Should we fight them on the beeches?

heli_sprayThe environment movement is divided over timber harvest proposals for a small proportion of the West Coast beech forests. Guy Salmon writes that the decision on these forests should be firmly based on the central ethic of the environmental movement – sustainability – and it should be made by the Environment Court.

A chainsaw sinking into an ancient and beautiful native tree, and bringing it crashing down, is a symbolic act which can arouse strong feelings. Like today’s forest protesters, I know the feeling: I devoted fifteen years of full-time work to campaigning for New Zealand’s native forests.For many, the felling of a native tree is a symbol of a society which is driven by money and fails to value not only the visually beautiful, but the timeless processes of nature itself. On a more complex level, the felling of a native tree, which has taken centuries to grow, has come to symbolize the crude domination of human beings over nature – representing in a single image a brash, human-centred worldview which has done enormous damage to the natural world and continues to do so. Our society’s relationship with nature, and with beauty, remains deeply problematic. Yet ironically, in native forestry itself, the old symbolism has become obsolete. The symbols and slogans of today’s forest campaigners imitate those we used 25 years ago – but the reality in the forest has changed utterly.


Today, thanks to those past campaigns, potential timber production is limited to only 4 percent of New Zealand’s native forest. Most of that forest has been heavily logged in the past and will not produce again for many decades, or even centuries. In the near term, Timberlands West Coast Ltd has most of New Zealand’s sustainable production potential for both rimu and beech.The company still has some unsustainable rimu production in Buller, but the Government is committed to phasing that out in two years at latest. The intention is that it will be replaced with wholly sustainable native timber production, which will have to be mainly beech, as only a trickle of rimu will still be available. 28,500 ha of beech forest is zoned for production in the present proposals The company has designed and trialled a management system that replicates the natural processes of the forest ecosystem, yielding a small amount of timber by helicopter while leaving the forest intact and functioning normally. The plan is a model for sustainable resource management, epitomizing the very best that is happening in New Zealand’s relationship with the environment. If its beech plans are approved, New Zealanders will at long last be able to use native timber with a clear conscience.

New Zealand still has huge environmental problems – but timber extraction from these West Coast beech forests is not one of them. Quite the contrary, Timberlands’ plans and trial beech operations represent the first time that any large New Zealand business organisation has shown a serious effort at fully-sustainable management of natural resources – and it is very impressive indeed.

Why the beech proposal deserves consideration

Four major points shape Maruia’s view of the beech proposal. First, its history. Under the 1986 West Coast Accord, with the agreement of all the major conservation organisations of the day, the area of forest now covered by the Timberlands’ plan, was allocated to production, “to allow a continuing supply of native timber in perpetuity”.The outcome of the Accord process was that 83 percent of the lowland beech forest in North Westland and Buller was allocated to conservation, and 17 percent to production. The latter was the residual areas of lowest conservation value, after all the reserves proposed by the DSIR, Wildlife Service and Joint Campaign on Native Forests had been excised. This was a negotiated outcome to the 15-year conservation battle that followed the Government’s 1971 White Paper on beech forests. The Accord is a binding contract which was agreed to by the West Coast community, the timber industry, the conservation movement and the Crown. In Maruia’s view, it is a model of how environmental disputes ought to be resolved, whenever possible. If land were now to be taken from Timberlands and given to DOC for preservation, without the agreement of all the signatories, that would breach the Accord.


Secondly, the beech project no longer involves clearfelling, nor woodchip production. Management is strictly limited to imitating the forest’s natural processes. In nature, trees die singly or in small groups; and in the very small gaps thus created, regeneration replaces them. Timberlands lifts individual trees out of the forest by helicopter in the same pattern, taking no more than 15 trees per hectare, once every 15 years. In each cycle, old trees are left to sustain the populations of kaka and bats that depend on them. So little disturbance is caused, that fresh, log extraction from a hill slope cannot be seen from adjoining land, nor from the air.Thirdly, the beech timber produced does have a valid purpose, enabling New Zealanders to live more sustainably than they do at present. This is because sustainably-produced beech will displace from the market timbers that are being unsustainably produced – notably rimu from Buller and private land, imported cedar from North America, and hardwood species from the ravaged rainforests of the tropics. Radiata pine is not suitable for everything and, at present, it is very difficult indeed for anyone wanting a harder or more decorative timber for furniture, panelling or staircases, to avoid using unsustainably- produced woods. Finally, Timberlands seems to provide an important model for every commercial organisation in New Zealand, about how to operate in the era of environmental sustainability. There is a total, top to bottom commitment to doing everything sustainably and well. The management proposals are grounded on a vast amount of scientific research and reflect a huge capacity to learn, to commission needed research, and to change practices on the basis of evidence. I know environmentalists aren’t supposed to talk to loggers – but I find it exciting that the logging crews themselves are so obviously dedicated to sustainability, and to doing their job to the highest standard of care. This is a glimpse of New Zealand the way I would like it to be.

What a different and better country we would have if all the farmers, fishers, orchardists, truckies, manufacturers and indeed, ordinary urban dwellers, were as dedicated to sustainability and care for the environment as a Timberlands worker. It is one of the sorry paradoxes of the current campaign against Timberlands that a section of the environment movement has ended up sneering at those who, more than most people in New Zealand, are trying to live up to the ideals of sustainability.

Environmentalists split


The split in the environment movement on the beech issue is unfortunate. Forest & Bird and Native Forest Action (NFA) called a news conference in September to leak and condemn the Timberlands’ plans. However, the Maruia Society and the Worldwide Fund for Nature had been working closely with the company since 1992, successfully persuading them to move to a very low-impact form of forest management. We thought the Timberlands plans should be given serious and open-minded consideration, and we said so in a joint press statement that replied to Forest & Bird and NFA. Maruia and WWF said the plans represented “a very sincere and impressive effort to achieve very low-impact, sustainable management of the forest. In our view, the Timberlands proposals would be very likely to meet the stringent requirements of the Forest Stewardship Council, an international body supported by WWF, which certifies the sustainability of forest management. We would, however, encourage Timberlands to consider a smaller scale proposal than that they are currently looking at to build a greater level of acceptance.”At the heart of the split within the environment movement over the beech proposals is a difference of view about what, at the deepest level, the movement actually stands for.


For a section of the movement, the challenge is simply to achieve more and more preservation. NFA’s Kawatiri Declaration sets out the goal: “All remaining areas of native forest deserve full and immediate protection from logging.” From this perspective, a negotiated settlement like the West Coast Accord is only a quick signature on a temporary deal, a step in the ongoing struggle toward the goal of stopping all native wood production. The idea that it is wrong to use native forest, other than for recreation, is an important matter of belief. It is a belief which seems to function as a simplistic proxy for having the right relationship with nature.In contrast, for the Maruia Society, the key issue in approaching our relationship with nature, is to apply the ethic of sustainability in its fullest sense. Humans must find a way of living well on this planet while respecting and sustaining its natural systems. Sustainability has many dimensions. In the case of the beech forests, it should include not just sustaining some timber supply but also the resident wildlife, landscape, scenic and recreational values, and the natural ecological processes of the forest. A very important part of certifying any wood production as sustainable is to show that the original untouched ecosystems are well-represented in adjoining, fully-protected reserves. These then, are the tests to apply to the Timberlands project. The anti-Timberlands groups seek to cut through this debate about sustainability by simply holding that, if a tree is native, it should not be touched. But that does not seem to be a useful, ethical principle. After all, every tree is a native somewhere. It would not make much sense to say that rimu should only be grown and harvested in Australia, and eucalypts in New Zealand. The only really sound, ethical principle at the heart of this debate is the principle of sustainability – understood in the very fullest sense set out above.

In adopting the principle of sustainability as its core ethic, the international environment movement has taken an important step forward. Sustainability is an ethical and intellectual principle that makes a strong claim to universal support, across all the world’s cultures and schools of political belief. It does so because, while it requires respect for nature’s intrinsic value and for the needs of future generations of people, it also provides a basis for sustainable economic advancement.




Environmental arguments should be grounded in the principle and evidence of sustainability, not just because this is the best way to command mainstream support, but also because it is the truest expression of what environmentalists stand for. I believe there is an unfortunate regression whenever environment movement supporters abandon the sustainability principle in favour of arbitrarily declaring some species or another, one after another, to be a sacred object – whether it be native beech trees, Kaimanawa horses, or the muttonbirds traditionally harvested by Maori. This growing confusion about its core message, is one of the reasons environmentalism has declined in public esteem in recent years. These differences in philosophy are important. Nonetheless, in this particular case they do not create huge differences in practice. NFA calls for preservation of 100 percent of New Zealand’s native forest, while Maruia supports the 96 percent protection already achieved. The difference between the two – 4 percent – is not a difference that should be blown out of proportion. Maruia is also pressing to add to that already protected area, many small sites in private ownership that are of high value for biodiversity protection.Why produce native timber at all?

While Maruia only contemplates that a tiny percentage of forest should remain available for sustainable timber management, that raises the question, why allow any sustainable production at all? As with most environmental issues, there are human aspirations involved which – depending on your viewpoint – may be regarded as legitimate.

Some native forest is in private, mainly Maori ownership. Treaty rights must be considered, and under existing law, landowners do have rights of sustainable use. On the West Coast, where sustaining employment in small rural communities is a ceaseless struggle, there is a passionate belief that the Accord should be honoured, so that West Coasters can use a small proportion of the native forests of their region to support their livelihoods, as they were promised.

What about future generations? As well as wanting extensive forests, our grandchildren may want to have – in their homes – some furniture or feature panels of the distinctive woods of their own country. If that aspiration is to be accommodated, the wood must surely come from a sustainable source, such as native beeches, which can be grown for furniture purposes in 80-100 years: faster than the fine woods produced in Europe.

For all these reasons, maintaining a meaningful capacity for sustainable native forest management is not without merit. In New Zealand, Timberlands is both the main centre of expertise, and the main production forest owner. In our view, it plays a crucial role if sustainable, native timber production is to have a future in this country. And that is the real issue in this debate.

The environmental movement depends on public opinion. It needs to try and accommodate the needs, feelings and interests of others in the community, and should not be too hard-faced in its demands. Nor should it attack the Accords it has entered into with others.

It is also worth remembering that we who campaigned for the native forests during the 70s and 80s had an overwhelming victory. Not only did we protect from logging the vast majority of publicly-owned forest, and obtain a tight legal framework requiring sustainable management of privately owned forest, but we also achieved the abolition of the Forest Service and its replacement by the Department of Conservation.

It is appropriate now for those of us who saved 96 percent of the native forest to be a little gracious about the aspirations of those seeking sustainable wood production on the remaining 4 percent – and to honour the promises we made to them for that purpose.

A tangle of disputed facts

“No matter how Timberlands seeks to disguise it, the beech scheme is in the same pernicious tradition as the ‘think big’ beech schemes of the 1970s and 1980s.” This is the claim of one of the anti-Timberlands groups. But is it true?

The original West Coast beech proposals involved clearing and burning 52,000 ha of beech forest for replacement with pines, and managing another 99,000 ha of beech by clearfelling in large coupes (see photo) and regenerating in beech, mostly “enriched” with interplantings of exotic species. From these operations, 848,000 cubic metres of native chipwood and sawlogs was to be provided annually to sawmills and a pulpmill.

All this has little in common with Timberlands’ proposals today, which will produce only eight per cent of the original scheme’s wood volume, using a highly-selective, aerial selection method, with no clearfelling, no burning, and no planting of exotic species.

Aesthetically, the change from the past could hardly be greater. I recall the late Venn Young, then Minister of Forests, when he appeared on television in a red tie and an immaculate pinstripe suit, standing in the middle of a huge, blackened amphitheatre of charred logs and stumps in the West Coast’s Oparara valley. This had recently been a native forest, but was clearfelled and freshly burnt in preparation for planting in pines. Whatever the Minister’s message was, nobody can remember – the shocking nature of the scene completely overwhelmed his words.

The TV channels have now discovered that Timberlands’ log extraction is so sensitive that it can’t even be seen from the air. A vast canopy of continuous, healthy-green forest fills the lens of the TV camera. So they’ve stopped using their old footage from clearfelling days. They won’t be manipulated into again portraying the beech project as a chainsaw massacre. Any populist attack on Timberlands’ aesthetics is now a dead horse.

The anti-Timberlands campaign continues to suggest that the forest and its environment will, slowly but surely, be destroyed from within by Timberlands’ operations. This suggestion has to be kept in vague terms, since specific environmental effects are very hard to find. Such examples as have been given, lack any sense of proportion.

One claim is that Timberlands’ practice of painting a small amount of urea on to each tree stump will have “extremely toxic” effects on stream life. But no water scientist supports that claim. Dairy farmers routinely apply 3000 times as much urea per hectare each year to their land and that does have an effect on streams. But the campaigners do not appear to be concerned about that.

Similarly, the campaigners emphasize that the beech forests are home to species such as kaka, kiwi and many un-named invertebrate species that are threatened with extinction. Their intended implication here is that Timberlands’ logging will contribute to that extinction.

Those species certainly are threatened with extinction. Tens of thousands of hectares of protected forest that I negotiated through the Accord process as wildlife corridors for kaka are today silent and all but empty. The kaka’s breeding success has collapsed, not through any logging, but through the failure to control stoats, wasps and possums.

With the kaka and so many other native species in steep decline, and the total biomass of South Island forests falling by four per cent every decade due to possum damage, DOC’s management of its own forests is obviously completely unsustainable. In my view, these threats are the priority issues for forest lovers today. To tackle them, we need not a revival of old anti-logging campaigns, but a new and positive effort for a better-funded and more effective Department of Conservation.

In the meantime, the facts about Timberlands’ proposals still need to be untangled. There are doubtless many people who, when told that native trees are to be felled on the West Coast, will assume, in the words of a letter to The Press on 31 October that, “this could mean the destruction of the bulk of the native forests remaining there.”

Despite the years of research and trials, it is still a big ask for Timberlands to expect people to believe that any native forest they are harvesting will truly be sustained. To the extent that ignorance and simplistic thinking prevails, the old symbolism of tree-felling, manipulated by protest groups, can still deliver political power. It is just the capacity to get at the truth that is lost, and to me, that matters.

A case for the Environment Court

There is a remedy to these problems. Let us get back to the principle of sustainability and to consistent, objective assessment of proposals, and organisations against that principle. All environmental groups agree that the tests of sustainability are well set out in the Resource Management Act. Timberlands should be allowed to submit its beech proposals for scrutiny under that Act, in the forum of the Environment Court.

There its scientific witnesses will be subject to cross-examination, as will the competing claims from Forest & Bird and NFA. Slogans and symbols would have to be put to one side, but the valuable result would be a decision about the project’s sustainability, properly assessed on the evidence and the law.

At the same time, the Court may require Timberlands to modify its project to deal with objections. The company may have to drop its contentious ‘improvement felling’ of malformed saplings, and it may be required to make an ongoing commitment to predator control in its forests, if it is to win consent for any timber extraction.

The Government is expected to take a decision before Christmas on whether Timberlands’ beech project should be stopped. If the Government allows it to go forward to the next stage, then Timberlands will apply for resource consents to the Buller District Council. Legal advice received by the Council is that the applications must be publicly notified. Public hearings would follow and, on appeal, the final decision would be made by the Environment Court.

In the Maruia’s view, a full hearing before the Environment Court would be – by far – the best way of resolving this issue.