Concerns from a tree-hugger

I love trees. I’ve been called a tree-hugger, more than once, in my life. I quite like the oxygen they produce, the shade they offer, and now the carbon they capture in this climate crisis we face today.

So my concerns about the One Billion Trees programme don’t come from a lack of love for trees.

“The right tree in the right place” is a Horizons’ sustainable land use (SLUI) slogan and a solid approach. The SLUI programme is showing positive results in preventing erosion. I’m stoked to have the Government investing in trees, for a whole lot of reasons, including carbon offsets.

But, and it’s quite a big but, there are potential perverse outcomes coming from the way the One Billion Trees programme is growing. 

These unintended consequences span quite a few issues – the resilience of rural communities, environmental impacts, creating new problems, and harming the Zero Carbon Bill.

We’ve seen a number of recent stories talking about how the level of financial subsidy on offer incentivises the sale of rural areas that could be more usefully retained as productive farm land. I understand that the mapping of erosion-prone areas under One Billion Trees is not being done to the same level of refinement as SLUI.

Mass conversions affect the viability of rural schools due to the lower number of jobs associated with mainstream pine plantations, which in turn erodes rural communities.

Of course, these plantings don’t have to be traditional. There is a risk of missed opportunity with how One Billion Trees is being pushed through. We could be using this drive to learn from mixed species forestry, continuous cover forestry, and more effective ways to establish native forests.

The reality is forestry done well adds to our communities, helps people make money from marginal land, and importantly to me, can reduce erosion and contribute to better water quality. It also can create beautiful products and wonderful careers.

I haven’t watched the item from last weekend’s Sunday TV programme featuring James Cameron and Suzy Amis talking about alternative land use yet, but I definitely believe diversity and sustainability of land use are the future for our corner of the world. I know the Camerons have explored food forests with layers of trees and plants combining together to create healthy, food-based ecosystems, too.

However, forestry done badly or harvested without sufficient safeguards adds to our problems. Planting trees too close to riparian zones or in wetland areas can cause environmental harm. Massive monocultures in unsuitable land, whether that is productive sheep and beef country, or steep country that should be retired into native bush because of its soil and condition, is short-term thinking at its worst.

Not only are there examples of this happening, there is a backlash forming against forestry and against the Zero Carbon Bill. These are not to blame. I think the fundamental issue is the pace at which the One Billion Trees is being implemented – too fast. However, the issues are not insurmountable – they can be addressed with a little more attention and collaboration with those who are taking care and exploring the future of forestry.

That said, there should be urgency – more than 200 people have died in India in this month’s heat wave, with temperatures exceeding 50 degrees. Plus I read that in Chennai water bores and reservoirs have run dry. Then, in the Artic, it has been reported this week that the permafrost is melting much faster than models predicted, which may set off even faster temperature rise due to the release of gas from the ice.

Back in New Zealand, we need to recognise that forestry has had and continues to have environmental ups and downs, regardless of this latest set of subsidies. Recent compliance action taken by Horizons may prompt operators to put a bit more effort in up front rather than risk ending up causing environmental damage and facing a fine. Connecting up these lessons and applying to the current boom in trees is well worthwhile.

There will be many good examples of the One Billion Trees programme operating in the right place in the right way. I don’t want them to get lost in the furore around a few messy mistakes. More haste, less speed.