the planet, or a hasty cover-up by Pete Hodgson and Helen Clark who, having got our green votes, now don’t want us to hear scientific evidence that the plan was a world beater for ecological sustainability? I think the latter.

The TWC proposal was visionary. It embodied a complete change from earlier unsustainable forestry practices that changed forest structure. It went back to careful tree selection systems practised for at least 300 years in European old-growth forests without changing their size structure or appearance. TWC sought to replace greedy forestry with green forestry. It’s what the world’s biodiversity desperately needs in the new millennium.

Next time you go hunter gathering in a supermarket for your parcels of protein, nutrients and energy, ask yourself if it has been sustainably grown (its cellophane wrapper can not disconnect it and you from ecology somewhere in the world). Next time you shelter in a house of wood, ask if it was sustainably grown and harvested. It probably wasn’t. Then consider why this revolutionary TWC scheme should not proceed. Sustainability is the real challenge for conservation, not preservation.

A light harvest, averaging one tree per hectare per year, was to be taken. Trees would have been removed in small groups the size of natural forest gaps and extracted by helicopter – no clearfelling and no coupes. That leaves no fragmentation of habitats. Old large beech trees would have remained to provide food and nesting hollows for birds and bats. Better yet, 5% - 10% of the net revenue from harvest were to be used for research, monitoring and pest control to restore birds and bats through predator control. This mirrors recent efforts where DoC assumes a ‘natural gardener’ role of constantly weeding out introduced pests that otherwise would kill the birds. DoC gardens only six such ‘mainland island’ restoration sites throughout New Zealand. TWC proposed to do 2 or 3 by themselves. Why turn away that sort of help for DoC’s stretched budget?

Pete Hodgson states that he canned the TWC scheme because a Landcare Research computer simulation model predicted that the forestry would be unsustainable. That model misrepresented the TWC proposal by assuming trees were selected just by chance (‘at random’). In fact the foresters proposed to ‘subsume’ (replace) natural mortality by felling leaning or defoliating trees that are about to die anyway. The diagram on the left is Landcare’s computer simulation of how the forest looks now. The second from left is Landcare’s model prediction of what it would look like after 250 years of harvest using the flawed assumption about tree selection. The third diagram shows the prediction after 250 years of timber extraction but using the actual tree selection proposed by TWC. The right hand diagram shows the simulation after 250 years without any harvest. The 3rd diagram is virtually indistinguishable from the left and right ones. So the harvest would hardly have changed the forest and the birds and bats would have been safe.

Pete Hodgson and the Landcare scientist who made the flawed prediction did not visit the TWC field operations. Nor did they listen to others that pointed out the mistake. This was no error in mathematics or computing – it was simple misrepresentation. That elementary mistake sent our nation to an election believing the timber harvest would be unsustainable. Now our Minister of Forestry doesn’t want us to know. Five years of visionary research and planning could easily have been tested by 2-3 more days of public hearing.

Pete Hodgson and Helen Clark did more than silence science in this cover-up. They undermined the RMA and broke the contract the previous Labour government set up in the West Coast Accord. They did get a dowry for a hasty marriage to the Greens though.

How will we ‘green’ our industries if this sort of ecologically sensitive proposal is squashed by misinformation and political expediency?

Our plants and animals will be the real losers in the long run.


**************************** Boxed Insert **********************

 Professor John Craig, from Auckland University’s School of Environmental Science, supported the TWC plan with modifications. He calculated that DoC spends less than half per hectare per year of the expenditure proposed by TWC on predator control.

 Professor Jerry Vanclay, from Southern Cross University in Australia is an international authority on forestry modelling. He concluded that Landcare Research model misrepresented what TWC proposed. His RMA evidence stated: “I expect that the forest will look virtually indistinguishable from comparable areas from which timber harvesting has been excluded, with just two exceptions: the provision of roads will make the forests more accessible, and predator control may mean that the Timberlands forests may have more birds”.

 Two New Zealand forest modellers, Dr Graham Whyte and Dr Euan Mason (both of the University of Canterbury) were also severely critical of the Landcare model. Dr Mason refered to the “model software as seriously flawed” and ‘based on it’s assumptions, no forest would ever regenerate”.

 About 80% of the West Coast forests are already in DoC reserves. TWC added another 14 reserves totalling around 9,000 ha from their own land after extensive survey work identified areas of special biodiversity value there.

 A recent survey showed that 86% of New Zealanders want continued access to rimu for high-grade furniture and decorative uses provided it was harvested sustainably.

 The West Coast Conservation Board supported the TWC proposal.

 Ecologic (formerly the Maruia Society) is one of the foundation conservation NGO groups that fought earlier unsustainable beech forest use plans. Ecologic supported this TWC proposal.

 207 submissions were received regarding the TWC RMA consent application; 104 were in support and 99 against

******************* Profile of Dr Henrik Moller ****************

Dr Moller teaches conservation biology at the University of Otago’s Department of Zoology. He has researched birds and pests in West Coast beech forests for 14 years. His support for the TWC has been part of several years working for the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) expert panel on Sustainable Use. He also Co-directs Ecosystems Consultants Ltd., a Dunedin based ecological consultancy that was recently commissioned to prepare evidence for the TWC Resource Management Act consent application. This article was not commissioned by TWC, nor inspired by some unknown PR consultant with imagined importance somewhere in Wellington!


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