Government won’t plant one billion trees after all

Shane Jones says the commitment to plant 100 million trees a year will be split between the government and the private sector.
Forestry and Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones says more details on the $1 billion regional development fund will be revealed before Christmas.

The Coalition government has been accused of attempting an “elegant and unnoticed sidestep” on its commitment to plant one billion new trees in a decade.

Forestry and Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones says it is the government’s intention to plant only half - or 500 million of those trees, with the industry planting the rest.

“[The one billion goal] is not something that is going to be pursued in isolation from the industry.”

Mr Jones says it is important to bear in mind that 50 million trees a year are already being planted by the industry.

“If we work together – if they continue with their 50 million [a year] over 10 years and we continue with 50 million [a year] over 10 years – you get to a billion.”

The commitment to planting 100 million trees a year in a Billion Trees Planting programme is part of the $1 billion a year regional development provincial growth fund in the Labour/NZ First coalition agreement.

In the government's speech from the throne earlier this month, the ambitious ten-year target was reiterated.

But National's regional and economic development spokesman Simon Bridges says Mr Jones has realised the government’s pledge of a billion new trees “is entirely unachievable and so he is attempting an elegant and unnoticed sidestep.

“The problem is it’s more of a massive leap.”

He is calling for Mr Jones to stop using “his slogan without substance, as one billion trees planted is untrue.”

But Mr Jones says “the language was always that [the government] would lead a strategy, and arrive on behalf of New Zealand at a billion trees within nine to 10 years.”

New Zealand Institute of Forestry general manager Tim Thorpe says even with the industry planting half of the targeted trees, the one billion goal is “a stretch.”

He says for the last few years, the total size of the commercial plantation forestry estate has actually decreased for a multitude of reasons.

“There have been some larger areas, like Landcorp which converted a lot of their trees into dairying, for example.”

He says the availability of land to plant the trees and the workforce to do it will be roadblocks to reaching the target.

Forest Owners Association communications manager Don Carson says in 1994 there was almost 100,000 hectares of new trees planted – roughly the equivalent of 100 million new trees that year.

Although new plants have been decreasing since then, he is confident one billion new trees in ten years is an achievable target, given the high tree harvest rate recently, which means there will be more room to plant new trees.

Fresh money for fund
Meanwhile, Mr Jones expects to make public more details of the regional development fund within the next month, after he's sat down with Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Economic Development Minister David Parker over the next few weeks.

But he is “endeavouring to get a cabinet paper up before Christmas.”

That paper will probably contain details on how the fund will be bankrolled.

Up until now, it has not been clear if capital for the fund will be reallocated or if it will all be new money.

Mr Jones was not too forthcoming when asked about this in the House earlier this month, saying “the full structure and character of the fund will be worked through and be made available when the government's budget policy statement is announced.”

This is despite Clutha-Southland based NZ First MP Mark Patterson telling district councillors in his electorate the fund was new money that had been made available for targeted projects and not old money repackaged from another source.

Mr Jones now says it is his expectation it will all be new capital – “it’s a new fund and, all going well, it will be fresh capital.”

In terms of the funding allocation, Mr Jones says regions that are struggling economically will be given higher priority when it comes to getting the green light for projects.

“The whole purpose of this fund is to work with the stakeholders in the more benighted areas and turn these projects into productivity gains.”

He has already outlined Northland, Wanganui-Manawatu, Gisborne to Opotiki and the West Coast of the South Island as potential fund benefactors.

Panel of experts to decide who gets what
On the funding allocation, Mr Jones says a yet-to-be-appointed panel of experts, with previous experience in managing capital allocation commercially, will run the ruler over which projects get funding.  

Although experts from the public sector will be considered, Mr Jones suggests he’s keener on appointing private sector ones.

“I don’t want to deprecate anyone from the Treasury or the Ministry of Business but the reality is you do gather a rare blend of skill if you’ve been on the receiving end of having to stand up and allocate capital in a professional firm or advice on how to allocate that capital and deliver on the creation of a project.”

He says there have already been a lot of people signalling interest in being on the panel and Mr Jones has already invited a couple of people to join.

These include former EY and Sealord chairman Rob McLeod and Taranaki Investment Management director and former Wools of New Zealand chief executive Keith Sutton.

Mr Jones says he was given a few names of possible candidates by former finance minister Steven Joyce.

He says when it comes to a project the size of the regional development fund, it would be “a bit petty for me to get arbitrary or precious” when it comes to party lines.

The log levy – a failed bid
Mr Jones also alluded to a failed bid at getting a NZ First policy across the line in coalition talks with Labour.

The NZ First MP says his party’s plan to impose a levy on exporting raw New Zealand logs overseas was shot down by Labour during coalition arrangement talks.

“We thought it was a good idea during the campaign to incentivise log owners to move as much of their sales as possible to the secondary and tertiary process in the New Zealand timber sector.”

He says while the plan is not completely dead, “it’s fair to say it didn’t survive in a very robust form at all.

“Like many of the things we pursued during the course of the election, you can only secure so much traction when you end up with 7% of the vote.”

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