Pine seedlings on a former farm, Tararua district - Photo: RNZ / Kate Newton
Vast new pine forests are being hailed as a solution to New Zealand's carbon emissions deficit - and promise a lucrative pay-day for investors. But farmers say they're gutting rural communities, not all environmentalists see them as a silver bullet, and the profits are largely being reaped by foreign owners.
Want to plant a pine tree? It'll cost you a dollar. 38 cents for the seedling, a spiky, spindly finger; 55 cents for the labour to plant it; 8 cents for the cost of managing the labour.
John Rogan's crew have planted about 350,000 of them so far. "Tree here, tree there - it's like tossing little dollar coins on the ground," he says. Concentrate on the variations in the grass and, like a magic-eye illustration, the seedlings flip into focus one after the other, every three metres, all the way to the grey horizon at the crest of the hill.
Rogan's mostly teenage workers, skin burnished by wind and sun, tramp up and down hillsides, lugging 200 seedlings at a time in canvas buckets slung into harnesses. After 10 weeks of planting, their movements with spade, seedling and boot are sparse and sure: stab open a wedge of earth, jab a tree into the ground, stomp the hole closed. Stab, jab, stomp. The crew's mascot Johnny, a beady-eyed little dog who looks like he was assembled from wispy oddments of wool, scampers behind on short legs.
This land on hills somewhere north of Tiraumea, which is somewhere north of Masterton, used to be a 735-hectare sheep and cattle farm. Then in May, its New Zealand owner sold it for $3.35 million to a Singapore-based Irishman called Hugh Lane-Spollen.
Consent for the purchase was granted by the Overseas Investment Office on 3 May this year. A fortnight later, on 17 May, the office granted approval to Lane-Spollen to purchase Waihua Station, a 1037ha sheep and beef farm near Wairoa. Two months later, a third purchase was approved: Te Au Station, a 711ha coastal station north of Mahia peninsula whose previous owners farmed the property for 23 years. All up, in the space of two months, Lane-Spollen bought 2500ha, much of it prime pasture land, for just shy of $15 million - about $6000 a hectare. Planting began within weeks.
At the moment, the seedlings look like prickly mutations of the pasture surrounding them. In two years' time, though, they will stand about a metre tall. With every year that follows, they will gain another metre or more in height. Eventually, the pasture will be gone, buried beneath a hushed blanket of rust-coloured pine needles.
All around the country, but especially from northern Hawkes Bay down to the southern Wairarapa, land is being gobbled up by a new and voracious thirst for radiata pine trees, their growth encouraged by a revamped emissions trading scheme, the government's flagship One Billion Trees programme, which aims to reach its goal by 2027, and a forestry fast-track for foreign investors. With them, they carry the allure of fast-growing carbon sinks and regional development minister's Shane Jones' promise of jobs for the "nephews".
But rural communities and some environmentalists are forging an unlikely alliance, pleading with the government to put the brakes on the green rush. The ecologists fear a monoculture that lacks the biodiversity of native forests and risks further environmental disasters - like the torrent of slash and sediment that barrelled into Tolaga Bay last year - without any meaningful carbon sequestration. Sheep and beef farmers, watching as their former neighbours' properties are planted, fear the hollowing out of their settlements after the initial flurry of activity.
From Wairoa to Wairarapa, there are stories. Six kids and their families gone from one road. 11,000 sheep and cattle sent to slaughter from a single station as the land is cleared of stock. A volunteer firefighter gone from one settlement, a primary school teacher from another. "A farmer spends pretty well everything in his local town and contributes to that local town," Wairoa mayor Craig Little says. "With forestry, a lot of them now, they're planting it and shutting the gates. And that's it forever until they mill it."
A growing trend
Pungent bonfire smoke is wafting across the gravel driveway at Murray's Nurseries on the outskirts of Woodville, north of Masterton, as workers take a leisurely smoko in an open-air shed next to the flames. It's the end of the growing season and there's little left to do except burn the rejects - a few anaemic pine seedlings that didn't make the cut.
Murray's Nurseries - which specialises in radiata pine - normally grow five million seedlings a year. This season, they did 10.2 million. They grow for large, established forestry companies like Ernslaw, smaller forest enterprises and some forestry consultants, and the regional council. This is also the first year the company has grown seedlings for New Zealand Carbon Farming, Murray says. "That has been the biggest increase in our demand, is that alliance - and that's provision to grow up to 80 million trees over the next nine years."
It could just be the start. Plantation forests - mostly radiata pine - cover about 1.7 million ha of land. A Productivity Commission report concluded last year that New Zealand could get to net-zero carbon by 2050 by planting another 1.3m to 2.8mha of fast-growing exotics that suck carbon emissions from the atmosphere.
But if that's the goal, New Zealand is unlikely to get there with domestic investment alone. In a paper that went to Cabinet last May, associate finance minister David Parker said the forestry sector was "reliant on direct overseas investment in a way that neither rural land nor residential land are", with up to 70 percent of plantation trees in overseas ownership. Future growth needed "continuing and increasing" overseas investment, Parker wrote.
That has led to the government openly welcoming foreign investment in land for forestry at the same time as it's banned offshore investors from purchasing houses and tightened the rules for sales of farmland to foreign buyers.
In November 2017 forestry minister Shane Jones trumpeted a new ministerial directive letter to the Overseas Investment Office that told officials to place high importance on "the advancement of [the government's] forestry-related strategies" when deciding whether to approve land sales.
A year later, in October 2018, the government introduced a streamlined 'special forestry test' for overseas buyers wanting to purchase land that currently is or will be used exclusively for forestry. Under the test, buyers do not have to prove any particular benefit to New Zealand - they merely have to pass the standard good character test; commit to re-planting trees if they are harvested; and maintain any existing arrangements, such as public access to land or contracts with domestic log processors.
So far, the OIO has approved 19 applications under the special test, accounting for 58,700ha of land. Overall, this government has presided over the sale of nearly 217,000ha of forestry-related land to foreign owners - 10 percent of it previously in New Zealand hands.
The newly-favourable conditions have allowed some foreign companies to massively and rapidly increase their New Zealand holdings. New Forests Asset Management, an Australian-based company that operates multiple forestry investment funds, owned about 11,400ha of land prior to the change in government. Since then, it has purchased another 66,000ha, making the company the third largest private landowner in New Zealand and the seventh largest landowner overall, based on RNZ's analysis of Land Information data. Each OIO approval has mentioned either the special forestry test or the One Billion Trees programme.
The amount buyers are willing to pay has rocketed. Real Estate Institute data for the year to July shows the average price per hectare for North Island forestry land (not counting farmland that gets converted to forestry) is now $15,000 - more than double the price a year ago.
It's harder to quantify how much farmland has been converted to forestry. Information RNZ collated from local councils, the Overseas Investment Office and land agents has identified at least 36,438ha of farmland that has been sold to either domestic or foreign buyers to be substantially planted in radiata pine.
Ed Harrison, an analyst for agricultural consultancy BakerAg, co-authored a report on behalf of Beef + Lamb New Zealand that compared carbon farming and plantation forestry models to a sheep and beef farm model, based on figures from Wairoa district. The financial returns over 60 years from the forestry models were at least double the farming option. "The returns there are compelling for carbon farming or some sort of timber use." If the current carbon price of $25 a tonne falls, that could change things, Harrison says. "But the signals we're getting is that carbon's here to stay."
Forced from the farm
The day Andrea James left Hadleigh Station, she locked the doors of the farm's big wooden homestead behind her and shared a bottle of bubbles in the driveway with friends from the neighbouring farm. Then she got in the car and drove away.
It's been nearly a year since Andrea, her husband Dan and sons Tom, 10, and Charlie, 8, were forced to leave the Wairarapa station they managed for six years, but the memory still rankles. "It was pretty shite."
Hadleigh was "a showpiece property", Dan says. Fifteen minutes' drive from Masterton, it was owned by farming corporate Lone Star Farms - which appealed to the couple when they were hired in 2012. "It was the succession thing," Andrea says. "No farm owner's sons could come in and take over from us and kick us out." They sent Tom, then Charlie, to the local kindy and primary school, assuming the boys would carry on to the local high school with their friends.
But in late 2017, the owners - wanting financing to exercise a water right they had on another property in the South Island - decided to cash up. "There was only one tender fired, really," Dan says. "And that was a forestry one." It was the last outcome the couple had expected. Dan believes the land was too good to go into forestry. "It was usually hard rocks in the back of beyond that got planted for forestry, not something 15 minutes out of town, which 60 percent of it you could get a wheel tractor over."
The new owner was an Austrian countess, who had veteran forestry consultant Roger Dickie broker the deal. Struggling to find new work, the Jameses hoped they might be kept on to farm some of the land during the transition phase. "Everybody thought it was going to take three, four years to plant and they were going to do it in sections," Dan says. "Then we sat around the table with Roger Dickie and he said they were gonna plant it in one year." There was no room for negotiation. "They already had the trees all ordered and pre-booked."
A year on, after several failed job applications - "Getting a manager's job in your mid-40s is quite hard these days, apparently," Andrea says - the family has found a new home on a farm abutting the southern Hawke's Bay coast. Charlie and Tom arrive home from school, a 45-minute bus ride away now, and weave their bikes through startled sheep to where their ponies are waiting in a front paddock that's hazy with salt mist. The new station is owned by an old farming family and - the Jameses hope - safe from sale.
Last Dan and Andrea heard, their two shepherds at Hadleigh Station were still looking for work. A one-time owner of the station called the other day to let them know the trees have been planted down to the flats. The old wooden homestead, covered in grape vines and roses, has been carved off from the main property and put back on the market. The real estate advertisement describes it as "surplus to [the] vendor's requirements" - no chance then, that the countess is planning a move to Masterton any time soon.
Andrea wonders who will buy the house. "We had a lovely home. But not many people want to live in the middle of forestry ... That would probably bug me, if I was stuck in a valley with pine trees."
'Why would you live in a town where there's no hope?'
Because of its prestige among the Wairarapa farming community, and as one of the earlier sales, Hadleigh Station has become a kind of poster child for forestry conversion; the magnetic pole around which concerns are rotating. But it's not the only one, and Wairarapa is not the only area where well-performing farms have been sold.
For some months now, Tracey Collis has been keeping a list. Distrustful of speculation and rumour, the Tararua district mayor has turned detective, and now every time she hears about a farm that's been sold, she badgers the local land agents for information: Who was it sold to? What are they planning to do with it? How many hectares? How much did they pay?
From a jumble of documents in a fat briefcase, she retrieves a copy. So far she's got 34 properties, worth $88m, on her list that are scheduled for either partial or total planting in pine. "The alarming matter is that this has happened so fast and people just don't know when it's going to stop."
She's in the middle of her mayoral re-election campaign and she can't go anywhere without running into someone who's worried about what it means for the future of the district, particularly more remote settlements like Pongaroa or Tiraumea. She can't even escape the issue here in her office - the phone rings and it's someone calling up to ask if she's seen a news story about the land sales.
"The concern to the rural community is that they are losing population," she says. "Those are jobs that are gone - those productive sheep and beef properties, they have staff on them. They have fencing contractors, they have shearers, they support a lot of other businesses." The district has lost valued community members. "Kumeroa School lost a teacher when a station was sold, and her husband was working on that station… That was one of the sales that did shock people." Volunteer firefighters are among staff on other farms who have moved away.
The land being sold is not marginal, Collis says. "The names you'll commonly hear are Te Rimu [Station] at Pongaroa and also Tuscan Hills. They're rolling country, known as very good farms and had a lot of money spent on them."
Collis' counterpart in Wairoa district, Craig Little, has been running his own numbers. "A couple of months ago [we] realised in the last seven or eight months, nearly 10,000 hectares [in Wairoa] had been sold to forestry. And that's blanket planting, not partial planting, so we brought up a map and we put it on, overlaid it on the map, and it was pretty scary to see the big areas gone."
While forestry may generate its own jobs, few of them come to Wairoa, Little says. "When I say there's no jobs, I mean that. You travel from Napier to Wairoa or Gisborne to Wairoa, and probably five or six o'clock you pass all these vans of workers going back to Napier. And the logs get put on a track and hello, they've gone. Gone to the port or gone to Pan Pac, the local mill down in Napier. So I want [forestry companies] to show me how are we benefiting? And we're not."
He fears it won't just be job losses that drive people away, but a loss of optimism. "Why would you live in a town where there's no hope?... People will just close up and leave."
As far back as 2000, Lincoln University research using Census employment data warned that the employment benefits of forestry could be overstated - especially outside the main centres where ports and processing businesses were based.
The BakerAg research done earlier this year, using figures supplied by forestry management and consultancy company Forest 360, bears Little's concerns out. Published last month, the report concluded: "Based on our modelling, carbon farming forestry generated the highest [value] to landowners of all scenarios, while having the lowest contribution to the region."
The analysis found that harvested forest would, over a 30-year cycle, generate about five local jobs per year for every thousand hectares of land, versus seven for sheep and beef farms. However, most of those jobs would only exist in a harvest year - for the other 29 years of each cycle, forests would only produce two local jobs per thousand hectares. If the trees were never harvested, the jobs created dropped to less than one for every thousand hectares of land.
Likewise, the harvest years would be boom years for the region, with an estimated local boost to the economy of $4.3m for every thousand hectares. But in the lean years between harvests, this would drop to just over $107,000 - compared to the $316,000 a sheep and beef farm would spend for every thousand hectares, every year.
The current government has done "wonderful things" for places like Wairoa, Little says. "But what they're giving us on one hand will probably be taken away with five on the other."
Neither Little nor Collis believe politicians and officials understand the extent of what's happening. "These farm sales go through the system quite slowly before they're public," Collis says. "They're not seeing directly what we're seeing and feeling in the communities quite quickly."
The last farmhouse on the road
Amy Weston drives along the winding gravel road that leads to her house near Tiraumea and wonders. She wonders what the pines she's driving past, knee-high now, will look like when they've grown. Her toddler son and baby daughter will be adults by then. Will they all still live here then? She wonders about the primary schools they might go to. One is half an hour away, the other a little further, each with a roll of 50; every pupil is precious to their continued survival. Three families have moved away from Weston's road in the last year, the farms they worked on partially or completely planted in pine. That's six or seven kids gone.
The farmhouse Amy and her husband Brent live in is the last inhabited one on the road. She wonders what she'll tell friends who come to visit in six or seven years, when the trees have started to hem them in - drive through the forest until you reach a clearing? And she worries. She has three remaining neighbours. How many more of them might choose to sell to forestry too? What if she and Brent are the last ones left? At what point, if a power pole falls over, will the lines company decide it's not worth replacing; tell the Westons sorry, you'll have to switch to generator power from now on? Same with the landline? The internet still isn't great out here.
Other farming families she knows feel the same way, Weston says. "People just haven't got the optimism they had … even though we've got fairly good stock prices. It feels like a whole downer in the industry at the moment and it's not related to the industry itself, it's the change of land use." The stock from farms that have been sold is still being killed now, which has created a temporary buffer. The concrete effects will hit later, she says. "It's going to take another couple of years before local amenities really start kicking in. So, the livestock buyers don't have as many farms to service, the freezing works don't have the numbers going ... Your truck drivers don't have the same number of farms that they service … It's not going to be an overnight thing, it's going to be gradual."
In the meantime, she and Brent are paralysed over what they should do. "We've just finished building a big three open-bay, two closed-bay shed. It's like, what were we thinking doing that? Because if we do sell, it'll probably be to forestry and they don't really need a big shed like that. It's just little things, like do we fix that fence? Do we keep going with the plans we had? Or do we go, maybe we should just stop and reconsider those ideas? It's put a great level of uncertainty into what we're going to do."
Pines vs natives
If you can put aside the social anxieties over conversions, the climate argument for radiata pine over natives is a simple and compelling one: it grows like stick and stores carbon just as rapidly. Emissions trading scheme tables list the carbon sequestration rates (and carbon unit earning potential) for different types of forest. By year five, in some parts of the country, the rate for radiata pine is nine to 10 times higher than native forest.
In a submission to Parliament's environment select committee, Canterbury University forestry professor Euan Mason explained that doubling the country's radiata pine estate over the next 28 years could temporarily plug the gap in New Zealand's net emissions, giving the country breathing space to come up with ways of decreasing actual emissions. He argues for planting these new forests close to stands of native forest so that as the pines grow, they act as 'nurse plants' for native species until ultimately, the indigenous trees overtake the pines around them.
Under Mason's model, three-quarters of the trees would still be harvested. Therein lies the problem, Environmental Defense Society chief executive Gary Taylor says - the maximum carbon plantation pines can store is what they're sequestering when they're cut down. "It just seems as if we've got ourselves into a bit of a muddle of thinking too short-term, and too narrowly … After the second or third [harvest] rotation, natives are sequestering more carbon than pines, because [with] pine plantations the carbon sequestered is just averaged over successive rotations."
Landcare Research forest ecologist Larry Burrows says current models of sequestration ignore the fact that harvesting trees creates new emissions that otherwise wouldn't exist, through the harvesting itself and indirect costs like transportation. "It's devolved indirectly to other sectors, but it wouldn't exist without having the forest in the first place and so it actually needs to be tied to the forest."
He is also not convinced that New Zealand can rely on a model that uses pines as only a short-term stop-gap. "Some people say it's so urgent that we actually just need to do the best we can now," he says. "You could do that, but then what are we left with? If we double the area of plantation forests ... by 2050 and it's not sequestering anymore, I don't think climate change will be solved by then. There'll still be overall emissions. We'll still be trying to find the emissions reductions to put in place. So what we'll be left with is twice the area of forests - and what are the implications of that?"
Thirty years ago, in "a rush of blood to the head", the historian and environmentalist Dame Anne Salmond and her husband bought 120 hectares of land near Gisborne and started restoring the native bush along the Waimata River. "What we began to see was that periodically, the river would get filthy. It would get turned into brown mud, basically."
Curious to find the source, they started going for reconnaissance drives up river, into the huge areas of exotic forest that had been planted. "When they're harvested, these ravaged hillsides, they're just left totally bare with slash all over them," she says. When it rains, the slash acts as a "kind of bulldozer", pushing the topsoil ahead of it down into the water courses. "There's very few flood plains on the way down … so it lands up in the heart of the city, and the port and on the beaches."
When arguing for pines over natives, or crafting government policy to encourage forestry investment, carbon storage cannot be the only focus, Dame Anne says. "If we're thinking about the crisis that we're facing at the moment, it's not just climate change. It's waterways' degradation, it's degradation of the ocean, it's biodiversity losses. Those are at least as threatening to human survival, collectively … and in the short term, as well as the long term, it makes no sense to tackle one of those crises in a way that makes the others worse."
There are threats from fire and pests, too. "[Pines] are highly flammable because they're conifers and conifers are full of resin. All across northern Europe at the moment, conifer forests are going up in flames. Also, because they're a monoculture, they're being attacked by bark beetles all over northern Europe. So the conifer forests are either dying and or being burnt." She can't understand the lust for them. "Why in New Zealand would we use conifer forests for carbon sequestration, if we had an alternative?"
When the sediment hits the beaches, or the trees go up in flames, the mostly foreign landowners are rarely around to see the damage, she says. "The thing about having overseas ownership, is it's not an ideological question, it's a practical question … It's very hard to get at them. And that's what they've discovered in Tolaga Bay - those [local] people, there's almost no chance that they'll get compensation. When things get tough, a lot of those overseas owners will just bail."
'Only farmers sell farms'
When Dan Gaddum stands in an old crop radiata pine forest, the Forest 360 managing director doesn't see an eyesore or an environmental liability. "They're actually pretty beautiful environments," he says. "You've got these significantly-sized trees with a fantastic canopy ... they harbour a range of native species, and they provide fantastic water quality. They protect the soil."
There are brown kiwi in some pine forests, especially in Northland, he says. There are karearea, whio, pateke, and even tuatara. There's also native understorey - ferns and lichens. "They are not an arid desert of flora and fauna as some people would have you believe - they are a great habitat." It's no secret that the biodiversity of a pine forest will never match an indigenous forest, he says. "But I can tell you right now that it's substantially better than any other alternative land use, be it horticulture, sheep and beef farming, or dairying."
What happens come harvest, though? Where do those creatures go when their home is disappearing around them? "Anywhere, particularly where there's a kiwi habitat, there's a lot of work that's done to manage the forest in a way that you're not destroying the whole forest in a single operation," Gaddum says. "[The Department of Conservation] has a very strong kiwi management programme and a number of forest owners and forest managers are signatories to that and so they'll be moved and relocated if necessary."
It bolsters the argument for permanent forests, though - be they pine or something else. What Gaddum really wants, though, is for farmers to see the potential of planting trees on their own land, rather than waiting for forestry to buy them out. "The smart guys … have identified areas of their farms that don't support or match up to what they can achieve through trees on those particular areas. So these aren't flat, beautiful cropping areas, it certainly isn't dairy land. These are areas that are more suited to trees, for a whole range of issues - primarily, though, financial."
A couple of his clients this season have blanket-planted former farming properties. Coming from a farming family, does that dismay him? "I don't think anyone wants to see beautiful farmland put into pine trees. But I don't think that's necessarily happening at a great scale. I'm not denying there are some areas where there is arguably productive good-looking farmland that's going to end up in trees. But again, it comes down to relative numbers … And if there's farmers out there thinking this is the only option, they need to come and talk to us."
Stuart Orme, Forest 360's Masterton land use manager, is blunter: "Only farmers sell farms, so the only way to avoid blanket forestry is for farms to prosper and carry on." Diversifying their farming income by planting trees - manuka, pine, natives - is one way to do that.
Patrick Murray, the nursery owner, takes a still-more cynical view. Farmers can blame trees if they like - but change is coming regardless, he says. "Rural New Zealand has not woken up to the realities that they're facing around land ownership." The industry is facing major succession issues as younger generations eschew taking over the family farm, he says. "These elderly farmers are having to do more and more work themselves. They don't have someone to take over the farm." That means new ownership models, Murray says - corporates, cooperatives. "That will have an impact on small communities, regardless of who's buying it and what they're using the land for."
Whether that's good or bad, he doesn't know. "I think it's a reality."
There are still those holding out against the incoming green tide. Sitting in a rural Hawke's Bay kitchen with his fingers interlaced around a mug of coffee, Will de Lautour is ruminating on the feeling of rejecting a significant pay-day. In June this year, he sold his farm near Wairoa - deliberately accepting a lower tender to keep it out of forestry. "There was a funny feeling in the back of your mind that you were turning away a huge amount of money."
There were four offers to buy the 1400ha sheep and beef farm; only one of them from another farmer. "The forestry offers, one in particular was considerably higher, and [another] one rapidly matched that one when he realised that he wasn't the highest." How much? De Lautour is still embarrassed to talk about the numbers - though he says it'll all come out eventually - but the top forestry offer - from a foreign-based investor - was 50 percent more than the farming one. "That was without even negotiating."
De Lautour's choice did not go down well. "I believe one party was very disappointed and couldn't quite believe [it]," he says. "He must have been able to make a fair assumption that he was a long way ahead of any farming offer, but didn't accept it very well that we weren't going to take that … Clearly, they're used to money winning."
De Lautour is "comfortable" with what he did, though. "I would never have been able to go back up that road, drive up that highway ... If I'd looked and seen that that farm was covered in trees it would have been impossible to bear."
Above all, he felt he owed it to the Wairoa community to keep the property in farming. "Everyone I spoke to was desperately worried that we would sell to trees. One farm doesn't kill a community - but they all add up."