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Where and how are we to accommodate 2 million hectares of new and enhanced native forest as proposed by Recloaking Papatūānuku, and what will it look like? 

Top Header Image: ©Al Guthrie/Pure Advantage

Polarising arguments around forestry, farming, and carbon, have used a lot of oxygen in recent times. Boiling it down, it’s clear we can’t just plant our way out of our international obligations to reduce our emissions, but equally, more planting and more forests still need to be a strategic part of our nation’s climate change response. This is echoed in the calls for urgent action to tackle the biodiversity crisis. 

But where and how in this nation are we to accommodate 2 million hectares of new and enhanced native forest as proposed by Recloaking Papatūānuku, and what will it look like? 

Why, in a land endowed with so much natural capacity to support tall forests, is this such a vexed topic – especially when our cultural identities are so related to our beloved bush? 

I’m going to argue that popular discourse needs to shift away from the superficial controversies of competing land use, such as farming vs forestry, or exotic vs native, production vs conservation and focus on the idea of integrating native forest  into our diverse landscapes and in diverse forms. For I believe the challenge is less a spatial constraint and more of a conceptual one.  

Tōtara in Tutukaka
©Paul Quinlan

For decades many of us have struggled to adequately communicate ideas of how to integrate more native plants and forest into our landscapes. We have often used metaphors such as interwoven (mosaic) land uses, or weaving, a korowai, or re-cloaking. While these are all helpful, none has quite been adequate to paint the full picture or provide the detail. What does that really mean, and how does it look, and how will it work? I’m going to outline four of the nubs here.


Integration means complementing – not competing
For a start, it is clear that relegating native regeneration to the steep lands and low-productivity mountainous areas will not be sufficient or sequester enough carbon quickly enough. And, blanket-planting of our lowlands is fanciful. We will need to weave in native forest right across the landscape. The exciting potential is for this to create a framework of vegetation that reconnects ecosystems, regenerates degraded areas, improves biodiversity, water-quality and enhances landscape character. Importantly, this needs to be seen as complement to other land uses – not as a threat or competition to them (it’s and and, not one or the other). There is scope to enrich the korowai of most farms and forests in this way and make them more resilient. Factors such as financial incentives rather than a shortage of space are likely the biggest restraints.

Multiple of forms
The idea of native forest existing in a huge variety of forms across a continuum is another key concept. This will include not just the least modified remnants or protected conservation areas, but also a myriad of new forms. Native flora and fauna could also become ingrained throughout the fabric of the rural production landscape too. However, for this, we will need to give up inadequate purist delusions that many of us have been harbouring far too long. Likewise, the counter-productive fear of allowing the commercial use of natives on private land. Managing transitions from pines, pasture, or from weed infested areas, to increasingly comprise native species will be a challenge for many areas in the future. I’ll be blunt and say I consider the word ‘regeneration’ to be more robust than restoration. Somehow, we as a nation, will need to come to terms with better accepting and legitimising hybrid landscapes and novel ecosystems – especially in our highly modified and truly ‘messed-over’ landscapes. This may involve more of a popular mindset shift than readers fully appreciate. 

Multifunctional and multivalent management
This leads to the next point; in our resource constrained world, all land use and management needs to become more multi-functional and enhance multiple values. This is an inherent strength of forests, particularly native forests. However, again we need to expand our ideas on multi-purpose management of native forest, especially on private land. The time of simple forests and woodlots is nearly over. I imagine a much more nuanced, multivalent, and intergenerational approach to management. Priorities and actions may change within a tree length. For example, soil conservation, biodiversity, amenity values, or a waahi tapu site, might make selective harvesting inappropriate for one tree, and yet acceptable for another. Multivalent forest management with multiple possible revenue streams (e.g., carbon sequestration and biodiversity credits and sustainable timber and/or non-timber products where appropriate), should help native forest find space and forms to occupy within the landscape.     

Developing an ecological aesthetic
The fourth dimension, in this case, is an ecological timeframe and the hope and relief that should come from sharing the effort with nature. Our efforts need to focus on setting natural processes in-train – processes of forest succession. We don’t have to do all the heavy lifting. This should be a freeing and encouraging realisation. However, learning to work with nature is learning to see and value the positives within works-in-progress – weeds and all. At times these may appear to be going pear-shaped, because, beautifully, native forests are not (and never have been) expressions of our control. Developing an aesthetic appreciation for these long and uncertain processes will help.

So, to conclude, a vision to integrate two million more hectares of native forest across Aotearoa need not be misconstrued as a land use threat to farming or forestry. The greater opportunity is to conceptualize it as an enrichment of both – perhaps it’s just the weaving or stitching of more feathers into the korowai, for a richer and more resilient landscape journey. Accommodating it in our minds is the first step.

Paul Quinlan is a landscape architect based in Te Tai Tokerau, a key member of the Northland Tōtara Working Group and a trustee of Tāne’s Tree Trust. This article is his contributor to the Recloaking Papatūānuku initiative, an urgent and ambitious programme to restore our indigenous forests, building on the Ō Tātou Ngahere partnership with Tāne’s Tree Trust. Find out more about the initiative here and sign up to join the movement.

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