Forests

New National Environmental Standard for Plantation Forestry

By Cath Wallace

The Ministry for the Environment (MfE) is currently developing new national level policy for plantation forestry to assist regional and district planning under the RMA. The work to date has focused on a proposed National Environmental Standard (NES) for Plantation Forestry as the tool of choice. A NES could be used to provide a consistent set of rules that apply across the country. Initially, MfE produced a discussion document which outlined a number of problems for improvement, and a possible remedy in the form of a new NES was proposed. This document has since gone out for public consultation and all of the submissions received are now available to the public on the MfE website at:

http://www.mfe.govt.nz/laws/standards/forestry/submissions/index.html

ECO and many other submitters found that the discussion document dwelt on the desirability of efficiency and consistency in the treatment of plantation forestry, but tended to neglect environmental considerations which ought to be central to any improvements in the status quo under the RMA. The discussion document is aimed at a range of forestry activities including mechanical land preparation, afforestation, earthworks, the operation of quarries for the sake of forestry operations, and harvesting. The proposed NES in the discussion document suggested that many of the controls on these actvities could be done as nationally “Permitted Activities” with prescribed conditions and standards. This is in contrast to, rather than being subject to, differing rules and processes that currently occur under various regional and district plans and resource consents as is the status quo. On the positive side, regional and local councils could increase the standard’s stringency if they want to, but only in relation to a defined list of activities.

ECO made a substantive submission on this Proposed NES, and Co-chair Cath Wallace has met with and discussed issues of concern with the Ministry for the Environment and with the Forest Owners Association and the Institute of Forestry. Of major concern are the lack of alignment of the purpose of the NES with the Purpose and Principles of the Resource Management Act, and the lack of attention to biodiversity, pest control, and downstream effects especially on aquatic ecosystems and social effects. These are difficult to address using a NES tool due to its reliance on a prescriptive approach, which is in turn reliant on a high level of existing information, and on very tight definitions of rules in order to be effective. Many of the proposed definitions are considered problematic and would lead to substantial opportunity for ‘gaming’ the system, with a high likelihood of counter-productive environmental results.

ECO, like many other submitters, has raised questions as to how an activity-based NES would fit within an effects -based Act, and how the degree of specification could be achieved that would work for the variation of local conditions – even with an ability to increase the stringency of conditions for specified activities. ECO is particularly concerned that permissive conditions around “permitted activities” could result in creep of “permitted baselines” for other industries and their activities as well – though we recognise that these rules could also raise expectations on other industries in some aspects of their operation. Any ambiguity in the definition of activities covered by a new NES would produce a major risk factor in this regard, and there are many loose definitions in the discussion document. An example is that of “cultivation” which “includes drainage, felling bush, clearing land for cropping, and clearing land for planting” (p128).

On a positive note, Exec member Shane Orchard was amongst the participants attending a series of workshops convened by the Ministry for the Environment to address feedback from submitters and consider the range of approaches available to best address the issues. The workshops were held in November/early December 2010 and covered topics such as erosion and plant invasion (wilding trees) More information and updates can be found here: http://www.mfe.govt.nz/laws/standards/forestry/index.html

There has been no further progress on the national standards as at mid-2012.

This article has been edited from the original article that appeared in the December 2010 ECOlink.