Tough target of 1 billion trees

A shortage of labour and land could result in growing pains for the NZ Government's ambitious 1 billion trees programme. Shortly after the Government was formed last year, it set itself the lofty goal of planting 1 billion trees by 2027 as a way to grow the regions, create jobs, offset carbon emissions, enhance biodiversity and reinvigorate New Zealand's forestry industry.

Forestry is the country's fourth biggest earner behind tourism, contributing $5 billion annually to the economy and employing about 20,000 people. It currently covers about 1.7 million hectares of land, and the Ministry for Primary Industries estimates up to 1 million hectares would be required to plant a billion trees, assuming they were all commercial radiata pine. But about 13 per cent of trees planted would be natives, which are planted at a much denser rate.

Since the 1 billion trees programme was announced, nearly 7 million trees have been planted and more than 67 million seedlings have been sold for planting in 2018. Of these seedlings, 6.5 million were government-funded. The recent Budget allocated NZ$258 million to the programme, and Forestry Minister Shane Jones said planting rates would increase from 55 million trees a year to 70 million in 2020, and 90 million in 2021.

"From there we will be aiming for 110 million a year over the next seven years of the programme," Jones said. However, finding people to plant trees let alone maintain and harvest them could prove difficult, he said. "We've got a challenge – we can't find enough workers as it is." Hundreds of workers were needed to ramp up planting, he said.

"We need to do more preparing our young people to take on these roles and develop a career. The industry on a regular basis get on our case about this issue." Prison inmates preparing to transition back into society and into work could be a vital source of labour for the industry, Jones said. Nurseries were already being set up in prisons to introduce inmates to horticultural skills, he said.

The forestry industry would need to improve its safety track record and increase wages in order to get young people "off the couch". But another barrier for the programme was the "historical attitudes of farmers", Jones said. "They fear too much tree planting is going to diminish sheep and beef farming capacity."

The Government would be offering incentives to farmers to try convince them to convert farmland to productive forestry. Last week the Government forestry agency Te Uru Rakau announced it was partnering with Manuka Farming New Zealand to offer 1.8 million free manuka seedlings to landowners across New Zealand. MFNZ would conduct free site assessments to assess land suitability for establishing a manuka plantation.

Jones said some M?ori land owners were also wary of getting involved in forestry after suffering past bad experiences in the industry. Te Uru Rakau would help iwi plant land that was included in their treaty settlements, he said.

Forest Owners Association chief executive David Rhodes said the 1 billion trees programme was "challenging but doable". “A lack of labour would be the main thing holding the programme back, he said. "It's clear that there's a significant issue out there and we are going to struggle to find the numbers. That's going to have to be addressed or we're going to have a problem. Unemployed people would need to be trained and migrant labour would be needed, most likely from the Pacific Islands, who had traditionally filled forestry roles, Rhodes said.

Rising property prices could also make it difficult to find suitable land, and a scattergun approach to planting would be detrimental, he said. "The Crown has an obligation to be careful. "Planting any tree anywhere is not the model we want. We've had planting in the past that was in the wrong place and is creating issues even today."


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