28 March 2014
RESPONSE TO SUNDAY STAR-TIMES EDITORIAL OF 23 MARCH 2014
Rain, sun, mud, soil, dust. Trees, logs, trucks, screaming saws. Massive computer-controlled processing plants. Log stacks on the wharf.
Our third largest export industry is proudly rural, robust and operated by people in hard hats and hi-vis vests. They produce the framing, joinery, the floors and cladding of many of our homes, newsprint, the toilet paper you used this morning, plus billions of dollars in exports.
Yet the forest-wood industry is all but invisible in the mass media. It is almost as if city journalists are embarrassed that our economy and way of life depends on something so utterly uncool. On people who actually grow and make stuff we all use every day.
How else can one explain the Sunday Star-Times editorial of 23 March? It dismisses forestry as a struggling, failing, extractive, primary producer of low-value products that consumers don’t want, seeking to be propped up by taxpayer subsidies.
Indeed, the future of the industry is so passé that it’s “not what Labour voters would want the would-be prime minister focussing on.”
Really? There are 100,000 or more Kiwis who directly or indirectly depend for their livelihood on trees and wood products in Northland, Gisborne, Rotorua, Taupo, Hawkes Bay, Wairarapa, Marlborough, Nelson, Otago, Southland and further afield. Among them, many potential Labour voters living in marginal electorates.
With exports booming and log prices high, forestry isn’t struggling but some wood processors are. You get that in all open economies when commodity booms push up the exchange rate. But we’re not asking for subsidies. What we do need is for politicians to work with us.
Even with trees now in the ground there is a realistic potential to double export earnings to $12 billion by 2022, compared with the $6 billion expected from business as usual. So it is a thrill for us to see all the major political parties thinking seriously about how to unlock this potential.
We need their involvement because politicians control the size, shape and contour of the playing field upon which this industry plays a very long-term game.
New Zealand is a world leader in earthquake resilient construction technology, yet we are laggards in multi-storey timber construction. Outdated building codes stand in the way. The politicians are promising to fix them. They also need to find a way to prove that New Zealand-grown plantation timber is legally harvested, so we are not caught by the international campaign to stop illegal logging.
They need to fix a flaw in the China-NZ free trade agreement that gives priority access to logs. The more we process the logs in New Zealand, the more the Chinese importer pays in customs duties. This wasn’t a “high quality” aspect of the agreement.
It would also be a great example to the wider construction industry if the government took into account the full life-cycle benefits of timber when evaluating designs for its own multi-storey buildings.
Far from being extractive, plantation forestry is highly sustainable and boasts up to 80 per cent of the biodiversity of a climax native forest. These environmental attributes extend to wood-rich buildings, which act as permanent sinks of carbon dioxide drawn from the atmosphere.
Yet ironically a host of government and regional council policies deliberately or unconsciously favour farming over forestry. Some of these are politically hard to fix, but you can’t expect a land owner to plant trees if a swag of policy signals is pointing them in another direction.
To counter-balance this and to assure a steady flow of wood to processors in the future, Labour is offering more funding for roads, worker training and research, as well as accelerated depreciation on new plant. The other parties have yet to reveal their hands.
Government policies have a huge influence. Not only on whether an industry realises its potential, but how it’s seen by other New Zealanders. When movie makers enjoy massive taxpayer subsidies, it's just not about the money. It also conveys the message that movie making is a good thing for New Zealand and New Zealanders.
The forest-wood industry invests tens of millions in research each year. Mills invest similar amounts in new processing plants. Those involved find it exciting. The mass media find it un-newsworthy.
We are proud of what we do. We’d like all New Zealanders to share that pride. We’d like to have our forests valued as an integral part of our landscape, recognised for their economic, environmental and recreational values. For our timber building design and technology to be recognised as being as much a part of the Kiwi heritage as our cuisine, wine and movies are today.
That’s hard to do that when one of the country’s leading publications sees you as being part of a failing sector producing products that consumers don’t want … except, we guess, toilet paper.