East Coast's forestry slash problem not going away

Te Tai Rāwhiti is known for its stunning coastlines, bountiful kaimoana and clear blue waters. However, forestry slash or waste material is becoming a common sight across the East Coast.

The East Coast has been hit hard by devastating weather events - and more and more forestry slash is ending up on their shores.

Forestry slash is the offcut or waste material from when plantations are cut down. In 2018 slash first hit the headlines after a million tonnes of it inundated Tolaga Bay and the Gisborne District after major rainfall.

The clean-up cost tens of millions of dollars, but last month heavy rain sent more slash thundering down towards the coast.

Nikorima Thatcher is leading the charge against continued pollution of the whenua, the awa and the moana in Tolaga Bay.

"To see the desecration to our beach, where our kids grow up where our people gather their kai. As far as I'm concerned, it's rubbish on our beach."

Slash on the beach.
Slash on the beach. Photo credit: The Hui

The region's reliance on forestry began after Cyclone Bola hit in 1988, causing major erosion problems. Thatcher said it was decided forestry would be the best way to strengthen the land and save the economy. 

"During that 30-year process, we as a community got convinced that was our only livelihood. We became dependent on this one stream of our economy and forestry and our families became highly reliant on that."

Slash impacting East Coast

Further north from Tolaga Bay in Ruatoria, the impacts of industries like forestry and farming are apparent.

Graeme Atkins is a local kaitiaki who works to protect the whenua including the Waiapu catchment.

"This catchment is world famous for its erosion problem. I've shown scientists from all around the world parts of this catchment. They come here to study it - it is an example of abuse, really."

After making its way down the Waiapu River, the slash ends up on Tikapa Beach - where a wasteland of wood stretches for kilometres.

For Tui Warmenhoven, to see a wahi of such significance being destroyed is devastating. 

"Well, I mean, we're the first place to see the sun and this is an ancient settlement of Maui Tikitiki a Taranga.

"Our kaimoana is prized throughout the country. It's a very special place for a lot of us."

For Warmenhoven, slash is not only destroying beaches and waterways - but damaging infrastructure and cutting off isolated communities. 

"The problem is when it travels from up in the Hill country, it becomes voracious in the floodwaters. And it just breaks everything down."

The Hui slash
Slash is cleared from the beach. Photo credit: The Hui

Forestry Industry response

The forestry industry says since the 2018 flood it has been changing its practises for the better. 

Forestry companies are changing their practices around rotational harvesting and are retiring some of the areas of steep hill country.

However, with forestry growing Warmenhoven says there's nothing to stop this happening again. She believes the industry doesn't care - because nothing is being done about slash in her community. 

"We don't see them. They're faceless people. They have names that change regularly and directorships that change."

After the deluge of slash in 2018, the Gisborne District Council prosecuted 10 forestry companies for multiple breaches of their resource consents. So far, a number of those companies have been prosecuted and fined - with one prosecution set to go to trial.

The Gisborne District Council declined The Hui's interview request because of this ongoing legal action.

However, Thatcher believes the fines are not enough.

"They are making millions. The fines should have been a lot more substantial than that."

Te Tai Rāwhiti economy

 The forestry industry is worth almost $7 billion to the New Zealand economy. Forestry is considered a crucial economic lifeline to this community.

But Thatcher says the environmental impacts of forestry - like slash blanketing the beaches - far outweigh the economic benefits.

"It has impacts on our local businesses. It has impacts on our fisheries, it has impacts on our tourism."

Forestry minister Shane Jones says he is incredibly disappointed with the latest slash damage. Jones believes there is a case for far more strict regulation now.

"I thoroughly accept that forestry has a legitimate place on the economic landscape up in Te Tai Rāwhiti. But look, these images, quite frankly, from a takutai moana, an environmental perspective, are horrible."

NZ Forestry Owners Association spokesperson Don Carson says there's no quick-fix to stop slash. 

"If you have a look at the clean-up response in 2018 compared with what we've done this time, I think you can say that we did a much better job."

After the privatisation of the industry in the 1980s, the ownership of forestry went abroad. Despite this major overseas ownership, Carson says it still plays a vital role for the local economy.

"It is twice as important for the East Coast to have forestry than it is for any other region in the country."

Shane Jones.
Shane Jones. Photo credit: The Hui

Long-term solutions

But Thatcher says slash has already left too big of a scar on their whenua.

"Generations are going to feel the impacts of it. And then when the money has gone off to some offshore company - where's the investment back in here?"

Carson says the industry is hearing the message from East Coast communities.

"It's been a matter of the industry getting on with doing its business where companies whether they be farming, forestry or fishing - aren't really engaging and not seeing things in the longer-term."

Moving forward Tui wants the community to have a say in the way the forestry industry operates and to find solutions together.

"There's a whole disconnect there between them and us. That needs that gap needs to be closed - otherwise they need to leave." 

The Hui