By Gavin Evans
June 14 (BusinessDesk) - Forestry encroachment onto higher-value farm land is an issue for councils to manage, Lands Minister Eugenie Sage says.
The national environmental standard for plantation forestry doesn’t set out to encourage forestry on good farm land and should be steering planting into steeper or more erosion-prone areas, she told lawmakers yesterday.
Sage told Parliament’s primary production committee that she is aware of concerns of some mayors about the level of new planting being proposed in their districts.
The Overseas Investment Office is trying to get “a good handle” on what is happening, she said, but the Resource Management Act and the national environmental standard for plantation forestry are the key tools for managing where planting takes place.
“It’s up to councils to determine what rules they put in their plan, that may make it easier for forestry to occur there - consistent with the NES - or harder.”
The government has launched a 10-year programme to plant a billion trees to help soak up carbon emissions and enlarge the country’s forestry and wood processing industry.
But the potential land that may ultimately be required – estimated at up to 2.8 million hectares by the Productivity Commission – has alarmed farming groups and been dismissed as un-doable by some foresters.
Last month, Wairoa mayor Craig Little said the government’s subsidies for forestry had seen 8,000 ha of the district’s farmland sold in four months for planting with trees. Each time a farm is taken out of production, about five jobs were lost, he said.
The Overseas Investment Act was amended last year to make it easier for overseas buyers of land wanting to convert it to forestry.
The committee heard that eight sales have been approved under the special pathway for forestry, with another 19 in the pipeline.
Sage acknowledged that the Overseas Investment Office does not consider the potential for job losses, or rural depopulation, when considering purchases of farm land for conversion to forestry.
But she disputed a claim by National MP Alastair Scott that the act was encouraging mass planting of farm land.
In Wairoa, of the seven applications the OIO handled, only three had been for land conversions, with the others being sales of existing forests, she said.
“I don’t think we’ve seen any evidence that suggests there is going to be mass afforestation across all of New Zealand,” Sage said.
“There is more work being done by OIO to actually get a good handle on what is actually happening.”
Scott said the new pathway had lowered the bar for foreign ownership of land, relative to purchases for things like kiwifruit or vineyard development.
“Not only is there no positive benefit needed to be demonstrated, but we know there are negative consequences that your office does not consider.”
Sage indicated the performance of the new forestry pathway was likely to be considered in the next phase of a review of the Overseas Investment Act being undertaken by Treasury. But she disputed that there were no benefits from accelerating planting.
“New Zealand has a strong wood processing industry that can be strengthened. We are good at growing trees. That does provide jobs in manufacturing and it’s a critical part of meeting our Paris commitments.”
New Zealand already has about 1.7 million hectares of plantation forest. So far, the government has contracted the planting of a further 13,400 ha – about 11.6 million trees.
The government’s billion-tree target provides for two-thirds of that to be met through more expensive planting of slower-growing native trees.
Sage emphasised that planting natives as a permanent carbon sink would be ideal on erosion-prone land.
National MP Ian McKelvie said the national environmental standard for forestry is actually encouraging planting on good land.
“If you have to get consent on highly erosion-prone land, it’s not going to get planted,” he said.
“If there’s a disincentive to plant our most erosion-prone land, then surely we’ve got to do something about it?
“I’m on your side here, but what do we do with it?”
Sage said the higher grant sums available from the government for native planting may help overcome that.
Asked if that should be included in the review of the OIA’s forestry provisions, she said the issue would be better addressed in a review of the plantation forestry standard that is currently underway.