Trees aren't taking over rural communities

Friday 21 Jun 2019

Foreign buyers are not investing "dollops of dough" into forests and displacing rural communities, Forestry Minister Shane Jones says. However, he acknowledged there was a perception the Billion Tree Programme was threatening the viability of rural New Zealand.

Ginger group 50 Shades of Green has sounded the alarm over a hike in the numbers of farms in Wairoa and Wairarapa being sold to foreign investors. Jones said he was preparing to meet up with the group to allay its fears.

Government incentives to plant trees have seen the median price of forestry farms rise by 45 per cent over the last year from $6487 to $9394 per hectare. Of eight farms near Wairoa which had recently been sold, only two of them should not have gone into forestry and would have been better remaining as dry stock farms, Forestry Ministry officials have said.

On Tuesday Jones, Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor and Deputy director of Forestry New Zealand Te Uru Rakau Julie Collins fronted media with an update on the programme.

Last year the tree planting target was 55 million, but 65 million were actually planted. This year it is expected to rise to 80 million, leading up to 100 million by 2021.

Jones and O'Connor said the programme was aimed at farmers, with a target of two-thirds natives and the remainder plantation. Farmers could tap into NZ$240 million in grants but there had not been a big uptake. "I've been puzzled over why they have been so slow to come forward. These are grants, not loans, and there's another NZ$117m for partnership schemes," Jones said.

Asked if there was a danger of land speculation if the price of carbon rose, O'Connor conceded it was a possibility that Climate Change Minister James Shaw was watching closely. He said he was working on adjustments to the Emissions Trading Scheme which might allow farmers to claim carbon credits for plantings such as shelter belts and riparian strips. Farmers "who have planted in good faith and for good reasons" might be able to aggregate their plantings.

The ministers said during the last decade more land had been converted from forestry to farming - about 7000 ha a year - including in unsuitable areas such as Wairakei Estates north of Taupo. That trend was now in reverse, with 9100 ha of new planting last year.

Collins said her ministry was using its discretion over who qualified for grants, which were up to NZ$2000 per ha for pines and NZ$4000 for native forest. "We have turned down people who have bought land and wanted to convert it all into trees, we've been clear the grant scheme isn't there to support whole farm conversions," she said. So far 54 planting grants worth NZ$4.4m have been approved, over two-thirds of which are under 50 ha. Recently questions had been raised over whether foreign investors can access the grants, but Collins said they could not if they bought to convert a whole farm.

Jones cautioned lobby groups who he said sided with the National Party. "I'm going to treat anyone who is travelling with the National Party as partisan foes, not as potential fellow travelers or partners."

Fifty Shades of Green spokesman Andy Scott said his organisation was bipartisan. "We're meeting with Labour and NZ First as well, and will be seeing them shortly. We pride ourselves on being as neutral as we possibly can." He said it was encouraging to hear that farmers might more readily be able to claim carbon credits off their plantings.

Source: Stuff

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