One year on - threat from fragile hills grows

Friday 23 Feb 2024

One year ago, all hell broke loose in Tairāwhiti when Cyclone Gabrielle propelled 1.4 million tonnes of wood debris down the East Coast’s steep, fragile hillsides into rivers and on to bridges, homes, farms, roads and beaches below.

Though the region, which has some of the world’s most erodible soils, was familiar with the effects of extreme weather events - just a month earlier Cyclone Hale had plunged it into a state of emergency and sent a mountain of wood debris and silt barrelling down hillsides - Gabrielle brought one battering too many from its forestry sector.

Gisborne Mayor Rehette Stoltz called it “carnage” and the reason for the outrage and despair was evident to the whole country after essential bridges and roads were smashed, scenic beaches turned into dangerous eyesores - a child died playing in the debris - and property wrecked.

As the region’s tiny, and only, local authority, the Gisborne District Council - its rates income in the 2022-2023 year was barely NZ$81 million - faced an enormous infrastructure recovery effort, the then Labour Government launched a ministerial inquiry into local land use.

The district council had successfully prosecuted a handful of forestry companies over operational rules breaches since 2018 and the people of Tairawhiti were in full revolt against an important, but now loathed, contributor to the local economy. A year on, what’s changed in the Tairāwhiti forestry industry, last valued in 2020 at NZ$480m?

The Tairāwhiti Resource Management Plan is also being reviewed. As part of this, council staff are mapping the most at-risk land, which will help identify where current land use is appropriate and signal where a land use change is needed.

The council, she says, is working with the local forestry sector to ensure steep, erosion-prone hill country “is planted and harvested with care”, and a dedicated forestry taskforce team has been created “to ensure proper land use practices to reduce the high sediment load and waste wood entering waterways”.

The local forestry industry has a vastly different view on progress. There’s been a “knee-jerk” reaction of new rules that risks “a huge number of unintended consequences”, says Eastland Wood Council chairman Warren Rance. Worse, he says, there’s still a scary, big danger lurking in the hills.

More >>

On reflecting on the impacts of the severe weather events of 2023 as the anniversary of Cyclone Gabrielle is marked, the Eastland Wood Council has vowed to continue to support the region’s cyclone recovery efforts and “seek out new and innovative ways” to build sustainability and mitigate risks in forestry. Read more

Source: NZ Herald, Gisborne Herald, Eastland Wood Council

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