Windthrow is a natural part of NZ’s forest dynamics
Windthrow is a natural part of NZ’s forest dynamics of catastrophe-regeneration. Thousands of hectares are levelled every year in our public conservation land forests and have done so for millenia. It is a part of the natural forest cycle in this windy country. Yet we do not intervene to sell the fallen timber in protected forests, any more than harvest kiwi, as it is as natural as the wind and rain. We allow indigenous nature to run wild and free. That is what conservation land is all about.
A dead tree is as valuable as a live one to the functioning of a forest, with up to half the wood being dead or rotting in a typical healthy forest ecosystem. This is what a forest is.
Thousands of species rely on the continual cascade of dying wood for their survival, and on the fertility and energy that is recycled back into the system. Such wood may come from the gradual decline of trees, limb breakage, or more catastophic destruction from windthrow, landslides or disease. This is all part of natural forest dynamics. An area of windthrow is still forest in the long term functioning of such an ecosystem. If the dead wood is not protected, then nor is the forest in the most fundamental sense.
You might argue that on the face of it the taking of a small proportion of the fallen timber in a windthrow event would not impact too much on the rich biodiversity of decay and the forest recycling system. Much depends on how it is extracted and on the quantity taken. International research of the ecological impacts of log extraction is still in its infancy and little is known about the implications for species and nutrient recycling with the removal of logs, particularly on nutrient poor soils such as on the West Coast. Prudency would suggest hands off until much more is known. However this isn’t really the point. What is far more important to grasp is that a dead tree is likely to be as important as a live tree to the forest ecosystem, and that to accept selective dead timber removal is therefore, by inexorable logic, to make the selective logging of live trees just as tolerable. I do not believe that this is what the nation wants, to reopen that terrible chapter of Timberlands at large once again, but ultimately that is what is being courted by supporting windthrow extraction.
The Minister of Conservation proposal is not based soley on helicopters plucking logs up into the air with limited ground disturbance. It is predicated on land access through a three dimensional jumble of wooded chaos. Huge machinery will have to plough its way in. Roading is inevitable in the larger windthrow blocks (1000 to 9000 hectares each) in what is still largely primary forest in a windthrown phase. Soil disturbance and severe compaction, and the widespread introduction of weeds that all heavy equipment carries is inevitable. Some areas are very steep, exacerbating earthwork-induced erosion and runoff into rivers. The Department of Conservation factsheet states that ‘no significant soil disturbance will be allowed’, but this will be an impossible condition to meet and DOC will not stand in the way of the scheme if it can’t be.
The scale of it is enormous and will be unworkable to police with 21000 hectares in the gun across 100 sites. Further, the Department of Conservation are being landed with the job of managing these logging operations. How grotesque is that? Unbelievably the RMA is also being largely suspended for this endeavour, with DOC, a department that has already been pruned to an inch of its life having to do the equivalent of council compliance. This is a recipe for disaster. The dropping of crucial sections of the RMA for this exercise gives the lie to the plan having anything to do with sustainability or sound management, and earmarks the enterprise as pure rip-shit-bust.
But more profoundly, is this any way to treat protected forests, in the sense of a reverential land ethic? We have destroyed over 80% of New Zealand’s vegetation cover, and yet still we want more, and less for nature, by dipping into the last fraction. On it goes unrelentingly, as if nature was simply put there for us to exploit, as if nature had no intrinsic value and rights of its own. These values should compel us to just step back and to let indigenous nature be, in all its mess and chaos, beauty and brilliance, without us having to profit from it.
It would be naïve to assume that the logging will stop here. This is an opening salvo with the minister intimating much larger aspirations for the future, quite possibly opening up all Forest Parks, Scenic Reserves and Stewardship Land to extraction of any dead or damaged trees. Not even Wilderness Areas ouside National Parks are being considered for exclusion- areas especially set aside where human structures of any kind, even helicopter landings (other than for essential DOC management) are forbidden, so that people can truly experience nature on its own terms. If this doesn’t strike to the heart with a dread chill, I do not know what does. All this is likely to be part of a major gutting of the Conservation Act should the government get re-elected.