One Billion Trees

For many of us they are those irritating things that block out the sun, harbour noisy birds and have roots that create havoc with our drainage systems. It seems like only yesterday that our years of badgering lawmakers finally got them to relinquish their authoritarian control of the vegetation in our backyards enough to let us prune our own hedges without council consent.
Yet now it seems the current government has vowed a terrible vengeance by committing to planting a – billion – of the damn things! What kind of madness is this?

It all started when Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai trash-talked an American suit who’d boasted of a corporate million tree plant. Ms. Maathai retorted that a billion was closer to what the climate change-ravaged world really needed. And the world wasted little time in jumping on the bandwagon with a swathe of countries signing up to reverse the trend of incessant vegetation clearing that has been going on around the traps for far too long.

A billion trees… That’s a reasonable goal for countries with large populations and geographical areas like Pakistan and the USA – and even easier for mega nations like China and India where every man, woman, child, hobo and axe murderer can just pop a single sapling into the ground on their way home from work on a hastily-convened: “Triumph of Arbour-related Industries Day”. Job done.

But for much smaller countries like New Zealand, surely that’s a lot tougher ask…

New Zealand forests cover over 8 million hectares of land, which constitutes to 29 percent of New Zealand’s land area.

One Billion

Perhaps it’s a pity our government didn’t just pledge to enter into the “spirit” of the challenge and sign off on a Squillion or Kazillion Tree Plan, which possibly would’ve been easier to achieve as they are not quantifiable numbers. Unfortunately, one billion is. It’s also a lot. If you don’t believe me, try counting it. Even with friends. (Actually, don’t bother. You’ll need new friends afterwards, as I swiftly discovered.)

We don’t have many billionaires in New Zealand because one billion = heaps. Tons. Sh*tloads. Though admittedly, not quite as much as it used to be – as the British used to regard 1 billion as a million million or “1,000,000,000,000”. (Sheesh, I grew weary just typing that many zeroes!)

Thankfully, the rise of American cultural imperialism eased this burden on the world by reducing the concept of 1 billion to a mere thousand million or “1,000,000,000”. Ah! Much more manageable – and easier on the OOS. Plus, it filled the awkward neologism gap the Brits had for mere Thousand Millionaires.

Tree density in primary forests varies from 50,000-100,000 trees per square km, so would put this number at 3.5 billion to 7 billion trees cut down each year.

So, how big is a billion?

Well, that depends on what you’re measuring. If it’s grains of sand, you’ll need a vessel one foot square – and strong arms – to carry them all. But if you’re wanting to plant trees – you’ll need up to a million hectares – roughly equivalent to the Canterbury, Otago and Southland provinces all added together.

Wow, that’s pretty big. But, when you reflect on the fact that an estimated million hectares of forest is cleared every year from Indonesia alone(!), it doesn’t seem like too much of an ask. Particularly when – and let’s be honest, guys – quite a bit of farm land around our country is not really suited to pasture and, in the words of Forestry Minister Shane Jones; “probably shouldn’t have been denuded of forestry in the first place.”

But this a real cold case crime as much of the “opening up” of our land has been happening ever since the first Maori arrived here with their Zippo lighters in, arguably, the 13th century. Though it obviously clapped on the pace once the Europeans rocked up during the 19th. Then, deforestation reached such an extraordinary peak during the energetic decade of the 1890s that fully 13% of New Zealand’s entire surface area (or 3.1 million hectares) was cleared. It was also around this time that the mighty Seventy Mile Bush, (that ran from the Wairarapa all the way up to Hawkes Bay and from the Ruahines out to the east coast), was reduced to a mere Mount Bruce Wildlife Reserve and Tearooms.

Crown Forestry, an MPI business unit, wants to reverse some of this scorched earth policy and is offering to pay landowners all establishment and management costs – and even rent – as a sweetener for them to consider transforming their land back to forest. The catch? You have to drop at least 200ha of “spare land” onto the table for them to even consider you. Oh yeah, and the land has to be fertile, have easy access and be ideal for forestry production…

Umm, that kind of rules a lot of people out, guys. Have you considered contacting them individually? By phone? Within a single afternoon?

But 1 billion is just an – admittedly large – number!

Don’t get discouraged, the task isn’t necessarily as big and impossible as it sounds. One billion trees planted by 2027 equates to 100,000,000 planted every year for ten years and already around 50,000,000 are being planted annually outside of any incentive schemes. AND they all count!

There, the job is a twentieth as daunting as it seemed a sentence or two ago. Even so, planting a mere 50,000,000 trees a year is still a Herculean task. How on earth are we going to do it?

In June 2016, commercial forestry contributed over $5 billion annual gross income to the economy. Wood is the country’s third largest export earner after dairy and meat, and some 20,000 people are employed throughout the forestry value chain.

Cue sad trombone

Wah wah waaaaahhh!

Hopefully better than we managed in 2018, that’s for sure. Year 1 suffered from an ugly collision between shiny-eyed, idealistic enthusiasm and cold-eyed, stone-hearted reality:

The much-vaunted launch of the programme – planting over a million pine seedlings on a 3,600-hectare block in the Far North – was a complete bust.

  • It was found that only around 10% of the land was fit for planting as it was overgrown with scrub
  • Not enough seedlings have been raised in nurseries to feed the programme
  • Yet $160,000 worth of the available seedlings were mulched

The biggest problem here seems to be that the government as yet has been unable to recognise that the Billion Trees programme can’t be treated like a Sunday morning football kick around where you simply text your mates at the last minute to make it happen. With Forestry, you have to actually plan ahead:

Nurseries need time

Baby trees are like builders or brand new fishing vessels – in that there aren’t many sitting around in a warehouse waiting to be snapped up in a Labour Day Sale bargain. Perhaps there may be a few thousand lying around spare from a merchant banker’s bach makeover plans gone bust – but certainly not a billion. But try heading down to your local garden centre and asking for 50 million seeds, of anything! I don’t fancy your luck.

The stark reality is; trees take more time than you think to develop. Frankly those good old days when you could chuck a few seeds into the ground and within an eight to twelve-hour period expect a beanstalk to have grown up to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere – are gone.

Today we have to accept a gestation period of up to five years in the case of native trees – so there’s half of your 10-year plan gone right there. Nurseries are confident they can gear up to meet the demand, but it will take a while for them to get there. And they wouldn’t mind a bit more of a heads-up next time thanks, Minister.

Planting needs attention

Competenz put out a booklet that offer Best Practice Guidelines for Tree Planting which spell out the benefits of preparation for planting pine trees. And they aren’t just overly-officious regulations either. New saplings do actually need loosened soil around them so water run off has a chance to get in and feed the immature root system. Thus, allowing the baby tree to drink and grow.

Simply ramming seedlings into the ground without taking care of the plant’s roots and surrounding environment will NOT maximise your return on investment.

Radiata pine is the dominant species in New Zealand, making up 90 percent of the planted production forest area.

Staffing needs a fresh approach

This has had an effect on 2018 too and, worryingly, will severely hamper any dreams of a billion plantings unless more staff are found, and soon. Already there are mature plantations overdue for harvesting, simply because they aren’t enough workers on hand to harvest them.

What must be extremely frustrating for forestry people is that they have so many employee benefits across their entire industry:

  • They can boast a near-100% uptake in employment from all of their intake paths, e.g.; tertiary qualifications, school vocational training etc
  • A massive range of employment opportunities with something for everyone from unqualified school leaver through to straight A engineering grads
  • Good(ish) money
  • Scholarships and on-the-job training (get paid to learn!)
  • A diverse range of workplaces, including Queen Street, Auckland!

Quite why the doors are not being broken down by an avalanche of frustrated job-seekers is harder to quantify. Maybe people are scared they can’t get a decent almond milk latte in the middle of a forest?

Is This Programme A Good Idea?

Like the late Sir Robert Muldoon, I believe that sometimes you have to “Think Big” and this Billion Trees programme certainly qualifies under that category. Sure, we may think badgering everyone on our Facebook Friend list to include a ghosted French flag over their profile picture in order to smash global Islamic extremism is a really big idea – but it’s small potatoes compared to this. Partly because a properly managed forestry programme could certainly have major spin offs for regional New Zealand as well as the country as a whole.

Let’s not beat around the bush here, our regions have copped a buffeting for several decades now with everything from meat works and railway closures to the centralisation of government services in the major cities. This is a chance for some serious cash to flow the other way for a change. Plus, there are many other associated benefits that will come with a massive increase in forestry-related industry in until-now forgotten regions. Mr. Jones is also aware that infrastructure will need to be installed in the regions and has mentioned the possibilities of a new port in Hick’s Bay as well as the upgrading of what they charitably refer to as “roads” on the East Coast to help cope with the expected increase in traffic the programme will bring.

Add in the increased trade in food, accommodation, transport, commerce and education required by an influx of skilled and unskilled labour and it could be a very rosy time indeed for regional New Zealand. Especially when you consider the recent developments of a very profitable manuka honey trade and possibly even a dawning of medicinal marijuana cropping. Lest we forget the satellite-toting rockets currently launching from Mahia (Honestly, I never thought I’d type that sentence, ever!)

Maybe the government’s stated goal of planting a billion trees within ten years may prove a tad too ambitious – but wrestling the America’s Cup off squillionaire playboys once seemed delusional too.

Personally, I think the current government should be commended for actually putting a tangible goal out there as it doesn’t happen often in these safety-first, spin-happy times for politicians. It would’ve been a heck of a lot easier for Messieurs Peters and Jones just to say; “Hey, we wholeheartedly support the current global trend toward reforestation. On ya, dudes.” And leave it at that.

Let’s not beat around the bush here, our regions have copped a buffeting for several decades now with everything from meat works and railway closures to the centralisation of government services in the major cities.

But they didn’t – and we should respect that. However, we shouldn’t leave it all up to the government and private forestry conglomerations to complete by themselves. We could find a role to play as well.

If we are farmers or Maori landowners, we could consider diversifying some of our unproductive pasture land into native or exotic woods. If we are parents, we could drop our expectations of our children becoming lawyers or social media marketing experts and allow them to explore the possibilities of training for a career in forestry. Or, heaven forbid, should we end up between jobs ourselves, maybe even do a stint of planting out in the provinces personally. It would certainly save on the gym memberships.

And, at the very least, we could ask our brokers to tai ho on the kneejerk support for the latest whizzbang tech start up and glance at investment possibilities within our primary industries instead. Who knows, by doing so maybe we can help redevelop our regions, reduce unemployment, broaden our economy and perhaps even do our bit to assist in reversing the current climate change trends too.