Consider making mess-makers pay

Wood and forestry slash at the Waipunga Bridge in the Esk Valley after Hawke’s Bay was struck by...
Wood and forestry slash at the Waipunga Bridge in the Esk Valley after Hawke’s Bay was struck by Cyclone Gabrielle. Photo: Mike Scott
It is time we started holding organisations accountable for their role in the effects of natural disasters.

We have been encouraged in recent years by the government to run to it for answers to everything.

But if we hold the government responsible for every part of our lives it is never going to have enough money. It will work better if we look to those who create problems to make good on the damage they cause first.

Cyclone Gabrielle was what the Earthquake Commission calls a natural disaster. The suggestion is that Cyclone Gabrielle created a situation outside of anyone’s control at a scale which needed a national response.

But not all effects are situations beyond our control. The effects of planting, growing and harvesting trees should not be in the same category as a natural disaster.

There is a national policy statement governing environmental standards for commercial forestry. This includes a variety of rules which allow councils to control where forests can be planted, harvesting carbon forests and how forests must be managed.

These rules are similar to the rules around resource consents and allow councils to demand a behaviour stops happening or take action which can result in a fine for those breaching the rules.

These fines take years to get through the courts, and even when councils win the fines barely cover the costs of taking the companies to court. The forestry companies appear to treat such actions as the cost of doing business.

But in New Zealand we also have general laws around negligence. These allow us to sue people who do things which have a damaging effect on others, in circumstances where the damage is reasonably foreseeable.

Councils forget these laws when it comes to slash from forestry companies. They also overlook the effects of trees falling over where they were planted in precarious places and were likely to cause damage in stormy weather.

Significant damage and even loss of life arose from Cyclone Gabrielle interacting with trees and slash being carried down rivers.

It may well be that much of this damage was caused by forestry companies which were compliant with their management plans.

But they also need to take responsibility for what comes from their forests.

Apart from councils seeing their use of management plans as their only tool for dealing with forestry-caused damage, there may be other issues at play.

In New Zealand forestry is owned primarily by councils themselves, sometimes through so called council-controlled organisations (CCOs), iwi and overseas interests.

Maybe councils imagine that suing their own CCO is a waste of time , because the money will just go around in a circle. Maybe suing Māori interests will lead to requests for higher Waitangi settlements since the forestry land would be worth less if they were accountable for any damages arising.

Maybe councils think they may have contributed to the damage by telling the forestry company that their management practices were suitable.

None of these excuses are as compelling as the idea that if you hold people accountable for their choices they are likely to make better choices next time.

Suing those who cause damage encourages them to find better ways or stop practices altogether if the effects they cause are too expensive to manage.

The real costs would be much more likely to discourage forestry companies for causing foreseeable damage.

While we are on a roll we could also hold forestry to account for wilding pines and fires escaping where there are insufficient fire breaks and ways to deal with the spread of fires.

We can divide the effects of disasters into natural on the one hand, and predictable and possibly preventable on the other. We can then work on reducing the preventable effects by holding accountable those who made choices which caused damage.

That would also help governments to have principled responses to requests by communities and individuals for help following disasters.

It may also help encourage people to keep insuring their own properties where possible on the expectation if we all do what we can and should, the government can help out where there are gaps.

If there is a barrier to suing forestry companies for the damage they do, and the barrier is something the government has done, then the government should treat putting matters right as an obligation not a magnanimous gift.

Other than that taxpayers and ratepayers should not have to pay for putting right what is caused by others’ decisions.

Natural disasters are likely to become more frequent. The government is not going to win the lottery any time soon.

It is past time to hold those who own trees and the land they are used on accountable for their products from planting to end of life and disposal. —

 - Hilary Calvert is a former Otago regional councillor, MP and DCC councillor.