Slash has caused huge amounts of environmental destruction following cyclones earlier this year. The forestry industry is also crucial for the economy of the Tairāwhiti and Wairoa districts. A new report suggests what should come next.
What’s forestry slash again?
Slash is debris, like branches, wood chips and logs, left on the land after clear-fell forestry, sometimes for years. While forestry practices vary wildly and some foresters clean up their slash as much as possible, others leave the detritus on the land for years. This is OK when the land is flat, but can be disastrous when it’s steep. In hilly regions like the East Cape, big flood events wash the debris (called slash) along with soil from the exposed hillsides into the river systems, creating dams and jams. Rivers filled with powerful water, mud and chunks of wood can do immense damage to land and infrastructure. Slash has been a problem in Tairāwhiti for decades; forestry is a significant employer in the region.
There are also social effects of slash: beaches covered in debris are not easy to walk on, don’t attract tourists and can be deadly – a 12-year-old boy died in Gisborne following Cyclone Hale earlier this year after being hit by a log floating in the water. Cleaning up that damage is difficult, time-consuming and expensive, especially when damage to roads makes it harder for the necessary equipment to access the area. Cyclone Hale and then Cyclone Gabrielle meant that slash damaged homes, land and infrastructure throughout the region. We have a full explainer on that here.
Slow down. What is clear-fell forestry?
Clear felling is how most commercial forests are harvested in New Zealand. The trees are cut down all at once, so the land goes from having decades-old trees to nothing overnight. The saleable wood is then removed from the land. There are alternatives, including continuous cover or staged coupe harvesting, where trees are removed in sections over time.
Why are we talking about it now?
After the devastation of Cyclone Gabrielle, the government commissioned a “ministerial inquiry into land uses associated with woody debris (including forestry slash)”, AKA the most long-winded way to title an important investigation into this issue. The inquiry, led by former National minister Hekia Parata, released its report last Friday after consulting with communities and corporations throughout the East Coast – and it is scathing.
Here are some quotes as a sampler: “The residue sitting in streams and on hillslopes further up the catchment is poised to repeat the cycle of misery in the next storm.”
“No other part of Aotearoa New Zealand is required to endure the scale and level of risk of failed and failing infrastructure [than Tairāwhiti and Wairoa, which depend on SH35].”
“The forest industry has lost its social licence in Tairāwhiti due to a culture of poor practices – facilitated by the [Gisborne District Council]’s capitulation to the permissiveness of the regulatory regime and its under-resourced monitoring and compliance.”
The report is interested in the whole of the system that makes the damage from woody debris so acute. This includes the forestry industry and the way it is regulated, yes, but also failures of infrastructure, how watersheds are managed, and the impact on Māori-owned land specifically.
It also takes a wide view of the ways the communities and land are affected by slash, from the huge amount of soil loss that is associated with clear-fell forestry on the district’s steep erosion-prone hills, to the psychological toll on individuals whose land and homes are at risk of being damaged in any flood.
What can be done about it?
The inquiry has more than 49 recommendations, which you can read in full here. This includes:
- Creating a much-better-named “woody debris taskforce” for ongoing monitoring of the issue.
- The immediate halt of clear-fell forestry, instead replacing it with staged felling of no more than 40 acres at a time.
- Recategorising land and banning forestry in the most erosion-prone areas.
- Creating a biodiversity scheme that would work in partnership with the Emissions Trading Scheme to incentivise non-monocultural uses of land.
- Increasing resources and investment in other kinds of economic activity in the region.
- Strengthening infrastructure so it’s less vulnerable, including having more wharves for remote communities to use when the highway is out of action, as well as developing a resilience plan for SH35.
- Legislation mandating restoration and maintenance of Waiapu and Waipaoa rivers, including legal personality.
- Resources for a “just transition” to new economic models and climate change realities in Tairāwhiti, including ongoing cyclone recovery, community healthcare and research into and support for new industries for the local economy, linked under a common vision of a thriving region with community buy-in.
Implementing these recommendations would be expensive, but forestry minister Peeni Henare has said that the recommendations will lead to meaningful action by the government; at least $10m has been allocated in the 2023 budget to clear 70,000 tonnes of debris. Henare has also announced resources for more wood processing locally, as well as expanding other income options like blueberry farming in the region.
Why is action so urgent?
While the report is wide-ranging, the limited time is clear. Soil scientists who presented to the inquiry described how nearly half the soil loss in the region came from steep gullies that had been planted with trees. Without action, the soil loss would be irretrievable within 10 years, and with the reality of climate change exacerbating natural disasters, creating better resilience and removing forest debris from the land as soon as possible is essential.
How have people reacted to the report?
Gisborne District Council mayor Rehette Stoltz said the council was looking forward to working with iwi to clear forest debris and become more resilient for future events. However, she took issue with many aspects of the report. “We are extremely disappointed in the findings of the panel and we fundamentally disagree with several recommendations in the report,” she said. “We went into this inquiry in good faith with a view to working to ensure that in implementing the recommendations, we had the best interests of our community at heart. This is incredibly disappointing.”
Forest Owners Association president Grand Dodson told RNZ the report was “too hasty”. “The practices have been improved dramatically since 2018 but this wasn’t enough to improve the situation,” he said, adding that the problem had started a century ago when native trees were first taken off the land. While he welcomed many of the recommendations, which he said could make the region more resilient, he added that a “cost-benefit analysis” needed to be done for some of them. Much of the forestry land had been sold as full-production forests, with trees planted all at the same time. If the rule changes to harvesting only 5% of a catchment in a year, this could be a problem. “It’ll take 20 years to harvest a catchment – that’ll come with a loss of productivity and a loss of jobs.”