OPINION: Tree-planting plan must have a focus

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By Jim Scott

One of the greatest business and economic success stories for New Zealand over the past 100 years started with the Great Depression tree-planting programmes. There are many lessons to be learnt from that experience, which went on to produce several “think big” industrial developments, located close to large, contiguous planted areas.

The coalition decision to plant 1billion trees over the next 10 years has the potential to become, if appropriately managed, another one of our large economic success stories.

However, blindly planting for solely environmental considerations and ignoring 100 years of our forestry growing and global marketing experience would be another missed business opportunity.

I suspect past lessons haven’t been learnt by the “Pied Piper”-styled minister in charge. So far all we have seen is a series of ministerial “photo ops” in regionally isolated electorates where possible strong three-party coalition support exists.

The recent heavy rain in the Tologa Bay area resulted in forest harvesting slash washing off the hillsides, blocking river flows and threatening homes.

This is just one example of where using forestry plantings for a secondary reason, namely land stabilisation, has now become a significant environmental liability.

However, appropriately managed radiata pine softwood afforestation has proven to be a very successful raw material for housing timber through to high-quality paper production.

Having in the past spent more than 25 years managing and marketing the Depression-period crop of radiata pine, I am feeling badly let down by the current shallow and irrational approach.

Choosing 100 species to be planted over widely spread areas beggars belief. We must aspire for the high added-value products for export markets, via fully serviced deep-water ports fed from large contiguous forestry areas.

Radiata, rightly so, should be the predominant species planted, and at 1000 trees per hectare this will require approximately 1 million hectares of land to be in forestry in 10 years.

Radiata pine, if pruned and thinned at appropriate periods, should produce around 25cum per hectare per year and therefore see around 700cum (tonnes) per ha harvested from clear felling at the 25 to 30-year mark.

Harvesting values will heavily depend on clear felling, off gentle terrain, with quality road haulage, having a nearby deep-water port and ideally a large-scale integrated timber and pulp wood processing complex.

Plantings of small areas, say under 10,000ha – especially if some distance from population – will probably at best have just the larger logs extracted, and as in Tologa Bay the rest is left on the ground as slash.

Forty years ago, slash was typically pushed up into rows after clear-felling was complete, burnt and the area replanted, having returned the nutrients back to the soil.

The rolling country – foothills from, say, Hanmer Springs through to the Lindis Pass – could become a major afforestation development area, producing another Kaiangaroa-like forest estate.

Timaru, with its port and the wider region, with a presumably scaled-back dairy farming dependence, could yield an economic win-win for our region.

Who is going to provide the economic and political leadership to develop such a major South Island forestry strategy?

Timaru resident Jim Scott is a former Air New Zealand chief executive officer and a strategic consultant for small-to-medium enterprises.