Environmental impact of forestry taking a toll on East Coast communities

By Tom Kitchen of RNZ

East Coast locals are disheartened by the prospect of more forestry in the area as the industry grows.

The Climate Change Commission is encouraging the planting of thousands of hectares of forestry in decades to come.

But many people in Gisborne and Wairoa say the industry is damaging their pristine environment and ruining communities.

In Tolaga Bay, a small town of about 800 people nearly an hour north of Gisborne, one end of the beach near the famous wharf is almost clear and sandy, with only a touch of wood nearby.

But at the other end, piles of battered and bruised logs still sit.

Diggers are still beside the beach, with caution tape and keep out signs plastered around.

Instead of an easy route to the water's edge down here there are digger lines deep in the sand.

Walking his dogs nearby, resident Victor says it's "disgusting".

"It's hard to look at compared to how it used to be, especially if you've lived here a long time so you know what the beach should look like."

Tolaga Bay Area School principal Nori Parata shares a similar view.

Standing by the waves crashing on the shore as the sun sets, there may not be a more idyllic spot in the country.

But she says it's been ruined.

"You can see how soul destroying it is and it's been like this for, is it about seven years? Something like that."

Parata says her students are missing out .

"This is our extended classroom, I mean, we're a 100 metres from the shoreline, the school is, and we would've done quite a lot of water activity - learning to snorkel, learning to dive. You can see this paradise has a beautiful bay and a beautiful river, so the kids need to know how to have recreation safely, so we're not able to do that."

Wild storms, the worst in June 2018 and July 2020, brought the logs down the Uawa River from forestry blocks, littering the sand with forestry slash.

While Ūawa Tiaki Tai (Tolaga Bay Surf Lifesaving Club) captain Kerehama Blackman says forestry companies are working closer with the community, his team has had to close the beach several times this year.

A photo of Kerehama Blackman.
Ūawa Tiaki Tai Tolaga Bay Surf Lifesaving Club captain Kerehama Blackman. Photo credit: RNZ

"Sixteen years ago, you wouldn't have thought about closing down a beach, where now it's normal to pull out the red flag, so that means the sea is too dangerous to operate a patrol ... it just takes a king tide to pick up the big logs and keep them in the surf."

In centres like Gisborne, the noise from logging trucks and the damage they do to the roads are causing some people grief.

Councillor Meredith Akuhata-Brown's been living on the highway between Gisborne and its port for nearly 20 years.

She says the noise and dust has increased dramatically in the last seven.

Her family's made some changes to mitigate the problem but it doesn't solve everything.

"We spent $8,000, might have been more, on double glazing the front windows of our house so we could have some reprieve but to be fair..." Even as she speaks a truck flies by.

And at night, she says it doesn't stop.

"You can just get a truck after a truck after a truck, so it's impacting on us socially as well as I believe emotionally and mentally."

Wairoa District Council recently increased the rates for forestry blocks.

Its mayor Craig Little says this is because the community tell him forestry isn't good for them.

Wairoa Mayor Craig Little.
Wairoa Mayor Craig Little. Photo credit: RNZ

"The fact of the matter is forestry plant their land and trees and that's it," he says.

"Shut the gates and pretty well come back and mill them and we get told time and time again by the people of Wairoa that they contribute absolutely nothing 'cause they mill the logs and the trucks go out holus-bolus on a truck and overseas."

Wairoa house prices grew the fastest out of any district in the country last year and forestry's taking some credit.

But Little disagrees.

"I'd probably laugh at the forestry claiming any credits for any of that happening, because we don't see them around the table helping a lot."

Gisborne Mayor Rehette Stoltz says forestry is huge in her region - for every truck on the road, eight families have jobs.

But it comes with its challenges - and she says there's a key word: "Balance".

"It's trying to strike that golden balance where we can have the employment but we don't have the environmental [effects] which are the slash on the beach, or then the roading impacts that we see, but it's not an easy balance to strike as we all know."

The Forest Owners Association says its working on that balance - for example a new initiative has just been announced.

In Aratu Forests near Tolaga Bay, a permanent native forest buffer along the waterwaysis being created.

The association's technical manager Glen Mackie says this should make a difference, especially in storms.

"Our standards have actually got much tighter, much better over the years as you'd expect, so this is the next iteration, we don't plant right down to these difficult areas any more, we acknowledge that can lead to problems."

Mackie says foresters have tried to work closely with the Wairoa District Council for several years.

The Climate Change Commission says it travelled through Gisborne and Wairoa during its recent consultation.

It says it recognises that these areas are likely to be the most affected by climate change policies but it's also advising scaling back expansion in exotic forestry.

And it makes the point - the commission only advises on policy. Government agencies are responsible for taking the next step.

The commission says the Government should maintain a "strong dialogue" with these regions.