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High Court Ruling Builds Confidence In Forestry's National Environmental Controls

Forest growers in the Canterbury region say the High Court’s ruling on sediment discharge and water yield rules provides certainty and consistency in environmental controls for growers across the country.

The High Court has determined that the Canterbury Regional Council had not justified a need for more stringent rules in place of those already set out by the National Environmental Standards for Plantation Forestry (NES-PF).

It was highlighted that if councils wish to impose local rules on forestry operations that are more stringent than the national standards, they must follow the process set out in section 32 (4) of the Resource Management Act (RMA).

New Zealand Forest Owners Association (NZFOA) chief executive, Dr Elizabeth Heeg, says the High Court’s decision speaks to the credibility of the NES-PF as a national environmental management tool for forestry.

“Forest companies appealed Plan Change 7 (PC7) on the basis that there was a lack of evidence to justify local rules that are more stringent than the NES-PF,” Elizabeth says. “Forestry is one of the few primary sectors with a targeted national environmental standard. This ruling confirms the primacy of that standard compared to local rules.

“Growers now have certainty that the environmental rules set out under the NES-PF (now the National Environmental Standards for Commercial Forestry – NES-CF) are appropriate for use across the country and that councils should exercise considerable care before departing from national standards.

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“The decision also ensures forest owners are operating to the same environmental rules throughout New Zealand.”

The outcome stems from an appeal lodged by Canterbury-based forest companies, Rayonier Matariki and Port Blakely Limited, in December 2021 against proposed rule changes set out under Environment Canterbury’s (ECan) PC7.

A specific sediment discharge threshold would have been imposed on Canterbury foresters under PC7 that differed from the national standard.

“Forest growers were concerned that the proposed changes created two conflicting sediment discharge standards whereby Canterbury growers would be held to operate to new and higher local standards,” Elizabeth says. “There was no evidence that this approach is required in the Canterbury Region.

“Growers would also need to apply for costly resource consents if the imposed PC7 sediment discharge threshold were breached.”

The judge also ruled the proposed changes for water yield management relating to new plantings of production forests were lacking in evidence to warrant change from the existing rules.

“Under the existing Canterbury Regional Council rules, new production forests in sensitive catchments must comply with rules designed to ensure those forests have a negligible, or less than minor effect, on freshwater flows,” Elizabeth says.

“This is a very high standard that forest owners support. There is no evidence that it is not working properly or that more restrictions are needed.”

Overall, the High Court decision sets a precedent; binding councils to the process of dealing with stringency under the NES-CF.

“It should cause regional councils to think carefully about introducing alternative environmental rules at a local level without sufficient evidence about whether they are needed,” Elizabeth says.

“We hope this outcome will encourage better conversations and consultation between forestry groups, growers and councils in future.”

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