Failure to heed local advice on the environmental consequences of a townie's 'well intentioned' policy change just made climate consequences worse in the high country, says Guy Trafford

Failure to heed local advice on the environmental consequences of a townie's 'well intentioned' policy change just made climate consequences worse in the high country, says Guy Trafford

Many in the South Island high country will be thinking “told you so” when thinking about DoC's role in the recent fires in the Mackenzie Basin.

The intentions of the reform of land tenure in the high country in taking back of grazing lease land and putting back into the Conservation Estate, while well intentioned, was always going to be fraught with the law of unintended consequences. Rights and wrongs of the whole tenure process aside as this is a complicated issue which has been driven by philosophy as much as anything and relitigating this is not likely to serve any immediate benefit.

However, there was a part of the process which did get farmers ire up. This is the problem of weed and pest control on the land which farmers ceded to the Crown.

It has been long recognised that DoC has been grossly underfunded given the size and scope of the land they administer. In part some concerns, especially around the spread of wilding pines has finally been recognised and something is being done. With $100 million being allocated over the next four years the ‘cost’ of not doing enough in past years has become obvious.

As long as Eugenie Sage has any say, the farmers concerns about the ‘weed’ build-up being controlled by livestock are not likely to see the light of day.

One of the issues with the return of ‘high country’ back to its natural state is the phases it will need to go through to get there. Getting rid of the wilding pines is the first and obvious target however, that is not the only transformation that needs to take place.

One of the problems that contributed to the recent Lake Ohau fires spreading so fast was the ready source of fuel in the form of dried grasses that had built up through the lack of grazing.

Pre the introduction of Europeans and livestock farming this country was covered in tussocks and snow grasses. Still flammable but not to the same level as the dried grasses that have been encouraged to become established to feed livestock. Another problem that has built up is due the phosphate being applied to tussock lands (to encourage clovers) is matagouri, a native thorny shrub has become abundant.

This is another great source of fuel to wildfires.

On a visit to a station up the Rakaia Gorge some years ago, I viewed some interesting photographs on the wall of the woolshed where we had lunch. From memory there were three photographs and they showed the view onto a nearby face over a period of time. Plus of course there was the current live view.

The photos clearly showed how the plant cover on the face had changed over time. Close on 100 years ago it was clean (mostly) of matagouri and other shrubs and looked like pristine tussock country.

A later photo showed how the matagouri had taken over much of the country and then more recently it showed, and which was reflected in the live view, how improved grasses had been established through more subdivision and improved management with fertilisers etc.

Most of this country has now reverted back to the Crown under the Tenure Review reforms. To get country that has been transformed as this example has (probably typical of much of the Tenure Review lands) is going to be a multi-generational process and from listening to a wise head in DoC he at least recognised this.

Unfortunately, when the Tenure Review started off, climate change and the risk of fires was not such a major consideration. Actually, the Lake Ohau fires were believed to have started from a faulty power line, but then the climate took over with strong winds and the early onset of the dry season. However, the risk of fires appears to be increasing dramatically if the experience of other countries is anything to go by.  The California fires which are still burning have covered an area approaching 2 million hectares a similar area to what was burnt in Australia last fire season which make the 5,000 hectares at Lake Ohau pale in comparison.

But the risk of fires spreading, once away in the high country, must be considerable. I don’t know whether reintroducing livestock onto some of this country will reduce the risk of fire. Some farmers seem to think it will but having a conversation, which includes DoC and farmers, about what might help protect the high country seems overdue. I suspect no-one has all the answers especially in how long it will take to revert past farm land back to pristine tussock as anything else seems a waste of time and effort, but if we add fire into the equation then it is likely to slow down any improvements.

The global perspective

Judging by the latest report from the UN, we are close to the point of no return on Climate Change, and as the reports quotes UN member Mami Mizutori, it was “baffling” that nations were continuing knowingly “to sow the seeds of our own destruction, despite the science and evidence that we are turning our only home into an uninhabitable hell for millions of people”. At the moment the world is +1.1oC above pre-industrial temperatures, however, the report says the world is on course for a temperature increase of +3.2oC or more, unless industrialised nations can deliver reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of at least -7.2% annually over the next 10 years in order to achieve the +1.5 degree target agreed in Paris.

It all sounds rather depressing and the impact New Zealand can make on the global scene is minimal especially when the likes of the US leadership are still in denial.

Some of the positive changes that have come out of the coronavirus pandemic has shown with the right motivation and political well swift action can occur. Unfortunately, we have also seen the reverse with countries that should know better contributing to the problems created by the pandemic. So, it is anyone’s guess as to how things will progress into the future, both at the local level and globally. But I for one won’t be holding my breath for anything positive with the current lack of a united view.

With summer rapidly approaching many farmers on the East coasts of both Islands are already nervous with multiple dry seasons behind them. Up until last season New Zealand seemed to be getting through periods when other countries were being seriously affected by weather extremes relatively well. However, the extremes of climate are now starting to spill over into our neck of the woods and I suspect the Lake Ohau fires won’t be the only adverse event this season.

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19 Comments

Premier Xi has recently announced that China will be " carbon neutral " by 2060, and not before. Given that China produces 28% of the world's emissions this pretty well locks in the likelihood of + 3 degrees of global warming. Rather than trying to stem this inexorable tide NZ should be preparing to try to live with it. So far we do not seem to have suffered any dire consequences - can anyone point to any extreme financial cost that NZ has incurred as a result of global warming? East coast droughts do not count as they are commonplace.

Yep thats why USA pulled out of Paris climate fraud since it just give China and India money to pollute more.
So unlike this Guy Trufford story above "According to the US Energy Information Administration, US CO2 emissions in 2019 were the lowest they have been since 1992".

Bollocks. China's 'pollution' is the US's, as it is ours. Every time you buy something from a big-box store, the offshored extraction, offshored processing/production and often offshored disposal - is because of consumption somewhere else. By people like you and me.

The US pulled out for purely selfish reasons - they're a dying Empire with an unrepayable total debt. They can't afford another cost; they're bankrupt now. Their infrastructure was all built around extending suburban sprawl and filling it with people and crap. It doesn't work ex fossil energy and as the EROEI curve trends downward exponentially, they will defer/triage maintenance. And they're facing the same escalation of 'events'.

Paris had the right target conceptually - the problem is that BAU doesn't fit what is essentially a need to reduce energy-use. The global economy is already 12 years down the steroid track, now in ICU. It cannot act Climate-wise without committing Seppuku, even though it has terminal cancer. Funny old dilemma.

And it reflects individuals with the same problem - and therefore the same need to deny.

What are you typing on PDK, you think that might have came from China?
How come you bought that when its all Fossil fuel oil based like 90% of everything else you own ?
If you look at the agreement it gives money to China to carry on, no idea why its being selfish to not agree to that and rather spend it local.
No denying by me, I do my part conserving, recycling and have a minimal footprint but don't have a huge 300W solar like yourself.
Actually any word on your land size ? Curious how your offsetting you CO2.

You will never get an informative answer from PdK addressing your question my2c. He's been challenged repeatedly and always either clams up or goes off on one of his mantra driven rants. He's best ignored

Indeed: without Emperor Xi, Tsar Putin, Sultan Erdogan, and Maharajah Modi on board the UN proposal, it means nothing. Oh, except the 'uninhabitable hell' the UN haruspex has divined from the entrails. Which, oddly enough, is what us humans are quite adept at getting through. With collateral damage, natcherally.

That's just plain wrong, Waymad.

Beyond a degree of so, we are in trouble. Nobody - but nobody - suggests we can live with more than 2 degrees. That means we die. Got it? We evolved with all that carbon off the table, locked away below. We've released about half = and are seeing the repercussions, even with the lag-time involved.

Even is we collapse now, the lag continues. Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion are both in the ball-park; we need to be off carbon by 2025-30 to be able to stay under 2 degrees. Off permanently.

Do you have any idea how many humans can be supported ex-fossil fuels? Is 5-6 billion still counted as 'collateral'?

"Pre the introduction of Europeans and livestock farming this country was covered in tussocks and snow grasses"
Um, a late stage vegetation, Guy. Tangata Whenua, map P88 and supporting text, show clearly that the East Coast of the South Island was forest fairly much from mountain bushline to sea, and that, to quote that text

..the intervals between fires dropped to only 7 years in the 13th century. Later fires, caused mostly by human activity, destroyed large areas of forest and left extensive tussock grasslands....

Vegetative cover changes affect precipitation, soil erosion, plant ecological niches and much else. Those early Polynesian fires certainly changed things.........

Probably best we avoid the blame game; there's no time left for that.

Maori, farmers, DoC - they've all made mistakes and none have looked at it big-picture.

Where to from here? It's a Systems dilemma; farming as practised is unsustainable, so will therefore cease. Re-habilitation of land - indeed of the planet including its Climate - is beyond us now. We squandered the energy-bonanza at the front-end, avoiding 'costs'. Indeed, you would need Conservation at all, if we had swept up behind us in a sustainable - a long-term-maintainable - manner.

So - we shouldn't be grazing above say, 3000 ft. We have to have a discussion re purity vs pragmatism in terms of rehabilitation; and decide on a course of action.

The other Systemic problem will be more decaying infrastructure - like power-lines. So expect more of these events as things tire (as entropy sets in).

I have a copy of A River Rules My Life - a reminder that nobody makes the bad moves out of malice, merely out of ignorance. Let's have the conversation; I suspect it involves financial pain for those who bet on 'more' but so what? If we carry on carrying on, they're sure of even more pain (although if the system collapses, I guess there's an argument that at least that might vanish their debt....).

Resilience - capacitance to withstand - is a valid goal, irrespective of $$$$. House set-backs, water-storage, materials, bunkers - all should be up for discussion.

Any property that went through tenure review is unlikely to be grazing above 3000ft. It has been understood since the 1960s that fertiliser applications above that altitude were unlikely to be profitable. But without fertiliser, then within a farming system there will inevitably be loss of nutrients from the system. Much of this country was retired from grazing in the 1970s adminstered by Catchment Boards and retirement has continued on from there. One of the reasons that matagouri does well is that, like clover, it is a fixer of atmospheric nitrogen. But tussocks cannot do this.
KeithW

Thanks Keith - but tussocks were much better capacitors in rain-events, yes?

Seems to me the Taeiri flood events have become worse since the de-tussocking of the upsream catchment.

A friend of ours developed a farm out of tussock on the slopes of the Lammerlaw Range.The property was in the catchment from which the Dunedin City Council collects the city's water. When he put it up for sale it was bought by the DCC who replanted the tussock for the sake of its water harvesting capabilities. Tussock has no particular advantages during heavy rainfall - in fact runoff from grassed country is less than from tussock, but tussock harvests moisture from cloud and light misty rain. The range tops in the Taieri catchment are characterised by large mossy swamps which absorb rainfall and gradually release it via the Taieri's many tributaries .Most of the higher parts of the Taieri catchment have a ground cover of oversown tussock. Different parts of the Taieri catchment are exposed to variously southerly, northwesterly or easterly weather systems. When heavy rain occurs in at least two of these aspects flooding is likely. It has very little to do with the removal of tussock.

Good to hear from the coal-face (so to speak).

I remember my father going to stay with friends way back in the 80's and they had huge John Deere tractors disking up the tussock lands. He was really upset about it way back then and felt they were doing the wrong thing. Is that clearance still happening or has most of it been done? They did the same thing in the Central North Island.

Who is the Townie? and should we all disclose if we live on a farm , or in town ?

...."Actually, the Lake Ohau fires were believed to have started from a faulty power line, but then the climate took over with strong winds and the early onset of the dry season."...
Would suggest climate is the wrong word to use here "weather" is more appropriate
...."Judging by the latest report from the UN, we are close to the point of no return on Climate Change"....
Don't have any faith in what the UN says. Another agenda at work here.
In 2015 the Earth League whoever they maybe said that the point of no return was in 2040, re-scheduled from a previous date which I don't have. This lot seems to have disappeared as well.
In early 2016 there 24 days to Al Gore's '10 years to save the planet' and 'point of no return' planetary emergency deadline.

In fact that has been the claim since at least the 80's.

Basically the cost of going without fossil fuels, is multiples higher than adapting to climate change. Given that there are zero guarantees the getting rid of fossil fuels will do anything about climate change, and knowing how essential fossil fuels are to civilisation, it's baffling that people are credibly suggesting we get rid of FF.