Native forests open to loggers

A law change is about to allow loggers back into the West Coast’s forests for the first time in decades, to get at trees blown over in a storm. Jay Harkness asks how – in 2014 – this could be about to happen.     

Until 1987, loggers were effectively just another “stakeholder” with an interest in using many of the West Coast’s publicly owned-forests, along with trampers, iwi, and hunters. 

But by the end of that year the long battle by New Zealanders to save the area’s forests - for all New Zealanders, and the plants and animals in those forests – had been won. Many of those who took part in that fight were members of Forest & Bird, and still are. 

Under the new protections of the Conservation Act, the rimu, totara and beech of the West Coast went from being a commercial resource, in the eyes of the law, to a taonga.   

Turn the clock forward to the unusually strong winds that hit the West Coast with Cyclone Ita at Easter, and then perhaps back again to late in the evening of Thursday June 26, this year. This was the night Parliament introduced and passed under urgency the West Coast Wind-Blown Timber (Conservation Lands) Bill.

Forest & Bird Advocacy Manager Kevin Hackwell says it was a night to remember, for all the wrong reasons. 

“People throughout Forest & Bird, and the wider community, were dumbfounded.  Partly I think because it’s so hard to imagine the core part of any other progressive legislation created that long ago being overturned. 

“People were also struck by how the bill was introduced and passed under urgency. The key ban on all commercial logging on conservation land was the result of two decades of public debate. That ban has had nearly 30 years of bi-partisan support, yet the public’s ability to have its say was non-existent. There was no select committee process, and no submissions allowed,” Kevin says. 

Conservation Minister Nick Smith’s excuse for the haste was that the beech trees would be spoilt by pinhole borer and sap stain within four to five months of being blown over by the cyclone. That is true, but many question if it is the beech timber that the loggers really want, as opposed to the more valuable species like rimu and totara. 

Despite the very short notice of the government’s intentions, more than a thousand people emailed the government’s support parties, urging them not to support the Bill.

But in the end the United Future and Māori parties, New Zealand First,  independent MP Brendan Horan, and Labour’s West Coast and Te Tai Tonga MPs Damien O’Connor and Rino Tirikatene - crossed the floor – joined the National Party in passing the Act.

The level of opposition that was expressed in the days leading up to the vote was recognised during the debate, which stretched late into the night. 

Kevin Hackwell says two things were driving this opposition. 

He says the first is the widely-recognised fact that a fallen tree is hugely valuable, and not as a salad bowl or a coffee table. The dead trees are as important to the ecosystem as those that are living, providing a huge shot of energy and nutrients that the ecosystem needs in order to refresh itself. “Anyone who has been in a forest will have a sense of this, having seen fallen trees covered in fungi, lichens and seedlings,” Kevin says. 

A media statement put out by the University of Auckland Ecologist Dr Margaret Stanley released just before the vote put it plainly. “Kiwi and many other species eat insects that rely on decaying wood and vegetation so everything is interlinked ...[the] removal of windblown trees will affect those linkages and inhibit forest growth”.

Kevin says the West Coast’s forests are often referred to as “catastrophe-dominated”. Windstorms, wet snowfalls, flooding across the bottom of river valleys (which can change the course of rivers), and earthquakes regularly flatten large areas of forest in the region. In other years, caterpillers will kill huge numbers of trees. 

“It’s common to see whole areas where most of the trees are the same age – having mostly all begun regenerating at the same time. 

“One of the many problems with this Act is that it creates a precedent, that could allow loggers to demand to enter the forest after every significant natural event,” Kevin says. 

Kevin says the other reason people are so aggrieved by the law change, besides the straight-out ecological costs, is that they see the Act as the government giving into (at best) or pandering to (at worst) to what some loggers still fail to accept – “that these forests belong to all New Zealanders” ..    

Kevin was just one of the many people who fought to save the West Coast forests during the 1980s. He was motivated at the time by the knowledge that with around 60 per cent  of New Zealand’s original forest cover having been lost,  it was essential to keep what little was left as close as possible to its natural state.

“Many of our birds are on the endangered list not just because of predators, but because they’ve lost so much of their habitat.”  

“When the West Coast’s forests became protected by law, it felt like the closing of a sad chapter in our history - like the end of seal clubbing or whale hunting might have. This was only reinforced by the government of the day paying the West Coast region $120 million in an ”adjustment package/compensation” when the native forest logging finally stopped.

“The West Coast Development Trust that received the majority of that public money has over $100 million in assets.  Maybe they should be considering returning it to the government. Though I bet they won’t,” Kevin laughs.

Besides allowing the logging itself, Kevin says the new law will do serious harm in other ways as well.  

The legislation puts authorised loggers above existing regional or district plans. The Act specifically exempts them from RMA restrictions on daming or diverting rivers and streams, disturbing river and lake beds, and discharging contaminants like oil and diesel. 

The Department of Conservation has given Forest & Bird assurances that it will carefully control all activities associated with any logging, including not allowing any new roading or heavy equipment to be brought into the forests, under the provisions of the Conservation and other acts they administer. “We’ll be watching very carefully to see whether this is what actually happens,” Kevin says.

Kevin says the Act itself is silent on whether new roads can be formed to access trees.  

“Forest & Bird does not want any logging to happen at all. If it is going to happen, DOC should restrict the loggers to where trees have been flattened over large areas, rather than allowing them to go into areas where only some trees have blown down.” Kevin also questions whether there is enough demand for native timber to justify the exercise. 

“Everything I’ve been told by the sustainable native logging industry – which harvests timber from private land - is that it’s hard enough as it is to find people who will pay more for native timber than what it costs to manage and retrieve it. If this market is swamped by windfall timber, that problem will only get worse. 

“Knee-jerk, boom-and-bust and poorly-costed schemes like this won’t help the Coast in the medium to long term, and will only undermine New Zealand’s clean green brand.        

“This is the one of the biggest conservation issues to have come up in decades. Accordingly, Forest & Bird will continue to work hard to try and minimise the damage this law change could do to one of the finest parts of this country.”