Govt fails to meet election promise deadline over forestry conversion

Last year Labour vowed to give local councils more power regarding land conversion in the first six months of its term.
Last year Labour vowed to give local councils more power regarding land conversion in the first six months of its term. Photo credit: Getty

By Sally Murphy of RNZ

The Government has failed to meet a deadline it set itself to give local councils more control when dealing with forestry conversions.

Last year the Labour Party made a pre-election promise that it would give local councils the power to determine what classes of land could be used for forestry in the first six months of its term.

This was in response to concerns from some rural communities that too much productive land was being lost to forestry.

Last week a public meeting was held in North Otago, where the community is outraged at plans that will see a large sheep and beef farm at the head of the Kakanui River converted into a permanent carbon forest.

They say it is a special environment that needs to be protected. But the company that has bought the farm, New Zealand Carbon Farming, said its forests provide a rich habitat for the county's unique native flora and fauna.

Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher said there was not a lot the council could do apart from lobbying the Government to change policy.

"I think they need to bring in some rules around protecting special areas and being able to have a national environment standard that says where carbon forestry can and can't happen."

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor admitted these reforms had not happened yet.

"Look, it probably is a bit slower than it should be, but we are going to keep moving forward and, I guess, in the meantime it is a discussion local communities should have.

"I think if New Zealand Carbon Farming pick up the vibes, then maybe they should reconsider but it's not for me to make a judgment on their business decisions," he said.

The Government was still committed to the review but there was no timeframe for when it would be complete, O'Connor said.

"In an area like this [Kakanui catchment] where there's clearly not much forestry, and it does perhaps challenge the landscape values as well as the potential impacts on the waterways, then we believe that councils should have an ability to intervene."

Federated Farmers Meat and Wool chair William Beetham said regular farming practices could not compete with carbon farming.

"We're seeing high value and almost unbelievable demand for our lamb and sheep products overseas, so there's a very bright future in our industry, but the key is to ensure that we have a level playing field in terms of policy settings from the government."