Cyclone Gabrielle: Ministerial inquiry into forest slash announced

  • 23/02/2023

The Government has announced a ministerial inquiry into forest slash following damage it created across Tairāwhiti during Cyclone Gabrielle, Cyclone Hale and other previous weather events. 

The inquiry will occur over a two-month period and will be chaired by Hekia Parata, a former National Party minister and Gisborne resident, who is already involved in the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the COVID-19 response. Prime Minister Chris Hipkins expects she can handle both.

Forestry slash, which is waste or debris from industry practices, was pushed down rivers during the most recent cyclone, blocking waterways, covering beaches, and contributing to the damage. A 12-year-old boy died when he was injured by a floating log last month. 

It's been an issue for decades, including in Cyclone Bola in 1988. After damage from that cyclone, tens of thousands of hectares of trees were planted on highly erodible land in the Tairawhiti and Gisborne to stabilise slopes. 

Forestry Minister Stuart Nash said on Thursday the Government had heard from residents in Tairāwhiti about the slash concerns and the inquiry would present a set of recommendations about the practice to improve land use.

"Woody debris and sediment are particular issues for these communities following storms," said Nash. "More than 10,000 people in Tairāwhiti have petitioned for land use to be better managed. This inquiry is responding to these very real concerns."

The inquiry will investigate past and current practices, the storm damage, its causes, current practices and regulatory and policy settings.

"The panel's recommendations, expected by the end of April, will assist local and central government respond to the severe weather events we are experiencing in New Zealand,'' Environment Minister David Parker said.

Those in the affected communities and the wider public will be able to provide feedback.

Resource management and environmental management consultant Bill Bayfield and Matthew McCloy, director at Forest Engineering New Zealand Ltd, are also on the inquiry panel.

Parker noted that decisions on prosecutions are a matter for local councils under the Resource Management Act. 

In 2018, the Gisborne District Council prosecuted five forestry companies for poor forestry harvesting & management. Fines were imposed ranging from $124,700 to $379,500.

The Government's moved to increase maximum available fines for environmental offences and introduce new tools to assist enforcement. That's part of the Resource Management reforms. This will increase the maximum fines from the current $300,000 to $1 million for natural persons and from $600,000 to $10 million for companies. It is also proposed insurance is no longer able to be used to pay infringement or prosecution fines, the Government said.

Other political parties have expressed support for an inquiry.

Forest Owners Association president Grant Dodson told AM on Thursday the industry supports an inquiry but said the Hawke's Bay Regional Council needs to be looked at for its riverside plantings.

"If you look at a lot of those Hawke's Bay rivers, these a significant area of willows that go some 30km upstream. Now, I know that a huge amount of those have been ripped out and that's contributed to the issue," Dodson said.

"Climate change and the cyclone bares the responsibility here because those plantings, just like the forestry plantings were put in, in good faith and they've been destroyed by the cyclone. Just like the farmland has been destroyed and the roads and the power and phone and everything else."