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Sustainable use of diverse forests

Jeanette Fitzsimons, New Zealand Tree Grower August 2014

One of the presentations at the conference was to have been made by Jeanette Fitzsimons a long-time member of the NZFFA. Unfortunately the weather conditions meant that a number of flights were delayed or cancelled and this presentation could not be made. The conference organisers asked if a modified version could be printed in this Tree Grower.

In the second decade of the 21st century we are facing a very uncertain world, where perhaps the only certainty is that the future will not be like the past. Among this uncertainty there are a few challenges which stand out –

  • How can we reverse the build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which is already destabilising our climate and threatening our biologically-based economy?
  • How can we strengthen our economy, which is too dependent on one industry which may be threatened by changes in climate?
  • How can we protect fresh water quality which is already degraded by increased use, especially for irrigation, and by animal effluents?
  • How can we maintain transport systems which currently run on mineral oil, when oilfields are in decline and the energy required to extract each barrel is rising fast?

Along with these, and connected with them, are some subsidiary challenges –

  • How can we feed our stock in the droughts which look like becoming the new normal in some parts of the country?
  • How can we maintain the health of bee colonies we rely on for pollination?
  • How can we build to better withstand earthquakes?
  • How can we reduce our use of coal?
  • Can we make steel without coal?
  • How can we slow the rate at which our hills are slipping into the sea?

A single solution – trees

These are, of course, very diverse questions and the answers must also be diverse. There could not be a single answer to all of them. It is not a secret that the answer to all these questions is trees, but it is widely ignored.

It is amazing that one type of living organism can sequester carbon, filter water and slow down run-off, hold soil together, provide feed, shade and shelter for stock, feed bees, maintain native birds, cool the landscape and provide us with exercise, recreational opportunities, stunning, diverse landscapes and the peace and beauty of forests.At the same time the products can give us new export opportunities in the form of –

  • Earthquake resilient buildings
  • Ships, fences and bridges
  • Writing, printing and photocopying materials
  • Clothing
  • Solid fuel for industrial boilers and home heating• Liquid fuels for transport.

Strategic asset

In my vision for the sustainable use of diverse forests and their wood products, trees are our greatest strategic advantage for maintaining a prosperous economy and a healthy way of life in an uncertain future. First, there would be more of them. Every stream would be planted with wide margins. Steep hillsides would be replanted with permanent forests to sequester carbon permanently, hold water and slow erosion. These would be mainly native forests with habitat for wildlife and opportunities for people to enjoy. The permanent carbon sequestration would be valued and paid for.

Neighbours recently pointed out to me that they no longer see the two waterfalls that used to gush down our mountainside after heavy rain. Instead they see a trickle a couple of days later which goes on for much longer. That is after just 20 years of natural revegetation with mainly kanuka and mahoe.

Stock feed

Farms in my future would all have trees specially planted for stock feed in times of drought or snow. They would not just be willow and poplar, although these are good. During the most recent drought, which was as serious as last year in our valley, branches from mahoe, kawakawa and coprosma, then blackwood if they are really hungry, have kept our cows and ewes in good health and saved our hay for the winter.

In my future we would need less irrigation water. A few years ago I visited an intensive dairy farm in Canterbury which has 40 hectares of pasture dotted with mature trees of many kinds, mostly food bearing. It was a beautiful landscape, but conventional wisdom advised they should fell the trees to make room for travelling irrigators. Instead the farmer installed pop-up irrigators in lines between the trees. This was more expensive, but it turned out he could then live within his water right allocation because the partial shade reduced his water need by a quarter. The cows were also appreciative of the shelter.

At about the same time I visited Bruce Wills’ farm in Hawkes Bay where drought can be extreme. He told the story of how his father used to go out with the chainsaw and fell the kanuka which kept coming up in the paddocks. He now lets them grow and prunes them as high as he can, creating patches of shade that move around with the sun, shade stock and conserve water.

Tree products

What about the products from trees? Present practice is to grow virtually all radiata pine, waste half the tree at harvest, then export more than half of the rest unprocessed for very low value. It is a bit like having only Friesian cows, knocking their calves on the head, taking only the cream and throwing away the milk.

Many people in the NZFFA know the pleasure of planting special purpose species, pruning and managing them, and finally having them turned into fine furniture. We planted our chestnuts at five metre spacing to select those with the best nuts and have a fine set of bedroom furniture from those that did not make the grade. This employs local craftspeople and creates economic return with virtually no imported content and an almost zero carbon footprint.

Rebuilding Christchurch

In my future we would have a national wood strategy, developed with the industry, foresters, processors, scientists and everyone else involved. It would start with a ‘wood first’ requirement for all government buildings. It would not be that they must use wood, but that they must consider it on a total cost-benefit basis before choosing anything else. It is tragic that Christchurch is being rebuilt mainly in steel and concrete. These generate very high carbon emissions in their manufacture and do not provide the carbon storage which a wooden building does.

It is years now since Canterbury University proved its world-leading pre-stressed, laminated timber beams which can support a building up to six stories. Christchurch could have been internationally famous for demonstrating this in most of the new buildings. The greater demand for timber could have seen some of those raw logs which leave our shores staying here, sequestering carbon, resilient in earthquakes and earning us more than the low price we currently get.

If business is to plan and invest for the long term it is no good creating a speculative market in carbon where the price fluctuates between $25 and a few cents. That is fine for those whose game is speculation, but not for honest growers of timber, and not for the country at large wanting to maximise the use of its major strategic advantage. I know some foresters did quite well out of selling credits obtained for post-1990 plantings at $25 and buying more for cents before deforesting. But I think even they would agree that is not good for the long term future of forestry.

A decent stable carbon price which gradually increased over time in a planned way would also make fuels from wood waste start to look very interesting compared with fossil fuels. By this I mean the large quantities of logging residues which are piled at skid sites and left to rot or even burned to get rid of them.

There are so many potential uses for this in a post-fossil fuel economy that a whole new industry could be built around harvesting, drying, chipping and transporting them. As chips they are boiler fuel. Further processed they can eventually make liquid transport fuels. A major strand in the national wood strategy needs to pull together the research being done by Scion and others, fund it well and set an objective of replacing a large part of our oil based fuels within a decade.

Even newer and more innovative, is so-called green coke. A local start-up business, less than 10 km from the conference in Blenheim, has created an innovative micro-wave process to turn waste wood chips into high carbon coke that can be dropped into a blast furnace to make steel.

Vision and determination

Therefore we have a picture of a future New Zealand, where coal and petroleum fuels are replaced by sustainably managed biofuels and petro-chemicals are replaced by bio-chemicals made in bio-refineries. We have the science in our Crown Research Institutes and universities and in private industry. We have the land. We have the skills to grow and manage and harvest trees. We still have the climate, and even a changing climate will be kinder to trees than to dairy cows.

We could have thousands of new jobs in a raft of new industries that would replace products we currently import. We could protect ourselves against oil shocks and the rapidly rising ‘energy return on energy invested’ which has caused peak oil and rising oil prices. We could have a beautiful, diverse landscape that brings us more joy than video games.

It needs people who can think outside the square and see the new possibilities. It needs leadership. It also needs a big change in national policy to see our future as growing above the ground rather than digging under it. If we want that future, it is there for the taking with a bit of vision, imagination and determination.

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