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Pulling government funding from wilding pine programmes poor planning

Date: 22nd September 2023

Otago Regional Council chairwoman Gretchen Robertson has written an opinion piece in the Otago Daily Times and describes wilding pines around Central Otago as ticking biological timebomb.

Her piece is reproduced below or read it direct in the ODT https://www.odt.co.nz/opinion/pulling-government-funding-wilding-pine-programmes-poor-planning

They choke out native biota, reduce stream flows, increase fire risk, and impact iconic landscapes.

That means that current plans to reduce central Government funding to combat the wilding pine problem in Otago could not have come at a worse time.

This is an important issue for our region. Our iconic landscapes need our attention; they are highly vulnerable.

Otago is ranked as the third-most pine-infested region in the country.

About 8.4% of the region’s land area, 295,830ha, is affected by wilding conifer spread according to a 2016 report.

It is possible the current extent of the problem is even larger. Although yet to be quantified on the ground with surveys, a more recent desktop exercise puts the estimated area at 589,072ha.

These figures indicate the current scenario. Of real concern, however, is the potential for greater infestation if we do not maintain or enhance current control work.

About 70% of Otago is assessed as ‘‘very highly vulnerable’’ to future infestation, making it the most wilding-prone land in the country.

This is not an unsolvable situation. There has been great progress managing vast areas of infestation.

It’s crucial we do not go backwards now.

Not maintaining the gains is a wasteful, soul-destroying outcome for tax and ratepayers.

Great work has been done here in Otago through the national wilding conifer control programme.

This is led by Biosecurity New Zealand, administered regionally by the ORC and managed locally by the Department of Conservation.

Otago groups providing on-the-ground leadership in wilding control are the Central Otago Wilding Conifer Control Group, the Whakatipu Wilding Conifer Control Group and the Upper Clutha Wilding Tree Group.

Iwi, forestry, agriculture, conservation groups, regional and unitary councils and central government agencies are all actively collaborating to address this ongoing issue.

There has been a huge amount of successful work to date. To inadequately fund existing programmes now simply does not make sense, even through a purely economic lens.

A government-funded report (Sapere, 2022) shows that continuing control work across the existing national wilding conifer control programme presents an impressive economic return of 34:1 — the benefit-cost ratio. Sapere also estimated a net loss of $3.8billion over the next 50 years, if the proposed reduced funding was at $10m per year.

Economics are not the only concern.

Once these stands reproduce into dense, impenetrable forests, they out-compete the native plants and threaten native species and habitat, water resources, cultural values and food production and also increase the risk of wildfires.

We need to be finishing the job in the areas we have already started, so the funds already invested are not wasted and future expenses are massively reduced.

To date regional control efforts have been a collaborative effort, with a total of $21m spent since July 2016. $17m has been contributed from the central government national wilding conifer control programme.

A further $4m has come from landowners, central and local government agencies, community groups and grants.

Government investment to date has made a huge difference.

We are really grateful, particularly for the positive impacts the Jobs for Nature programme investment has had since 2020. But the signalled funding reduction from 2024 means recent progress is now at significant risk.

When Jobs for Nature funding investment ends in June 2024, this leaves $10m per annum central government funding for the control programme nationally.

At that point, control activity would be scaled back nationally from 49 active management units to just 10 over a four-year period.

That would mean less than half (42%) of the known national infestation would be actively managed, while spread and regrowth would continue in the otherwise abandoned areas.

In light of this forecast reduction, here in Otago this year there is no national programme funding being spent on widening initial control areas. Efforts are focused only on maintenance of previously visited sites. Indeed, trees remain in unmanaged areas spreading seeds.

While $10m per year is budgeted nationally for the next decade, regional councils are urging the government to commit to additional funding by a further $15m to a total $25m each year, for each of the next 10 years.

We are really at a funding crossroads and must not lose our momentum.

We need further commitment now to ensure prioritised control units are finished. At that point responsibility would sit with landholders for ongoing control.

There will never be a cheaper time to get on top of this significant regional issue — further central government investment is needed now.

Posted in: News