No better time to tackle pine patrol

A predicted pine-clad future for Queenstown. GRAPHIC: SUPPLIED
A predicted pine-clad future for Queenstown. GRAPHIC: SUPPLIED
Let’s finish the job of wilding conifer control, Richard Bowman writes.

There is nothing more frustrating than starting a job and not being able to finish it properly.

This feeling is shared by all those involved with wilding conifer control in Otago at present. It includes the community-based groups such as the Wakatipu Wilding Conifer Control Group and the Central Otago Wilding Conifer Control Group, which champion work programmes in their areas. It is also felt by affected landholders as well as government agencies (the MPI, Doc, Linz) and local government (the QLDC, CODC and Otago Regional Council).

And not least by the highly efficient workforce of ground and aerial contractors who have been doing the hard yards out on the hills.

Over the last four years this highly successful partnership has made spectacular progress. This has come largely from the additional funding from the government’s Covid response Jobs for Nature budget in 2020. This has allowed removal of wilding spread over vast areas of affected land pushing infestations back towards their seed sources.

In many areas now the spread problem is coming under control. The long-term objective is to reduce wilding conifer risk down to levels which can be managed by the respective land holders.

However, the additional funding that has enabled enormous progress to be made has now come to an end. Unfortunately, the government does not appear to have any plans to extend it. This means the work programmes will slow down and before long the gains made, which have cost tens of millions of dollars, will be lost.

The reason why it is so important to continue the work is to ensure that once a mature wilding tree is killed it cannot be replaced by the seeds it has shed into the environment. Normally after initial control it takes two or more control cycles, three-five years apart, to remove regenerating trees before they can cone.

This will exhaust the seed bank in the surrounding soil. If this is not done infestations will take off again and provide seed sources for wind spread over large areas of adjacent land. So, the spread cycle must be broken to achieve sustainable long-term control.

One of the best examples of successful wilding control is the removal of over 34,000 wilding pines from the slopes of Cecil Peak which forms the iconic backdrop to Queenstown. In the image above the location of each wilding tree which has been removed is shown as a tree symbol. This graphically demonstrates what this landscape would look like in a few years’ time if no control had been done and these trees were allowed to grow.

Similar results are seen in many other visibly infested areas of Otago where effective control work has been done such as Skippers, the Dunstan Range, the Kakanui Range and the clock tower hill in Alexandra.

In addition, a large amount of control has been done in areas well out of the public eye over hundreds of thousands of hectares of the region. At all these places proactive control is preventing large-scale wilding conifer forest from establishing across our landscapes.

So why does the removal of wilding conifers matter? The answer to this comes from a report released by the ORC late last year entitled ‘‘Benefits and Costs of Additional Investment in Wilding Conifer Control in the Otago Region’’.

It concludes that if control is continued at the current underfunded level, then there will be some benefit. However, it would see the area controlled reduce from 89% of the known infestation to 49%. As a result, there would be a substantial loss in benefits as wilding conifers re-infest land no longer under active management.

So, if funding remains at the status quo, it is estimated there will be losses of $2.1billion over 50 years (measured in 2021 dollars). This comes from lost primary production, reduced water yields (irrigation and hydro power), loss of biodiversity and cultural values and increased fire spread and damages.

These losses are enormous compared against the cost savings of $13million gained by scaling back the programme. Furthermore, the cost benefit analysis provided in the report shows that one dollar invested today in an effective wilding conifer control programme will provide an economic benefit worth $96 in 50 years’ time.

This benefit-to-cost ratio makes an extremely compelling business case to fund wilding conifer control now. That is the sort of economic return you would have got from investing in Microsoft shares in back in 1986.

So, what needs to happen now? The ORC report says that the current funding level needs to be increased from $1.8m per year to $6m initially and then to invest further amounts until 2031 to bring the total of additional funding up to $13m. This will go a long way towards achieving the goal of having wilding-free landscapes over most of the affected areas of Otago.

So where will the extra funding come from? Landholders already contribute 20% of the costs of any wilding control work done on their land. The rest has been co-funded by central and local government agencies.

Given the current financial strictures they now need to look hard at their ability to increase funding in the light of a very strong cost-benefit argument to invest for the future. Other opportunities should also be explored such as seeking new funding from those who benefit from the problem being solved and those who contribute towards it.

For example, increasing the international visitors levy by another $8 per tourist entering New Zealand is estimated would raise up to $20m per annum. This could cover the current national shortfall in wilding control expenditure.

There is only one thing we do know for certain — there will never be a cheaper time to finish the job of controlling wilding conifers in Otago than now.

 Richard Bowman is the chairman of the Wilding Pine Network.