Part of my foundational values as a human include a deep respect of the natural world for it’s own sake. I was raised with an understanding that the natural world around me was interesting and important. Going to the bush, sea-shore, or browsing through family collections of fossils and shells were regular childhood activities in my household.
I didn’t always appreciate it as a child, but as an adult, I don’t need to put a dollar value on native forest. It is valuable and worthwhile simply for existing. But I guess in the consumerist society we live in – one that’s obsessed with squeezing productivity out of every minute, and value from every resource – that’s not the lens everyone uses.
If you ask me why native forest and the native species that live within it are valuable, I might talk about ecological services, or biodiversity value. I might talk about rare species who share this place with us. But deep down, if you really poked and prodded me, you’d find it was a foundational value that I will defend even if you manage to out-maneuver all my arguments. It’s ideological, and I hold this value as strongly as any anti-vaxxer or flat-earther might hold theirs. It’s in my blood. You can’t change it.
Native bush has value just for existing – at least in my eyes. The older it is, the more I love it. It’s become part of the drive that ultimately led me to this place. But over time I’ve realised there are a lot of lenses through which a person can see ‘value’, and the bush could be ‘valued’ in many ways.
Forestry is probably where native forest has the least value – and along with agriculture – is the lens through which it has been valued in New Zealand’s recent past. This set of values destroyed so much of our forest over the last 200 years. Cut it down. Extract. Burn. Clear.
Sure, there were some good sized trees that can be harvested for forestry, but once you harvest the valuable timber, what’s left?
It’s not more trees, because our native species take at least 100 (and up to a couple of thousand) years to mature to a forestry timber standard. Early colonial settlers stole the original forests of New Zealand from us all more than a century ago and converted them to grass, or pine. The forestry industry of today looks very different to the industry that contributed to New Zealand’s colonial establishment.
Today native forestry is niche, often focused on recovered timber that’s already been cut. We haven’t had a large-scale native forestry industry within my lifetime. The only legal way to take old native trees is to apply for permits and selectively harvest while ensuring continuous cover. It’s not impossible to cut down a native tree legally, but it’s not popular.
UMF honey is a highly valued commodity that is produced when bees collect the nectar of the mānuka (Leptospermum scoparium) flower. That’s led to quite a boom in the planting and value of mānuka in particular.
But in the scheme of things, mānuka is a nurse species. It provides shelter to larger natives in their early stages. Those larger natives will almost always arrive whether you plant them or not. The point of the mānuka is to allow forests to return, and when they are shaded out, mānuka trees usually die.
Mānuka is better than pine, grass, or gorse. But is fighting that natural succession and planting monocultures to make honey any better than removing our original forest cover to grow grass for livestock? It is one way to offset the costs of reforestation, but it’s a temporary state of affairs and brings far more income to the beekeeper than the landowner.
Spend enough hours on the native aisle of a garden center and you’ll begin to recognise that each tree could also have a retail value. Starting at $5 for a seedling, $20 for a yearling, and moving up to thousands for a fully mature, large landscaping specimen – the retail value could easily be millions for our patch.
We have nikau (Rhopalostylis sapida) in our forest that we estimate to be well over 100 years old. They’re at least 10 meters tall. We have hundreds of them. A price tag of $1000 each wouldn’t be unreasonable.
Not only that, but no tree in our block is simply one plant. They come with rata climbing up trunks, mosses, lichens, fungi, and astelias as big as a small car tenuously perching on the smallest of ledges.
If we could hypothetically lift and sell each plant to landscapers and home gardeners, we might come close to bringing an economic value to the bush that reaches the more ideological and ecological value I already place on it.
Of course, it is hypothetical. The only person who sees those price tags is me, and I have no plans to actually sell them at any size.
Here, we begin to tap into the actual, real value of a patch of remnant bush. Ecological services are the things nature does for us that we take for granted. For example, trees take carbon from the atmosphere and release oxygen. Oxygen is pretty valuable for human life, but we don’t allocate a dollar value to that service.
Similarly, trees are a really important part of our fresh water systems. When heavy rain falls, trees slow it down. Their leaves physically filter the impact of the rain on the ground, while the roots help to hold soils together and prevent erosion.
When growing alongside waterways, plants help filter nutrients and sediment from entering fresh water paths. Excess sediment leads to ‘sedimentation‘ – where rivers and harbours fill up with topsoil eroded from surrounding hills. This, in turn, suffocates marine life and encourages the growth of mangroves (which themselves are only helping to filter the sediment from the water before it gets to the ocean).
Not to mention, that ‘sediment’ is actually top soil that takes thousands of years to develop. It might feel like dirt is an unlimited resource, but soil is not. And so much of it now sits in our harbours and oceans. Trees help us to hold onto what is left on steep terrain
If a person were in charge of managing these systems and keeping our fresh water and marine environments clean, it would probably be an important job with a lofty paycheck. But no-one is paying the trees for the value they provide by simply existing. And it is only recently we’ve started recognising and legislating for that value.
Because our existing forest was there before 1990, it does not qualify to earn carbon credits – but anything we plant now, can. And as far as I can tell, this is the only way we pay people cash money on an ongoing basis to grow native trees permanently.
Increasingly, I’m leaning towards reforesting 6ha of our outer paddocks entirely in natives. This will include a restored wetland, and possibly some planned continuous-cover forestry in more accessible areas. It would about double the amount of native forest we have.
It’s a daunting job: firstly to make sense of how the carbon trading scheme works, and how our planting might contribute and participate in the scheme. Then there’s the logistical bit: 6ha is a pretty large area and ours is steep terrain which can be difficult to access. We’ve got to actually plant it, and look after it until it’s established and large enough to out-compete the kikuyu, gorse, pigs, possums, and rabbits by itself.
As I understand it, I’d make more money from carbon credits on pine in my own lifetime. However future owners of the property would likely make better money off the carbon credits achieved from natives for a lot longer into the future.
In fact, because of the preparation, planting, and maintenance cost, it’ll probably cost me money unless I can secure a lot of grants to install it (that I’ll still need to research, plan, and apply for).
These are the thoughts that have been circling in my mind as I walk through our bush and marvel at how beautiful it is. Landowners who plant and maintain new native bush now – I suspect – are doing it more for ideological reasons (or increasingly, compliance) than because it’s an actually profitable activity.
The best real potential for “extracting value” from our existing forest right now is in possum fur. There’s far more cost involved in owning bush than reward. Bullets, traps, baits, poisons, and equipment aren’t free. It’s a choice you make when you purchase a block, but as a society, we’re not exactly incentivising landowners to do more. And yet these pockets of land provide services which do affect us all.
What value do we place on these trees? Why do we care, or not care? How can we get landowners to think beyond their own lifetimes and reforest their marginal land?
I don’t know the answer. I just know that I have a deep drive to do more – and I will do more. It’s just a matter of values.