MAF asks after future of Maori-owned forests

Forestry officials want to know what should happen when the $20 million New Zealand taxpayers spent to protect Maori-owned native forests in the South Island runs out in June next year.

Efforts to rescue the most precious 5000ha of native forest from the risk of being unsustainably felled look so far to have protected only a sixth of it.

The Nature Heritage Fund has negotiated protection deals on seven sections totalling only 808ha for $7.166m - the equivalent of $8868/ha, or $44.3m if the cost was similar for all 5000ha.

It has committed another $8.12m for other owners.

Landowner expectations have risen with rural land prices, and the compensation being paid is regarded by owners as insufficient compared to potential gains from clearfelling the forests, acording to the fund.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) today announced a review of the rescue policy put together in 2002 to protect the old-growth forest on land set aside under the 1906 South Island Landless Natives Act (Silna). The act covered 57,538ha - 400 blocks mostly in Southland and Stewart Island, with small areas on the West Coast and in Marlborough.

About 5000ha - outside Stewart Island, Waitutu and Whakapoai blocks - is regarded as priority for conservation: the Tautauku-Waikawa blocks on the southeast Otago coast, and the West Rowallan and Waitutu blocks on the Southland coast.

The ministry is seeking views on what should happen next, said MAF natural resources director Mike Jebson.

Silna owners can still harvest their forests without any sustainable forest management plan or permit and sell the timber in the domestic market, provided they satisfy resource management rules, but any exports are covered by the same rules as other privately-owned indigenous forest.

"This review is seeking a way forward that is fair and equitable to all parties and would lead to a speedy resolution," MAF said.

Taxpayer funding started as bid to stop Silna landowners clearfelling trees.

Some Silna landowners filed a Treaty of Waitangi claim in 1990 arguing they were not getting full economic use of the land - mainly because of restrictions on logging native forests.

The Silna owners claimed their lands were exempted from obligations in law to sustainably manage indigenous forest because they were given as compensation to Maori early last century.

But Crown lawyers eventually said the land was given to Maori as a gift, rather than as compensation for not having other land from which they could earn a living.

Problems came to a head with clearfelling of native forest on Silna land in the scenic Catlins region, south of Balclutha.

The Government signed up more than half the remaining landowners of Silna forests in other areas to a moratorium under which they received money for paying the rates - effectively holding off on destruction of the bush.

Initial payments from 1999, described by MAF as a "goodwill payment" of $34/ha in exchange for a voluntary moratorium on logging of Silna forests, ran until 2006.

In 2002, taxpayers provided another $19.691 million - initially over seven years - to extend the voluntary moratorium on logging, and to protect forest.

John Ruru and Maggie Bayfield have been appointed as independent reviewers, and a series of hui is being held, starting at Invercargill on August 31 and finishing in Wellington on September 4.

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