In this paper, Kit Richards, once General Manager of Planning at Timberlands West Coast Ltd, traverses the ancient biogeographical history of New Zealand, the predominant pastoral land-use ethic of the European settlers, and arrives at the point where the West Coast Accord, a truce between preservationists and sustainable managers, was signed in 1990. This Accord affected the beech forests of Maruia, Inangahua, and Grey, and rimu forests of Okarito and Saltwater in the south. From there he describes how the new incoming Labour government of 1999, under internal pressure to deliver on a dogmatic, unreasonable agreement with Forest and Bird, NFA, and other preservationist environmentalists in clearly a vote-catching manoeuvre, abruptly halted sustainable, conservation-enhancing forest management processes, replaced them with misguided preservation intentions, and broke (through the use of specially-written law), without compensation, business contracts which cost private companies many millions of dollars. Key resolutions of the 850 + members of the IUCN in the year 2000, recognise that in circumstances such as apply on the West Coast, sustainable forest management that treats the local community as part of the ecology and gives them a stake in the management results, is likely to create a win-win situation for people and biota alike. Eight years of adaptive, sustainable management of rimu forest already demonstrate this truth.

    Temperate Rainforest
    Management in New Zealand -
    A Challenge to Convention

        C. R. Kit Richards, Orakau Consultants Ltd, Hokitika, New Zealand.

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      A B S T R A C T      

The history of  attempts to manage temperate rainforests in New Zealand has, as with all management of natural forests world-wide, been fraught with controversy. Various largely unsuccessful attempts over the last 50 years in New Zealand created a basis of mistrust and dissatisfaction in concepts to manage such forests for timber in a sustainable way. Nevertheless, the last decade saw the emergence of an approach to sustainable management that proved a challenge not only to the conventions of  forest management in New Zealand, but also a challenge to the very role and ethos of elements of  the organised conservation movement in New Zealand. Widely hailed as an important model for the world to watch, the ultra-low impact and ecologically based management approach was nevertheless abandoned in late 1999 by an incoming Government. That decision, based by admission on 'value-judgements' to attract a marginal vote, has created a significant debate in New Zealand. The consequences of  the decisions now made, will only become apparent over the next decade.

New Zealand today is a land dramatically different from that when human habitation began. An Island nation separated from Gondwanaland, New Zealand until relatively recently was a nation of birds and forests. It had developed free of all land mammals except bats, and had over the millennia, evolved a range of fauna that exhibited high levels of endemism.
      With the arrival of the first human inhabitants form the Pacific, bringing with them rats and fire, the land became subject to forces of change that would irrevocably alter its ecological trajectory forever.
      Following the arrival of significant European immigrants, a process started just 200 years ago, the rate of change was to accelerate and the land would never again at any point be able to acquire unassisted, an ecological resemblance to what had once been.

As a 'new Dominion' of Britain, the pioneers in New Zealand set to work to build a nation. Food, wool and timber were the prime resources of the day, providing for exports and the establishment of housing and infrastructure. Here the forests served as both supplier of essential building materials but also a hindrance to the production of food and fibre so strongly sought by Britain. A land ethic of pastoralism predominated and forests were cleared relentlessly from many parts of the country. It was an ethic that was so persuasive that by th early years of the last century, there were warnings and predictions that there would be no forests left by the latter half of the 20th century. These dire predictions led ultimately to the development of extensive radiata pine plantations that formed over 99% of the New Zealand forest industry in recent years.
      By the 1970's the era of clearance came to an end. A combination of changing attitudes and increased environmental awareness, changing economic and cultural ties with Britain and a recognition of the accelerated rate of decline in much of New Zealand's indigenous biota led to a general swing toward the protection of indigenous forest habitats. By that time only 20% of New Zealand's pre-colonization vegetative cover remained and in many bio-geographical regions the indigenous habitats were severely fragmented and degraded. The declines in fauna were largely attributed to habitat removal but are more recently accepted as a function of predation by introduced pests.
      Only one region contradicted the general trend: the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand. In this region, despite a long history of exploitative industry, the forested lands were extensive to the extent that the region represented the diametric opposite of the national average land use. With around 80% of the total land area under protected status, agricultural activity occupied only 8% and forestry, including production from indigenous forests, 7%.

The large forest areas on the West Coast became the focus of environmental concerns over continued unsustainable clearfell logging by the late 1970's following State-backed proposals for the extensive use, chipping and in some cases, conversion to pine plantations of native beech (Nothofagus spp) forests.

Figure 1: Clearfelled rimu forest in the early 1980's.

      The conflicts were intense, bitter and disruptive, but the forests and the industry they supported were a significant part of the regional economy and the methods of forest management employed reflected an historic legacy of Government-assigned contracts that had yet to fulfil their term.
      In 1986 as part of a sweeping range of economic change and deregulation brought to New Zealand by the centre-left Government, a significant attempt was made to resolve the conflict. Under the auspices of the newly created Ministry for the Environment, the various stakeholders were brought around the table for the first time to try to hammer out a solution that all parties could accept.
      The resulting 'West Coast Accord' was widely hailed at the time as an important step forward in approaches to resolving difficult environmental issues. The Accord, a signed document between all the parties, was to provide an uneasy truce during which a period of substantive change could be executed within the industry and its dependent community while at the same time guaranteeing significant environmental outcomes.
      The essence of the Accord was the delivery of defined outcomes through both a practical, structured framework and an ethical foundation. It had one simple overriding objective: to achieve a change in a region's economy from what was blatantly poor land use to an integrated use of land that established high standards of management for biodiversity protection and timber production at a sustainable, high-value, niche-oriented level. It sought to maintain an indigenous timber industry as an important part of the region's economic diversity and part of its comparative advantage relative to other more intensively developed regions.
      The practical structure of the Accord involved three elements:
  • the immediate transfer of substantial additional areas of forested land to protective status ( especially lowland forests );
  • The establishment of a transitional unsustainable phase during which, on defined lands in accordance with fixed timetables and a two-stepped reduction in indigenous log supplies, the industry could transfer to a largely radiata pine plantation base;
  • Other defined areas would only be available for a sustainable supply of indigenous timbers in perpetuity.
      Similarly the ethical foundation of the Accord involved some significant components:
  • The establishment of 'the Accord' represented a solemn agreement implicitly entwining trust and fidelity to a long-term vision and plan between the signatories;
  • The process of managing change was vested in a structure at arms-length from day to day political involvement and with strong community accountability via a regionally based State Owned Enterprise;
  • Finally, at the highest ( Government ) level, there was a discipline that stakeholders who had bought into the process could not simply opt out when it suited. The Government would not bail out their disagreements.
    The latter element was crucially important as a mechanism to force the parties to communicate with, rather than past, each other if disagreements were to eventuate. By the time the Accord had been signed and following subsequent related decisions affecting other lands in the southern part of the West Coast, the region stood as an example of unprecedented levels of protection that could not be replicated anywhere else in the nation and few places in the world. It boasted a comprehensive interlinked reserves system that saw nearly 72% of most pre-European vegetation cover still present and around 77% of that protected. Of 94 defined ecotypes within 26 biogeographic entities, only 10 fell below a level of 10% of original cover being protected. Those types owed their poor status to past competition for agricultural land.
      Under this uncertain truce the Crown-owned company moved, as required by Government, to lay plans for a future based on the development of sustainable management systems. Such systems were hitherto untried, unworkable in economic terms at the time of commencement and in the eyes of many in the industry little more than an idealistic forestry and conservationist's jargon.

In the early stages of planning, it was recognised that any successful programme would be a major challenge to past conventional methods. The forests under consideration, lowland podocarp, mainly rimu ( Dacrydium cupressinum ) and elsewhere beech ( Nothofagus spp ), were sensitive to physical damage, on difficult terrain, and exhibited structural elements such as large hollow trees that were recognised as important to habitat requirements of some declining native bird species.
      The public aversion to past harvest practices also meant that the forests would need to look unaffected.
      All these factors created a management 'poverty cycle' whereby controversy led to uncertainty, that in turn discouraged investment, which in turn could not support prices that led to good management.
      To progress, the cycle had to be broken and the points of focus to make the break were log grading, industry structure and pricing, followed by the introduction of low-impact aerial ( helicopter ) harvesting. With pricing moving up and sufficient to enable the application of aerial technology, the flexibility and relative cost difference of aerial harvesting to volume density and average haul distance opened up a new world of options to the forest manager.

      As the new generation of management plans were developed they did so on the back of five fundamental goals. It was determined that:
  • The biomass of the forest should be maintained;
  • The structural and spatial composition of the forest should be maintained as closely as possible to the surrounding unmanaged conservation estate;
  • The species composition should be maintained at near natural distributions and ratios;
  • Native fauna should be maintained of enhanced if possible through appropriate pest management;
  • The forest should remain looking the same.
      The achievement of these goals required a paradigm shift away from what have often been the traditional signatures of 'good forest management'. The change is summarised in Table 1.



Increased harvestable increment

Balanced age-classes
disjoint ages

Healthy trees

Maximise wood quality processes

Preferred species


Large old trees retained

Spatially and temporally

Health ecosystems

Protect ecosystem

All species

      The effective translation of these revised management principles to the ground led to a relatively unique management system.
      The native forests proposed for management involved species with long natural life cycles averaging 300 years for beech and over 500 years for rimu. The forests concerned regenerated in response to various disturbance regimes ranging from natural attrition of single trees, to small patch windthrows, to large-scale periodic disturbance from large magnitude earthquakes ( force 8 Richter scale ) that occur periodically along the main alpine fault every 260 years or so. On average, however, between the major disturbances, forest ecological studies provided information on the nature and scale of the disturbance events. Typically small gaps of 0.01 -- 0.05 hectares were created by 'gap makers', moribund trees that died in situ, creating a local contagion of insect attack that spread to adjacent trees, or windthrows that damaged or destroyed adjacent trees as they fell.

Figure 2. "Gap-makers" (two dead trees) form a typical opening. A common representation of the scale of natural disturbance and forest replenishment in beech forest.

      The practical challenge was that if the five goals of management were to be achieved, the natural, spatial and temporal patterns and intensity of disturbance would have to be closely mimicked. To do so would ensure that species compositions, biodiversity and habitat requirements were maintained. Similarly, yield regulation was based on the principle of selection of yield around the likely sites of mortality initiation. Through such as process, the application of very careful felling practices and especially directional felling to avoid damage to significantly advanced growth, a regime of mortality pre-emption or subsumation of mortality into harvest was executed. The implications of this were that the average age of the forest and structural characteristics, important to maintaining a presence of old and faulty trees for threatened species habitat, could be maintained. Further precautions to protect the structural composition of these forests included a harvest set to only 50% of the available increment, and the retention of large old trees.

Figure 3. The beech proposals, like the rimu operation, involved the lowest possible impacts.

      Ultimately, the key to make these ecological management objectives a practical reality on the ground was the introduction of aerial harvesting. While a high cost operation, a revolution in the processing and marketing of the product enabled the cost threshold to be passed. With this new tool, a whole new world of operational flexibility was opened and almost any environmental constraint could be accommodated. Group tree harvesting with minimal roads became possible to the extent that for rimu, the average harvest for any given hectare amounted to just 3 - 4 trees per hectare once every 15 years and for beech was forecast to be 15 trees per hectare.

(Saltwater rimu forest in South Westland,
with the Southern Alps in the background).

Figure 4. Seven years after the signing of the Accord, sustainable rimu management became a reality.

In economic terms in rimu forests that had been managed under this regime for 7 years, the operation had, on a cubic metre basis, become the most profitable forestry operation in New Zealand. This had enabled the expenditure of small continuous sums of money into pest control that were starting to show an ecological dividend of upward trends in most bird species.

Figure 5. Introduced pests like this stoat are the recognised cause of decline of much of New Zealand's native fauna. Harvest revenues were contributing to control and research.

Despite the successes of the rimu operation, the attainment of ISO 14001 by the State SOE and having advanced as far as pre-audit status for Forest Stewardship Council certification, the proposal to extend the management system to 45 000 ha of beech forest as enabled under the West Coast Accord re-ignited controversy.
      The conservation movement became split as groups, despite being signatories to the Accord, sought to short-circuit its integrity by political lobbying prior to a national election. Management, people and forests became lost in a media war pitting preservation 'sustainability is something for third-world nations', versus sustainable development. The unique needs of a relatively remote and economically disadvantaged region of New Zealand were lost on a largely environmentally detached, urban political constituency. A mode of land-based operation that had accepted and met the practical challenges thrown down to it for sustainable management now found its remarkable success a challenge to the very reason for existence of some small domestic environmental NGOs.

Figure 6. Along an unbroken hill face, protected conservation land shares the landscape imperceptibly with forest harvested just months before. Six months later the New Zealand Government closed the operation down.

      Just as the plans for beech management started their passage through New Zealand's Resource Management Act (RMA), the newly elected Government instructed its Crown enterprise to withdraw its application for consents. A Bill is now before Parliament to annul the contractual status of the Accord without payment of compensation to the businesses adversely affected.
      The RMA was a comprehensive piece of environmental legislation modelled around the principles of Rio and Agenda 21. Desgned to provide a framework for transparent, legally supported, public and community resolution of environmental and resource use issues, the Act provided a basis by which all normal resource use decisions could be achieved at the political 'arms length', often essential for long term issues.

For New Zealand the decisions have been made. All sustainable harvesting of indigenous timbers on Crown Land will have ceased by 2002 without consultation, scientific or economic evaluation. While some supplies of high value timber will eventuate from private lands elsewhere in the country, the bulk of the shortfall may arrive on the shores of New Zealand from the forests of out Pacific neighbours. Few if any of those sources will match the standards of the operation they replace.
      While providing adjustment assistance to the region as a whole of $120 million (about one-third of the value of the opportunity lost), New Zealand has exported a region's jobs and the nation's consumption to those who continue to harvest forests. The question will remain open for some years as to whether this was an ecologically or ethically sustainable solution, or whether we have simply adopted an ethic of sophisticated urban-driven 'shifting cultivation'. The question also remains as to whether the New Zealand Government has treated a segment of its society in accordance with the intent of Rio, Agenda 21 and the Montreal Process, protocols to which it subscribed.

Kit Richards was General Manager Planning at Timberlands West Coast Ltd, the Crown Company charged with managing the Government's commercial indigenous forestry interests. He managed the overall development team that undertook the sustainable development project and was a participant negotiator to the original West Coast Accord negotiations. He now acts as a private consultant practicing in forest and environmental management and strategic planning.

C. R. Christopher (Kit) Richards
Orakau Consultants Ltd
Forest & Environmental Management & Strategic Planning
Stafford Loop Road, RD2
New Zealand

Tel: +64 03 755 7797

Fax: +64 03 755 7797


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