The Meridian project - planting more than a million trees across NZ

Many forests have been planted in Manapōuri, in Fiordland National Park.
Many forests have been planted in Manapōuri, in Fiordland National Park.

After almost a month of lockdown, it's fair to say a majority of Kiwis have spent countless hours staring out the window dreaming of the great outdoors.

Not only do we all now have a newfound appreciation for what's on offer outside our own bubbles, but also of just how important the natural environment is for our health and wellbeing.

The folks at Meridian have also been casting their eyes outwards. They haven't just been thinking about how to enjoy the country's natural resources though – they've been focusing on ways to create an even better environment for all New Zealanders.

 A recently launched project by the renewable energy generation company is planting more than a million trees over the next five years, bringing countless benefits not just to the environment but also to communities across the country.

The massive effort is part of Meridian's commitment to  climate action. Meridian not only wants to half their operational carbon footprint by 2030, they also are offsetting their remaining emissions. It's an ambitious plan, but one Meridian is 100 percent committed to.

"It's a fantastic thing to be working on," says Mark Harris, Meridian's renewable development programme manager. "It's been a dream come true, to be honest."

Harris says all up, over 1500 hectares will be filled with trees that will sequester carbon, acting as a "carbon credit factory" and helping the company offset its carbon footprint and doing the right thing by the environment.

Meridian is helping local communities plant more than a million trees across New Zealand, starting at Lake Manapōuri in the lower South Island.
Meridian is helping local communities plant more than a million trees across New Zealand, starting at Lake Manapōuri in the lower South Island.

Alison Howard, Meridian’s head of sustainability, says the company's focus on sustainability runs deep.

"It's in our DNA," says Howard. "We only generate electricity using natural resources – the wind, water and sun – and that's at the core of everything we do, it’s about doing the right thing, not necessarily the easiest thing.”

Although previously the company has offset its carbon emissions by buying credits overseas, in recent years it has placed more emphasis on acting locally.

"Being a New Zealand company, it makes sense for us to start in our own backyard first" says Howard.  "We have land available around our wind farms and hydro stations across the country, and it’s logical to use that as a starting point".

The planting – which began last year– will first be done on 300 hectares of land owned by the company, before branching out. Once its own land is brimming with life, the company will use existing relationships it has with councils and private landowners across the country to find the best way to utilise plots that may be unfit for other purposes or would otherwise go unused. There are already many site assessments underway. In total, well over 1.5 million seedlings will be planted.

Harris says a mixture of species will be grown, depending on what is right for the specific land being used. In most cases exotics will be planted first as a carbon “engine”, followed by natives which are slower to get established. The idea is the exotics provide shelter for the natives, which later overtake and replace them – eventually creating forests that are "totally native".

And because the project is focused on bringing long-term benefits, it's vitally important the forests are planted with the intention of staying there for good.

"There has to be an understanding with any landowners we work with that these trees are forever trees, short-term plantings are not going to do the job" says Harris. "It has to be a commitment they're going to be there for the long term to allow benefit for future generations."

Although the project brings obvious environmental benefits, it is also expected to bring economic opportunities to communities across the country, with jobs opening up as the need to plant and maintain the trees growth.

Harris says Meridian has already been in talks with various hapū and iwi to discuss long-term employment options that might be available in the future.

"There'll definitely be job opportunities - the forest will need ongoing maintenance."

Most of the planting to date has been in the lower South Island, with not only Meridian employees taking part but also local schools and community groups.

"There's no lack of appetite from anybody to get this done," says Harris.

And if the reaction by those involved so far is anything to go by, enthusiasm for the project is set to grow just as quickly as the trees being planted.

For information about the planting programme click here.

This article is created for Meridian.