Photo: Phillip Capper via Flickr

Cyclone Gabrielle slash and land-use inquiry – Expert Reaction

A report has been presented to the government around the devastation caused by tonnes of forestry slash and silt during Cyclone Gabrielle on the East Coast.

The Ministerial Inquiry into Land Use report makes 50 recommendations, including planting permanent native trees on erosion-prone land, restricting clear-felling of commercial forests, and building more resilient infrastructure.

The SMC asked experts to comment on slash, silt, and infrastructure.

Professor Euan Mason, New Zealand School of Forestry, University of Canterbury, comments:

“The inquiry report is a very good start to developing a more resilient pattern of land use in Wairoa and Tairawhiti.

“Many of the recommendations relating to forestry make good technical sense, such as restricting clearcut size, adjacency constraints, and retiring extremely erosion-prone land to permanently unharvested forest. Creating a market for harvesting debris will be challenging as processing and transport costs may exceed the value of products. The suggestion to make carbon-lookup tables more species-, site- and management-specific is a good one, but it may not always achieve outcomes that writers of the report apparently anticipate. Development of biodiversity credits supported by public-spirited donors will be interesting, but ultimately direct funding from taxation by way of subsidies may be required to realise the vision in the report.

“It is a bit strange that transition of farmland to trees is considered bad by the report writers, when all past evidence of damage during cyclones on the East Coast shows clearly that erosion is mitigated by forests and that pastoralism leads to greater erosion.

“On the whole the report is a positive step towards a better future for people in affected regions.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Nathanael Melia, Director & Principal Scientist, Climate Prescience Limited, comments:

“The Inquiry is split into findings and recommendations; it possesses a duality in nature, and as it reads, I imagine different organisations writing each. I welcome the hard-hitting and frank nature of the topics tackled and the language used in the ‘findings’ sections. However, the ‘recommendations’ fail to honour the seriousness and tone of the findings. The Inquiry title is “Outrage to Optimism”, whereas perhaps a more fitting title is “Outrage to Shortfall”. This Inquiry is trying to have its cake (appease the outrage) and eat it (not rock the timber boat).

“The Inquiry recommends “Immediately restrict large-scale clear-felling of plantation forests in Tairawhiti and Wairoa, in favour of staged coupe harvesting.” This potentially leaves the door open for smaller-scale clear-fell harvesting in the high (orange) and very high (red) erosion-susceptible zones – the areas that currently produce the slash and debris that wash over Tairawhiti.

“It does make some suggestions about orange and red zones, but only by reference to obscure council order numbers, acts, acronyms, and legislation, to give the impression of official action, but decoded, the orange and red zone recommendation is BAU, Business, As, Usual.

“The report also suggests that money be given to Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) to invent a supplementary “purple zone” classification for “extreme erosion susceptibility”, and those areas be returned to “permanent forest”. In the report’s example, ‘purple zone land’ is an already established landslide scar. This purple haze only delays action and distracts from the known risks of debris flow and slash transport in red and orange zones.

“As a reader with a background on the subject matter and the deep environmental injustices that have been imparted on Ngāti Porou, “Outrage to Optimism” takes the reader on an emotional rollercoaster of loving the tone “demands of an urgent reset” to anger at the lacklustre recommendations – from “Love to Livid”.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Nathanael is a climate and forestry expert who was part of Ngāti Porou’s submission to the inquiry.”

Jon Tunnicliffe, Senior Lecturer, School of Environment, University of Auckland, comments:

“I am pleased to see the extent of the review, and the careful consideration given to the many issues related to the unique geomorphic processes within Te Tairawhiti – particularly in light of current and future effects of a changing climate.

“The focus on improving forestry practices is particularly important – most notably, the imperative to improve clear-fell harvesting and roading in susceptible terrain.

“Better resourcing of land and river management, targeted management of gullies, and improved policy around river riparian zones will greatly assist with pre-existing, longer-term visions for recovery of riverine ecological systems.

“In particular, I highly endorse the motion to confer legal personality on the Waiapu and Waipaoa rivers; it is time to formally recognise what the local Māori have long known. The community is depending on the Ministers to take up these vital recommendations with appropriate vigour.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I have worked under contract at various times for both Gisborne Council and for Ngāti Porou. I have worked on river issues in the Waiapu catchment for 10 years.”

Professor Ilan Noy, Chair in the Economics of Disasters and Climate Change, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“Overall, I think this is an important and succinct report, full of good advice and recommendations. Clearly, our past practices are not sustainable given the increased likelihood of unusually intense rainfall events throughout the region. While Cyclone Gabrielle was an unusually destructive event, we have been experiencing more and more of these in the past few years. For each year in the past four years (starting in 2020), we have experienced more destruction than at any year before that. The amount of insured damage from weather events experienced in 2023 will be at least three times as much as any year before that, ever.

“I have two comments about the call to incorporate the ETS better into a system that encourages native forests and increased biodiversity.

“The first is that the ETS is a mechanism to incentivise climate change mitigation action to get us to our net-zero goal, it should not be seen as a mechanism for providing subsidies for re-forestation. We should explore a ‘Payment for Environmental Services’ reforestation program, such as has been pioneered in Costa Rica some decades ago, but we need to make sure such payments indeed create the economic basis for such re-forestation to occur.

“Second, we need to be really careful not to end up with an ETS system that issues too many credits, and thus sees a decrease in the price of permits (as we have seen recently). An ETS is effective only if the price of emission permits is high; and currently it is not high enough to generate genuine incentives for climate action.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor John Tookey, School of Future Environments, AUT, comments:

“The report makes multiple recommendations around future land use in the region. These are broadly to be welcomed in reducing impacts of silt and ‘slash’ from forestry, as well as further damage to infrastructure in the event of a similar future event.

“The recommendation for using local ‘value for money’ contractors to more rapidly address maintenance and repair in a future event has merit. The creation of long term ‘open’ contracts for disaster response and damage remediation fits with best practice. In the event these become regular maintenance contracts, there will be a need to ensure contractors have appropriate financial / production capacity to manage work volume.

“The industry is struggling to keep on top of these works. The sector is finite in scale and has multiple demands for ‘regular’ building – not just emergency repairs. It should also be remembered that in many instances the initial claims made against insurance policies during the January floods and the subsequent Cyclone Gabrielle damage are yet to be fully settled. New damage and further compounding effects inevitably set back final completion dates.

“To create resilient communities, we need to remove reliance on existing horizontal infrastructure – like power, water and roading etc. One very effective method can be to emphasise local power generation, water supply and water treatment etc. This removes the load from large, centralised assets and distributes risk.

“Such ‘distributed solutions’ should be promoted. At present we rely on individuals to invest in their future power needs from their own pocket. Relying on long term savings achieved to pay for the investment. Inevitably this is a slow, incremental process. Getting more people to invest in going off grid is a better outcome for society. Particularly in the event of another cyclone or other emergency.

“Good options would be to provide grants and support for individuals and communities that are seeking to develop micro power generation (solar, wind turbines etc) at a local level to reduce demand on overstretched infrastructure. When hydrogen fuel cells for housing are launched commercially, invest in those too.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Ulrich Speidel, Senior Lecturer, School of Computer Science, University of Auckland, comments:

“While the report acknowledges that comms networks in the area are a vulnerable infrastructure and failed, and that this had negative consequences, there are no recommendations on how to remedy this in a land use context, and this is a little concerning.

“The infrastructure focus is almost entirely on the roading and water infrastructure. There is little acknowledgment for the need to diversify and communication cable routes and make them more resilient, for example, or for the need to create the legislative and regulatory framework to make cell sites more autonomous and resilient.

“The roading and power networks are enablers here, but not sufficient on their own. Some of this relates to land use, e.g., reviewing restrictions on how large cell sites and their equipment can be, to enable and even mandate solar / wind use with large battery backup.

“Communication infrastructure is also key to restoring power and roading infrastructure in a disaster. E.g., when a crew goes out to investigate a power outage or a slip, it’s helpful to be able to communicate back to base what may be needed in terms of equipment or spares. If there is no communication option available, driving back is the only alternative, and this can cost many extra hours in these areas.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Professor Regan Potangaroa, Professor of Resilient and Sustainable Built Environment (Maori Engagement), Massey University, comments:

“The panel’s recommendations seem to cover a range of important aspects related to infrastructure, vision alignment, leadership and governance, and people and transition. The inclusion of specific actions and measures reflects a comprehensive approach to addressing the challenges faced by the affected area. The recommendations are specific, and perhaps overly so as it is hard to see where the links between the key factors are? At the moment the recommendations are seemingly in isolation to one another (on first read of the report). And that is uncommon for disaster recovery and reconstruction.

“The most important change recommendation from the report is the recommendation to direct the GDC to include land-use policy in its regional planning instruments to support a mosaic of sustainable land uses.

“Sustainable land use policies are critical for protecting the environment and ensuring long-term economic and social benefits for the region. A mosaic of sustainable land uses can help to prevent environmental degradation, preserve biodiversity, and support a range of economic activities such as agriculture, forestry, tourism, and recreation. If it adopts this recommendation, the government can ensure that the region’s natural resources are managed in a way that balances environmental, economic, and social considerations.

“The specific focus on reflecting the characteristics of individual catchments is important because it recognises that different areas may have different ecological, cultural, and economic needs and values. By taking a catchment-based approach, the land-use policies can be tailored to the specific needs and opportunities of each catchment, which can help to ensure that land use decisions are locally appropriate and sustainable. They obvious question is: how this will be monitored and effectively implemented?

“Two recommendations are urgent – that the government request the Gisborne District Council and the Wairoa District Council (WDC) prioritise the reinstatement of their drinking supplies, and ensure a clean drinking water scheme is provided within Tairawhiti and Wairoa to back up the municipal water supply. This could take the form of a tank (and filter) subsidy for all residents. These have to happen immediately.

“I would like to make an overall shout out for including wellbeing as part of the assessment in addition to the cost/financial data that has been included. The response has been largely about wellbeing and that point doesn’t come through in the report, but was certainly clear from the social media, photos and videos that surfaced. It’s also my experience from many disaster situations and contexts both in NZ and internationally – such as just getting back from Tonga and a RedR Australia training team at the request of the Tongan Govt. The impact of the Ha’apai volcanic eruption/tsunami still runs deep, as will cyclone Gabrielle.”

No conflict of interest. 

Dr Nick Cradock-Henry, Principal Scientist, GNS Science, Te Pū Ao, comments:

“The accelerating influence of climate change, and the severity and scale of damages from Cyclone Gabrielle highlight the limits of existing policy and planning, and even land use in affected regions.

“In order to enhance resilience, and reduce future damages, these recommendations go some way towards proactively addressing the interconnected challenges of enhancing livelihoods, ensuring security and wellbeing, and preserving critical ecosystem functionality.

“Implementing measures that account for the increased uncertainty in human-environment systems, and refitting risk assessment and planning processes to a more anticipatory footing, is central to adaptation.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Contributing author, IPCC AR 6 WG2, Chapter 11; Program Lead – Resilience in Practice Model, Resilience to Nature’s Challenges National Science Challenge.”

Associate Professor Stephen Hartley, Co-director of the Centre for Biodiversity and Restoration Ecology, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“I congratulate the Ministerial Inquiry on its plain-speaking and wide-ranging report, delivered in an extremely timely manner. Many clear insights are articulated within its 44 pages. Below, I comment primarily on the recommendations associated with land-use. 

“Most note-worthy and urgent, in my opinion, is the recommendation (R15) to identify a ‘purple zone’ category of highly erodible land that should be transitioned to permanent canopy cover, preferably native forest (R16). Such transitions in land use would be encouraged by recommendation R35: a biodiversity credit (similar to a carbon credit) that rewards the establishment of native forest cover that leads to biodiversity benefits. Although the details of such a scheme remain to be worked out, this credit could be broadened into an “ecosystem service” credit to incentivize a whole suite of co-benefits from native forest including erosion control (R17), improvements in freshwater quality (R18) and protection of downstream infrastructure, if reafforestation is targeted at the most strategically beneficial locations. 

“The report recognises the value of catchment-scale management that encourages a nuanced mosaic of land uses (R14, R36); local knowledge and regional planning should identify synergies that come from understanding the spatial relationships of interdependent processes. Processes that intimately connect the soils and forests with waterways and the sea, with people, and their livelihoods. 

“Although not listed as a numbered recommendation, the report clearly recommends revising MPI carbon sequestration look-up tables to more accurately reflect the growth potential of different native forest types (paragraph 54). There is concern that tables currently used by MPI underestimate the contribution of native species, further pushing economic decisions in favour of exotic trees. Many farmers are landowners would dearly love to re-establish native biodiversity on their land, but to realise the individual and collective benefits of native forest there have to be mechanisms to offset and share the upfront costs of transition.

“This final point, about livelihoods is reflected in recommendation R21: there is a willing and up-skilled workforce that has been activated by the Mahi mō to Taiao / Jobs for Nature scheme.  For this scheme to mature and deliver on the good work started, it requires secure, long-term funding.  

“The report concludes by underlining the urgency of action that is needed – we have ten years to effect significant change before many of the opportunities are literally washed out to sea.”

No conflict of interest declared.