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           Home >  Regions  > Fiordland  :

South Island SILNA forests: clear felling, conservation, colonisation

Lynley Hargreaves - 24/06/03

Clearfelling of Maori-owned indigenous forests has been a continued blot on New Zealand's environmental and political landscapes. Now a new Government conservation deal has set aside its first slice of SILNA land. But will it, asks Lynley Hargreaves, solve this century-old problem?

If 150 years of underhand politics were ever to come to a bad end, you wouldn't expect it to happen near Fiordland. Rich in moss, mist and mozzies, New Zealand's southernmost forests appear serene, remote and virtually untouched by human hands. Yet they are the scene, almost ten years after it went out of fashion, of catastrophic clearfelling. The reason? The tangled legacy of colonisation.

Maori land loss
In the mid-nineteenth century New Zealand Maori were rapidly losing ownership of their traditional food gathering sites and reserves. Land-for-settlement offers excluded Maori and having to work for a wage was seen by some colonialists as the only way to civilise the natives.

By the end of the century this civilisation was taking its toll -- so many South Island Maori were poverty-ridden and landless that the colonial government had to take action.

The solution decided upon was a resettlement scheme exclusively for landless South Island Maori. In 1906, around 4000 Maori, mostly from Canterbury and Otago, were duly doled out 57,000 mostly Southland hectares under the 1906 South Island Landless Natives Act (SILNA).

That the acreage wasn't where most were from doesn't display the cruel irony of the government's gift. Most of the land was miles from any roads, uninhabitable and worthless. The worst was in Waitutu forest, remote, wet, and rumoured to have moss a metre thick.

A Waitangi tribunal report found it was unable to escape the conclusion that the act was perpetuating a "cruel hoax."

Treasured trees
But times change, and yesteryear's useless forests are today's treasured trees. Remaining forested SILNA lands are the largest private resource of native forests in the country. Some SILNA land has been logged and other tracts -- notably the vast majority of Waitutu forest -- have been bought into the conservation estate with cash from the Government.

Much more SILNA land deserves to be conserved so, last May, the Government came up with $19.7 million to help protect SILNA forests. For the 5000 hectares they consider to have the best conservation value, the Government is offering $2500 to buy a conservation covenant on a hectare of old-growth forest, and $1000 per hectare for less pristine land.

Now Conservation Minister Chris Carter has announced the first of those deals. A 125 hectare block of land in West Rowallan forest, near Southland's new Hump Ridge track, will now be conserved in perpetuity. The exact payout for this deal is undisclosed, but it has been reported that the 86 families that own the land will each receive $1000.

SILNA land, adjacent to Fiordland National Park
SILNA land, adjacent to Fiordland National Park
Photo source Lynley Hargreaves
This, the Conservation Minister hopes, will be the first of a steady stream of settlements. However Rex Austin, chairman of the West Rowallan Block, has his doubts: 'The Government is trying to acquire land on the cheap.' The only reason they signed, he adds, is because they had decided that saving the forest was their principle objective. Money, says Austin, 'was incidental to our group.'

For other owners, hoping for more than an optimum conservation outcome, $2500 per hectare isn't enough.

Sustainable management or clear felling?
"That comes down to a couple of bags of spuds a year," says owner Pat Tumaru (if you consider it annual income since 1906). Tumaru is part owner of the 113 hectare Paiki block, deep in the heart of Waitutu forest. The Waitutu Paiki Trust, unusually for SILNA owners, has gained resource consent to sustainably manage the block. But if the Government offers don't go high enough, Tumaru says, they might start clearfelling instead.

The logging contractor for the block, Graeme Muldrew, has already cleared trees for a helicopter pad and boundary markings. "I'm waiting for the word: if he says clearfell I'll clearfell," he says.

"There's a lovely population of birds there, lots of birds," adds Muldrew. And if they clearfell? "There'll probably be nothing there for the next 300 years."

The Paiki block, one of the few left unprotected within Waitutu forest, lies on marine terraces that would have likely been cleared for farmland if roads had ever reached the area. Waitutu is the largest section of forest -- rimu, miro, Hall's totara, rata, kamahi and silver beech -- still intact on a New Zealand coastal flatland.

Green groups have been largely unwilling to tackle the SILNA issue. But the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society did, along with the Department of Conservation, object to the Waitutu Paiki Trust's resource consent for sustainable logging. Forest and Bird lost that case, appealed, then withdrew when the Government announced its new compensation package. Spokesperson Sue Maturin says, "We're very disappointed the owners don't want to protect their forests."

Waitutu forest
So why would Maori, guardians of the land, want to mow down virgin forest? Waitutu Incorporation chairman John Southerwood, a sprightly old timer who accepted a Government deal eight years ago, has an answer. "You put yourself in our shoes - we'd had that place for a hundred years and never got a cent off it."

The Waitutu Incorporation, which includes most of the owners of Waitutu forest blocks, was just about to make some money off their land -- by clearfelling their 2167ha forest -- when they accepted the Government deal in 1996.

They signed a conservation covenant, so that Waitutu is managed as if it is part of Fiordland National Park. The incorporation retains ownership of the land (buying it would presumably have cost the Government more) and, says Southerwood, some very good rights of use. "We have our marae there, and we also have mooring rights in the river."

The incorporation got $13.5 million and 11,582ha of forest in the nearby Longwood range. That beech forest -- the inclusion of which irked conservationists -- is being managed on a sustained yield basis. That cash inflow allows the Waitutu Incorporation to pay out about $2500 to each of the original 20ha allotments each year.

Including the value of the Longwoods forest, the deal worked out at about $8500 a hectare. That was more, according to Southerwood, than they would have got from clearfelling the land. "It would have cost us a fortune to get the logs out," he says. "Helicopter logging operations are not cheap."

The cost of conservation
The other deal that has put SILNA land into a permanent conservation state came in 1999 for Stewart Island's Lord River forest. That deal garnered the owners of the 3515ha a total of $10.9 million, or about $3000 a hectare. And that's not too different from the current offer, points out Pete Hodgson, who co-ordinated much SILNA policy as Minister of Forestry.

But, says Southerwood, some of the properties have two or three hundred stems of rimu per hectare, which could each sell for up to $2800 each. "The Government is offering the price of less than one of the trees per hectare. I think any of the trustees who took up that offer could well be taken to court by their beneficiaries for wasting their assets."

Tumaru adds that the price of rimu has risen substantially since the other deals, because state-owned-enterprise Timberlands West Coast has been forced to end its indigenous operations.

The rest of the country hasn't been able to legally clearfell native forest since 1993, when the Forest Amendment Act restricted logging of private bush to that considered sustainable.

SILNA land 'special'?
SILNA land was exempted from that Act because, the thinking went, the land was meant for an economic base for Maori. Curbing clearfelling would naturally interfere with the land's money making capability. This 'specialness' of SILNA came on advice from the Crown Law office.

But the current Labour Government thinks that decision was wrong, and now they've got the Crown Law office backing them up. After a good look at history, says Hodgson, "Crown Law came back and they said, 'Guess what, we've made a mistake. SILNA land is not special.' "

But if that is what the Government thinks, says University of Otago law lecturer Nicola Wheen, "then it should have put it to parliament that SILNA land no longer be exempt from the Act. And if parliament didn't want to agree with the Government then the Government should have lumped it."

It tried that, says Hodgson, "and the locals went crazy saying that they are special and that this is a Waitangi issue."

Using the RMA
Instead they've tried to use other bits of legislation, such as the over-arching 1991 Resource Management Act (RMA), to stop SILNA land being logged. If SILNA land is subject to the RMA (and there's an Environment Court decision to say that it is), then SILNA owners need a resource consent to cut wood.

And resource consents can be thin on the ground when it comes to allowing clearfelling, says Southland District Council resource planning officer Bruce Halligan. "The Government is placing a bit of reliance on our district plans to stop logging from happening while they seek to negotiate with various owners."

Applying the RMA in that way is dishonest, says Wheen, and she's not convinced the Environment Court got it right anyway. When you've got two acts that disagree, she says, the usual procedure is to lob for the most recent one. In this instance, that would be the SILNA land exemption to controls under the 1993 Forests Amendment Act.

At that Environment Court case, adds Canterbury University forestry lecturer Nora Devoe, "the Crown had about 35 lawyers. The Crown has put a lot of resources into limiting that right [to clearfell]."

Counters Hodgson: "Do you think that this group of New Zealanders should not be subject to New Zealand law? I think it's a silly argument to say that some people should be exempt from the RMA.

"It's true that some RMA decisions will effectively preclude clearfelling. But if that's the case, then other solutions arise."

Those other solutions offered to SILNA owners include Government assistance to set up sustainable management operations, about $34 a hectare for each year they place a temporary moratorium on all logging, or signing a conservation covenant in return for cash.

The price of trees
But the point for owners, many of whom don't believe their land is subject to the RMA, is that a sustainably managed forest isn't worth all that much. If they can clearfell, $2500 per hectare is a pretty raw deal. But if they're stuck with low profit sustainable logging, it suddenly seems fair.

The Paiki block, of which Pat Tumaru is part owner, is one of the only SILNA blocks to get a resource consent to sustainably log their forest. But even in densely forested Waitutu forest, they can't take many trees out each year. And though those trees are high value, being 45km from the nearest road puts costs way up. Sustainable management, says Muldrew, "doesn't come cheap."

So it's not surprising then that some SILNA owners, Government and RMA regulations be damned, are still opting to clearcut. That's the business of Alan Johnston: "I've been sawmilling practically all my life."

Johnston opened his Tuatapere mill in 1972 and has been signing SILNA owners up to log ever since. But the pickings have become slimmer. "I did an article when I was at high school and there were 25 sawmills within a 15 mile radius of Tuatapere. And now we're down to two."

Where all that wood came from is easily apparent weaving through forestry roads out to Johnston's latest logging site. The truck wends its way through kilometres of pine and eucalyptus; areas that were once cloaked in native bush.

Johnston's mill, with 45 workers, mostly cuts up beech, along with a little bit of rimu and totara. That wood goes to make flooring, paneling, furniture and kebab sticks.

The trees Alan Johnson logs go to make flooring, panelling, furniture and
	kebab sticks.
The trees Alan Johnson logs go to make flooring, panelling, furniture and kebab sticks.
Photo source Lynley Hargreaves
It takes his wee mill two years to chop through a typical 120ha SILNA block. That nets the owners at least $500,000, he says, and then they have land to plant in pine.

The Government conservation covenant would get owners of the same area about $300,000. While that's not such a big difference, none of the blocks Johnston has lined up to chop are actually party to the offer: only blocks with a high conservation value are being offered the cash-for-covenant deal. That high conservation value land is also likely to be worth more in terms of millable trees.

Legal battles
What's not clear in all this is exactly how Alan Johnston's operation is legal when he doesn't have resource consent to clearfell. Halligan says Johnston has some existing use rights that date back to before the Southland District Council's existence. Johsnton himself doesn't mention these existing use rights. He doesn't need a resource consent to log SILNA land, he says, "because it's the Maori's right to do what they want with their land." And, he adds, "It's the old story of not putting your head above the parapets so they can't shoot you off. I just keep my head down and keep going."

Halligan doesn't know what those existing use rights are, exactly, and to find out each block would have to be individually investigated. "We're not going to do a big academic exercise investigating all the blocks in Rowallan forest," says Halligan. "Before we take enforcement action -- and spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars -- we're going to make sure we know what we're talking about."

The council is also not keen to take people to court, especially someone like Alan Johnston who has already had one legal triumph over Government. When the Government tried to stop him sending woodchips overseas a few years ago, Johnston took them to court and won.

He'd been milling beech trees into timber and wood chips, and exporting the chips to makers of glossy paper in Japan. But in 1996 the Government came up with regulations through the innocuous Customs and Excise Act to stop the export of unsustainably milled indigenous timber and chip. Johnston says, "I felt I was hard done by for the simple reason I was on exempted land still abiding by the [1993 Forest Amendment] Act and within the law." The customs act, adds Nicola Wheen, is all about controlling exports and imports, not how people use their land. "[The judge said] 'it's not the right act to do it under, you haven't got the right motives, you're being underhand.' And indeed it was being underhand.

"And that's what I don't like, the processes that the Government has used and the approach that is taken."

Johnston has further suspicions: his Japanese buyer stopped buying and he thinks the Government offered them a deal. Now huge piles of smaller trees and branches lie on the site, bordering Fiordland National Park, rotting.

Would-be woodchips: left over wood that now lies rotting on site
Would-be woodchips: left over wood that now lies rotting on site
Photo source Lynley Hargreaves
The luck of the draw
In any case Johnston isn't the only one busy with a chainsaw. Every so often cases crop up of accidental (or not) felling of SILNA trees. Last year in the Catlins, confusion over changing district lines and coastal strip definitions meant SILNA owner Les Dunn illegally knocked over a few acres of trees on Southland SILNA land.

The council's been talking to him about this, says Halligan. If such activity continued, the council would have to look at enforcement action.

But, admits Halligan, "there is probably a bit of reluctance on the part of our elected representatives to get too involved in the SILNA issue."

Any real involvement to the SILNA issue, points out Nicola Wheen, should take all SILNA land into account. At the moment, the Government is only negotiating deals on land the Department of Conservation is interested in. "From a conservation point of view that makes all the sense in the world. But from the land owners' point of view that's just the luck of the draw," she says.

One huge scrub-covered SILNA block in Otago, for instance, is as unsuitable for farming, forestry or anything else as it was in 1906. Until some other contentious activity such as mining is mooted for the spot, such blocks are unlikely to warrant Government interest.

It's clear that SILNA owners got a raw deal once, in the 1800s, and twice, in 1906. Third time lucky? The answer seems to be probably not.






 
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