Having worked for most of his career as an environmental facilitator, Regeneration Independent Advisory Group (RIAG) chair, Richard Thompson, jumped at the chance to be part of a programme establishing best practice for the management of transition forestry.
An environmentalist, forest owner and operator of a boutique timber business, MacBlack Timber, Richard has spent his working life around Aotearoa New Zealand’s forests.
“I was approached because of my background in the environment movement and have worked as an environmental facilitator for most of my working career – working on some of New Zealand’s most thorny, difficult environmental problems,” says Richard.
The RIAG is helping guide New Zealand Carbon Farming’s multi-million-dollar regeneration programme, which is operationalising decades of local research into actively managing the transition of exotic nurse crops into biodiverse native forests.
Richard says the approach – using fast growing exotics like pine as a nurse crop for the eventual regeneration of a native forest – is an extremely important part of Aotearoa New Zealand’s fight against climate change.
“The first thing the exotics do is soak up lots of carbon,” says Richard. “So what we’re doing is actually planting a forest that’s soaking up carbon, almost from day one.”
“And we shouldn’t forget that because we’re trying to do several things here. We’re trying to soak up carbon.
We’re trying to establish native forest. And we’re trying to improve biodiversity. So we’re getting a triple whammy if we get this right.”
Richard says there are major environmental benefits from this approach – both in terms of the changing climate and local ecology.
“We need to get carbon out of the atmosphere, and we’ve got to do it urgently because we are approaching that ‘two degrees of warming’ threshold. In New Zealand, one of the best ways we can do that is to plant trees and soak up carbon.”
Richard says planting trees also helps address some of the issues with erosion, which has become an increasing problem for waterways and local communities – especially in the eastern North Island.
“The forests should have never been taken off a lot of the steep hill country that’s causing problems from erosion. It makes absolute sense to reafforest those hills.”
“That is another argument for increasing biodiversity because the more areas that we have that are structurally diverse and that have a range of different biodiversity, the more we can withstand climate change effects.”
The model, which enables landowners to earn money by generating carbon credits, is also vitally important to the success of local climate initiatives.
“Using exotics initially also provides some revenue,” says Richard. “And that’s an important part of this whole discussion, because the money from carbon credits helps to pay for all of the management focused on establishing the second stage of this process, which is transitioning that forest into a native forest.”
As part of his role, Richard has been spending time talking to people about the regeneration programme and what sets it apart from an unmanaged approach to forestry.
“So when I talk to people about the work that I’m doing with this company and about these sorts of programmes, I often get told that it won’t work because they’ve seen pine forest, and nothing grows underneath them.”
“We’ve all seen pine forests with an understory that does seem very bare. The difference here is that we’re looking at a managed transition process where those pines are progressively thinned as the native understory establishes. You’re also combining that with a planting programme to get things established that wouldn’t naturally come in by birds or whatever.”
“And the combination of those two things means we’re using those exotics to get a native forest established much more quickly.”
“This is a managed process that’s a quite a long term project, but we’ll get our native forest established in a way that’s going to be much more effective than just planting native trees into a grassy hillside.”
Richard says he and the rest of the RIAG team are very pleased with the initial results of the regeneration programme, and confident about the long-term results.
“I’m very happy with what’s happening here because I think it’s helping to solve a number of critical issues for New Zealand and the world,” says Richard.
“There’s an awful lot of effort going in and I’m really impressed by the team here and what they’re doing in terms of implementing the recommendations from our group. They’re also focused on implementing that at scale across all these forests while doing things like pest control, which is so important because you can’t really establish large scale native planting without dealing with pests.”
“But what’s also attractive about this – and why I’m excited about it and support it – is the fact that we’re increasing biodiversity.
“We’re increasing resilience to climate changes that we see in the sort of weather events that are that are happening. And there’ll be spinoffs from that as such as increased biodiversity in regions where there isn’t much – where it’s been very much lost – and also in water quality improvements as the soil stays on the hills and doesn’t wash into streams.”
“There’s a whole bunch of things that all come together with one piece of work.”