New Government Stops Rainforest Logging

By Bob Burton

Environmentalists are celebrating the success of newly elected New Zealand government in forcing the government-owned logging company, Timberlands, to withdraw its plans to log extensive areas of beech rainforests on the west coast of the country's south island. 

In defiance of the new government's views, Timberlands pressed ahead with the opening of public hearings into an application for approval of new rainforest logging proposals. Several hours after the hearings commenced, Timberlands was directed by the new ministers to withdraw its logging application.

The shareholding ministers - the minister responsible for Timberlands, Pete Hodgson, and Finance Minister, Michael Cullen, wrote to the Timberlands Board of Directors directing them to exclude beech logging from the firm's statement of corporate intent. 

Timberlands' relentless campaign for the new logging proposals has angered the Labour and Alliance parties, which were sworn into government last Friday after the finalisation of the election count.

Earlier this year leaked documents revealed a multi-million dollar covert lobbying campaign by Timberlands and its PR firm, Shandwick, to lobby political parties and "neutralise likely opposition."

Early last week Timberlands chairman, Warren Young, was asked by the outgoing government of former prime minister Jenny Shipley to suspend work on its application and the public hearings until the new government had been sworn in and could meet with Timberlands. Young refused. "As I have said continuously, as and when the government directs us not to proceed we will respond accordingly, but until that point is reached we intend to press ahead with the hearings as scheduled," he said.

Immediately after the new government was sworn in on Friday afternoon, Cullen and Hodgson met with Young, and requested that the application for new logging approvals be withdrawn. Young refused once more, insisting that Timberlands was legally obliged to continue with its application.

Over the weekend the ministers obtained legal advice and after meeting Young once more, wrote to him directing that Timberlands amend its business charter to exclude beech forests logging. Finally the company obeyed.

Environmentalists, who were scheduled to give evidence before the hearing later this week, have welcomed the decision. "This Christmas conservationists can celebrate the fact that the 25 year campaign to protect the magnificent beech forests and wildlife of North Westland, the Grey Valley and Buller is close to success," Forest and Bird field officer, Eugenie Sage said. 

"The timing of the consent applications and the hearings was always political, with Timberlands' wanting to attempt to push through the beech scheme as quickly as possible and to tie the hands of the incoming government," Sage said.

Despite not having formal approval for the beech forests logging, Timberlands has entered into contracts with a number of sawmilling companies. A number of these companies, as well as some local councils, are now threatening to take legal action against the government for what they claim is a breach of an agreement reached with west coast forest industry interests in 1986.

Environmentalists are confident that legal action will not overturn the government decision. "The interpretation of the Accord has already been the subject of two major court cases by West Coast councils and timber interests in the early 1990s when they unsuccessfully sought to increase the scale of native forest logging and extend the deadline for ending rimu logging," Sage said. 

"In both the High Court and the Court of Appeal the Councils and timber industry failed in all of their claims that Government had breached the Accord," she said.

Last Friday the final count of postal votes saw the centre-left New Zealand Labour Party win 49 seats and form a minority government with support from the left-wing Alliance Party, which gained 10 seats in the 120 member Parliament.

Election night results indicated the New Zealand Greens would narrowly miss out on winning any seats. However, the counting of postal votes last Friday saw them snatch seven seats and gain the balance of power. Under the New Zealand proportional electoral system, a party wins seats equal to its vote.

The Greens, who campaigned strongly against the logging proposals and the use of genetically modified organisms, have pledged their support for the Labour-Alliance coalition on confidence votes and budget measures but have retained their right to vote against other legislation the minority coalition proposes.

Greens co-leader Rod Donald is delighted with the outcome. "It's fantastic news, the icing on the cake. It makes for a very interesting Parliament."

The newly elected Labour Party Prime Minister, Helen Clark, has promised to put a new emphasis on social and environmental policy. "The government will work to reduce inequality, to improve the social and economic wellbeing of all New Zealanders, and promote environmentally sustainable policies," she said.

While the end to the proposed beech forests logging has been welcomed, environmentalists are pressing the government to bring the helicopter logging of the rimu forests to an early end as well. Labour, the Alliance and the Greens, all of whom have been targeted by Timberlands lobbying campaign, are committed to ending the rimu logging.  

Hodgson, Labour's Minister for Timberlands, is proposing a package of measures that would end Timberlands native forest logging operations while transferring the exotic pine plantations to a locally managed community trust.

"We look forward now to discussions with West Coast community leaders about our alternative economic development package for the Coast," he said.

Source:  Environment News Service (ENS) December 13, 1999