One Billion Trees - show me the green

The Labour-NZ First coalition government has committed to planting 1 billion trees over 10 years. That sounds like a massive number, but it is achievable.

There are a few logistical stumbling blocks to get around first, like finding the land and the manpower to plant the trees. But these problems can be overcome if you have enough money to throw at them.

In theory, the innate goodness of trees is hard to deny. Trees mitigate the effects of climate change by storing carbon, they improve water quality, and reduce erosion. Trees provide habitat for flora and fauna. Planting on this scale will bring employment to the regions. The future increased wood supply will be good for local contractors and wood processors. The one major drawback trees have had is that logs don’t generate as much money on a per hectare basis compared to milk powder.

The 1 billion tree programme is still to be fleshed out. But it involves re-establishing the NZ Forest Service (which was disestablished in the 1980s) to assist with coordinating forestry companies and wood manufacturers, and to plant commercial forests on Crown and Māori land.

Around 100,000 hectares of land will need to be planted every year. That will be a challenge given the rate of new forest plantings is currently zero. But it has been done before, during the early 1990s planting boom; although it was not sustained for a full decade as it will need to be now. Between Crown and Māori land there are various estimates for which areas of marginal land would be suitable for planting in forest. These areas are substantial and may be able to make up a good proportion of the one million hectares needed. The rest of the land would need to come from private landowners.

The Department of Conservation, Land Information New Zealand, and other agencies responsible for managing Crown land, will need to identify suitable areas for afforestation. There are hundreds of thousands of hectares of Māori and privately owned land that currently have marginal economic use, and would be suitable for forestry. To convince these landowners to invest into forestry will require attractive funding arrangements. The Emissions Trading Scheme and other grants are already in place to encourage planting, but these schemes haven’t been good enough to instigate large scale planting projects.

This is where the money comes in. The government has to sell the concept of forestry to Māori and private landowners. The fact New Zealand has zero net new forest planting indicates the market and current government incentives are not enough to encourage marginal land into forestry. Landowners need more incentive to change land-use. To sell the economic case for land-use change to forestry, the government will need to finance the planting projects to a large extent.

Workers will need to be found to carry out the planting. Corporate foresters are struggling to find workers to replant forests being harvested now. To maintain the labour force for a decade of planting, they will need to be paid more than they are currently. Work-for the-dole schemes will not provide the numbers, nor the quality of workers needed for projects of this scale. Before they even start planting, nurseries will need at least 2 years to cultivate the huge number of seedlings needed.

The cooperation of large corporate forest owners will be important. They own or manage around 800,000 hectares of commercial forest. Most of this forest is replanted after harvesting regardless. Disingenuously the government have decided to count the trees that probably would have been replanted by corporate forest owners anyway as part of the 1 billion target. It appears the 1 billion trees are not additional to the business-as-usual scenario, which makes the target far more achievable. Although still challenging.

China has planted 66 billion trees since 1978 in an effort to halt desertification. But China’s long-term results have been mixed and the project expensive. New Zealand is about to embark on a smaller version of this type of project. Because New Zealand does not have China’s financial resources or appetite for large scale public works projects, the government will need to plan this project very carefully.