Deborah Coddington
Deborah Coddington

Logging Off

Guess who wrote this on 2 March 2000: "There is nothing that annoys the Party more dramatically than the erosion of personal property rights."

No, it wasn't taken from one of Lindsay Perigo's editorials. And no again; it was not uttered by a member of the Act Party in the gush of euphoria which followed Douglas Myers' speech to the annual conference in which he reminded Act of its founding principles (principles? what principles? Ed).

Give up?

Jenny Shipley wrote that in a letter to Don Coles, chairman of the organisation, Property Rights in New Zealand Inc and member of the Magna Carta Society.

Now stop laughing and read the remainder of the letter:

"Having said that from time to time the RMA challenges some notions and we have to work our way through that. Personally I feel the property rights for New Zealanders who have established those rights are something that the law must uphold."

Shipleyspeak. About what we've come to expect from the blue-suited, silver brooched, carefully coifed one who, as one observant reader of North & South recently quipped, obviously donates her cast-off ensembles to Dame Titewhai Harawira.

It was Don Coles who organised for this writer, on a recent low-level flying visit to Taumaranui (literally it was: thanks guys, for letting me off with a warning when I came around the corner doing 138kph), introductions to some of the good folk in this electorate of National's Shane Ardern. Because the laws in this country are asses, these people suddenly find themselves facing criminal proceedings and gargantuan fines.

Take Trevor and Heather Schroeder, who farm sheep and cattle on 1100 acres at Otunui, about one hour west of Taumaranui. Their story is not particularly unusual — just an example of hundreds of landowners throughout New Zealand who have seen their property rights destroyed by the passing of legislation that puts more value on the so-called rights of fauna and flora, than on man's indisputable right to life.

The Schroeders also own, or at least the last time they looked at their rates bill they thought they owned, 300 acres of native bush. At today's calculations, the timber in that bush is worth around $1 million but describe this couple as millionaires and you'll just make them laugh. Or weep. Or burn their trees down and clear the land for pasture, because that's about all they're allowed to do with them without risking a fine of $250,000. Not because of the Resource Management Act, but by virtue — or vice — of another piece of legislation brought in by the National Government (which, remember, is "dramatically annoyed" by the erosion of personal property rights). Under the Forests Amendment Act 1993 all logging of native timber in private forests must be done under a sustainable management plan approved by the Ministry of Forestry. In other words, you have to get permission from Nanny and that's well nigh impossible.

As Dunedin QC Colin Withnall said in 1995, when he was legally advising the New Zealand Federation of Indigenous Forest Owners and Associates on ways of challenging the Act: "[It's] nothing more than a piece of window dressing, a political sop to the green movement."

Interestingly, in the transition period before the Act was introduced, it had the opposite effect to preserving stands of native bush. Faced with the prospect of seeing their property rights eroded with no compensation, farmers clearfelled tracts of native bush in a rush to beat the deadline and get some returns on their land while they could. These were owners who previously had gone out and felled a few trees over the years to supplement their incomes when times were hard. They recognised the economic value of allowing the bush to keep regenerating and they weren't about to kill their golden geese. Nevertheless, it was their bush. They paid the rates, dropped poison to keep the pests and predators at bay, and sweated their lives away to keep the bank managers at bay. Morally, they could do what they damned well liked with their rimu, totara, beech or kauri.

But mostly they were like the Schroeders, conservationists who minded their own business and made a buck. In 1962 and 1975 Trevor and his father bought two abandoned farms in the King country. Trevor and Heather lived in a house with no power, cutting scrub and fencing as they broke in the properties, but leaving millable timber reserves as an investment/retirement fund.

Some of their land shared boundaries with New Zealand Forestry Reserve (a precursor to Department of Conservation land) and this was also fenced off, Trevor says wryly, with no financial help from the government.

He'd contracted with a local mill which felled and bought his logs but when this went broke in 1978, Trevor purchased a bulldozer and chainsaw and carried on selling a few logs each year to pay for fencing, fertilizer and other farming costs. "By working carefully I could sustainably manage my own bush block," Trevor wrote in September 1997 in a letter to the then Minister of Forestry, Lockwood Smith.

The letter to Lockwood continued: "The government brought in the Forests Amendment Act so I approached the Ministry of Forestry. Tony Newton and one of your department's representatives, Mr Allen Griffiths, arrived on our door step. So I took him bush walking. I think he was from the Green Party as he told us to sell our tractor and truck. But after 15 years of working my bush and paying rates, raising family, I said to him if he is not going to help, he could piss off."

Trevor says that Tony Newton told them that their bush was an asset. "So we approached several banks with the view to using this asset as colateral for a loan." But banks, it turned out, have a different definition of what passes as an asset and bush which can not be turned into dollars is definitely not classified as security for a mortgage.

Should they wish to follow the laws as dictated by the Forests Amendment Act, it would cost Trevor and Heather around $50,000 to get a sustainable management plan completed. But there would still be no guarantee they'd be given permission to harvest their own bush. Anyone can submit objections to MAF (as it is now called) and the New Zealand Forest & Bird Protection Society make it their policy to object to all applications to log native bush.

But the Forests Amendment Act Act doesn't breach private property rights enough, for Forest & Bird. Kevin Smith, director, was quoted in 1995 as saying that the Act had loopholes which encouraged people to find ways of getting around the logging controls: "The transition period has panicked people into felling trees that wouldn't otherwise have been felled, and breathed life into an industry that was dying out," he told North & South magazine.

Well, heaven forbid that life — LIFE — be breathed into anything.

As Trevor says: "If they want to protect and save the bush, then let them buy it off me. Then they can also pay to keep the pests out, and pay the mortgage and the rates.

"I cut logs out of that bush in the past because I had a 'continual land use' right and by passing the FAA, the state has removed that right. So I asked the government for compensation."

Some landowners have managed to get compensation from the government because Labour, in 1990, set up the Forest Heritage Fund and its Maori counterpart Nga Whenua Rahui to negotiate with landowners to buy pieces of forest for "permanent" protection. However, Trevor Schroeder has seen no compensation. Only weasel words from Lockwood Smith in the form of an official letter in March 1998, basically telling Trevor that official authority had been issued in March 1995 for one year allowing the Schroeders to recover "dead and windthrown timber" from their forest. This could be milled and provide enough profit, Lockwood reckoned, to finance an application for a sustainable forest management permit which "has negligible cost to the owner, save for the procurement of necessary maps and the registration of the permit against the title."

So Nanny lets Trevor and Heather take the dead trees and sell them and use the money to seek permission to take more trees. And for the privilege they'd have to register this against the title of their own property.

At this stage Trevor thought stuff this, and bought his own mill. A dead totara, which had been lying in one of his paddocks for around 30 years, would make good battens for fencing. Even a dead totara has national significance, it seems, as Trevor was told he faced a fine of up to $250,000 if he milled it without permission.

So what's a chap to do?

"They are using taxpayers' money to prosecute taxpayers," Trevor sighs. "I was looking after this bush, so that it would last for future generations, before the new Act came in so why am I being penalised now?

"When we went farming we decided to keep this bush for our retirement. The way we were managing it, taking out about $20,000 of timber a year, it could have provided for the retirement of our great grandchildren. I've always done it sustainably. Now I feel like cutting it all down and putting stock on so I get a return."

Hush, Trevor, lest the Labour Government bans that too.

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