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Otago council overreacts on setback rules

The Otago Regional Council’s proposed setback rules are an overreaction, the New Zealand Farm Forestry Association says. As part of its draft Land and Water Regional Plan, the council has proposed forestry setbacks of 20 to 50 metres from rivers, lakes and wetlands. Source: Stuff NZ

Most other councils follow the regulations in the National Environmental Standard for Commercial Forestry that call for setbacks of 5 to 10 metres.

Otago Regional Council’s general manager policy and science Anita Dawe said the council staff were still working through feedback on the plan, which would be refined before it was notified in June.

The proposed draft calls for setbacks of 20m on slopes with a gradient of 10 degrees or lower, and 50m on slopes steeper than 10 degrees.

“The plan is based on technical information including science, consents and compliance data across a range of activities, including forestry, to achieve community expectations for water quality and quantity,” Dawe said.

New Zealand Farm Forestry Association President Neil Cullen called the rules “quite draconian,” pointing out that farmers would lose a lot of forestry production land over their total forest area.

Many of the association’s members are farmers who have planted forests on what was often otherwise unproductive land, earning credits under the Emissions Trading Scheme.

But removing this forestry would count as deforestation under the scheme, Cullen said, which meant owners would have to pay out carbon credits.

“The council doesn’t understand the problem it’s created,” Cullen said.

“There is no evidence that forestry is causing issues to waterways in Otago.

“I think they’ve been scared by what happened on the East Coast where the land is quite unstable.”

Cullen was referring to the forestry slash that caused further flooding and damage when it was washed into waterways during Cyclone Gabrielle last year.

This was soon after calls for an enquiry into forestry practices sparked by the death of a child at Waikanae Beach who was struck by a floating log washed out by Cyclone Hale in January 2023.

But the land in Otago was stable, Cullen said, and there was no reason why regulations in the region should be tougher.

Forestry had a good track record but had received a bad reputation because of the poor farming practices in foreign-owned blocks, he said.

With little other activity in forestry blocks, it could be better for water quality, Cullen said, adding that harvesting crews were making sure no sediment was going into waterways.

“There’s good compliance in terms of looking after waterways and practices are improving all the time.”

Cullen worried that over-regulating forestry would make it costly and less attractive to farmers only just considering it.

“Landowners are going to say: ‘why bother?’”

Pakihiroa Farms general manager and Ngāti Porou Agribusiness spokesperson Hilton Collier saw first-hand the damage caused in Gisborne.

While the setbacks sounded steep to him, he said there was another problem with the long-term plan.

“Isn’t it intriguing that we try to make decisions for 30 years, yet we can’t guarantee what will happen in 30 years,” he said.

“Our councils struggle with Long Term Plans and we’re talking about planting forests that will last for 30 or 50 years.”

There was a 200-hectare forest on the land he managed, Collier said, that might never be harvested because despite being planted 50m away from the river, the river moved and was now right up against the forest line.

He believed regulations needed more nuance.

“It has to be site specific. It comes down to: what’s the right thing for the land?”

Most regional councils in New Zealand confirmed that they were using the forestry setback regulations set out in the National Environmental Standard for Commercial Forestry but said amendments could be considered when various regional policies came up for review.