As temperatures rise in the Gisbourne district, Tolaga Bay locals face a beach covered in logs and expect more debris every time it rains.
More than a year since a huge storm hit the district on Queen’s Birthday weekend 2018, washing over 40,000 cubic metres of wood onto beaches, rain is still sending forestry waste down the district’s rivers to Tolaga Bay beach.
On October 15, the beach was covered in 15,000 cubic metres of wood in what the Gisborne District Council described as, “a storm that could be expected every couple of years”.
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In the council’s assessment, there was “minimal risk to the local community from the material that was mobilised”.
But chairperson of the Ūawanui Environmental Sustainability Project Victor Walker said the problem was ongoing and dangerous.
“Our waterways are vulnerable to slash and debris intrusion after even medium rainfall, which means that the town and people are also at risk,” Walker said.
“The high level of wood debris that continues to pollute our beaches is unacceptable, dangerous and a real damn pain.”
Gisborne District Council’s principle scientist Dr Murry Cave said some harvest residues from the catchments below the forests were “mobilised and migrated to Tolaga Bay” during the October storm.
Cave said about 85 per cent of the wood came from plantation forests. There was no further movement of harvest waste from within the forests, the waste was residual material from previous events.
The council had undertaken a beach clean up, burning piles of the waste on Guy Fawkes night, and the forestry industry had contributed to clean-up costs.
On social media Tolaga Bay residents have been expressing their concern over waste repeated washing up on the beach but when contacted, with so many dependent on forestry, they were reluctant to be named.
One resident said after the latest clean up began, 96mm of rain had again covered the beach with logs.
Forestry waste was still everywhere and there was no path cleared through the logs to reach the water. The district was having hot days but, “It is so hard and dangerous climbing across these logs just to have a swim,” she said.
Another woman said the residue posed a danger in the water. “We went on the boat and the amount of debris was horrible,” she said.
Many, like her, were dependent on forestry for their livelihoods but she said the companies needed to respect the environment. “The big companies have a different way of looking at it. It’s a revenue aspect.
“Someone needs to say, hey yeah we need to be more vigilant and keep our log sites’ slash and debris to a minimum. That all costs money but nowhere near as much as it does to clean whole valleys.”
Eastland Wood Council chief executive Kim Holland said forestry companies had checked their harvest sites to confirm no new wood had entered waterways after the October storm.
The latest waste was old wood washed out by heavy rains, she said.
“Their systems to ensure there is not a repeat of last year’s floods are in place and working, and all harvested material is set back from the edges of streams and waterways.”
But in council notes for a Tolaga Bay community meeting on April 3 this year, ten months after the Queen’s Birthday floods, concerns were raised over Waipare Forest.
“There should be a change in regulation to ensure they have to leave a buffer zone/set back during harvest, and harvest in blocks not clear-fell the lot,” the notes read. “Is someone monitoring the harvest happening right now. They are felling all the way to the water.”
The council’s Nick Zaman responded, “We’ll ensure there is active monitoring and send out compliance officer to this forest.”
The record shows forestry waste was also affecting the beach in April, “Logs are being picked back up and mobilised back into the ocean. Training of the surf life guards and boats is too dangerous because of wood in the water. They can’t use their beach to train.”
After the October storm, Cave said there was more material within the plantation forests that was vulnerable to remobilisation in large events.
The storm last month appeared to have flushed out much of the material sitting in the catchment below the forests, he said, although the assessment of that risk was incomplete.
Walker was confident the council was committed to providing solutions, “But in the meantime, our community is on edge with every downpour.”
Holland did not answer questions about how the wood council would respond over debris washed onto the beach in the future.
“The Eastland Wood Council appreciates and acknowledges the concerns expressed by some members of the Tolaga Bay/Ūawa community, and their vulnerability to extreme weather events, particularly given their coastal location,” she said.
Cave said in the short term, forestry companies were proposing solutions, such as slash catchers, which would collect the harvest residues before they left the forest.
“The council considers slash catchers as the last resort and that the optimal solution is for improved forestry management practices that ensure harvest waste material is not left in vulnerable locations,” he said.
Following investigations into the damage caused during the Queen’s Birthday flooding, the Gisborne District Council started prosecutions against “a number of forestry companies” under the Resource Management Act.
The prosecutions related to six different forests in the Gisborne region, including three near Tolaga Bay. The case is ongoing.
Holland said the wood council and member companies were unable to comment while there are still active and pending court cases.
Grant Dumbell has a property at Tolaga Bay. He said the community still didn’t know who was responsible for the outcome from Queen’s Birthday weekend. “Essentially, it was an ordinary flood with extraordinary outcomes, and that needs explaining.”
Dumbell, who is an ecologist, was concerned a lack of leadership was allowing forestry to grow without measures to protect the environment and community.
“There were processes that were happening that people on the ground, if they had’ve been knowledgeable about what they were doing, they should have been able to see that there was a timebomb going off.”
He said regardless of the outcome of the court case, it was hard to be sure the issue would be resolved. “The fact that this event [Queen’s Birthday] happened suggests to me that there is a lack of leadership there.”
The timing of the storm saved the district from a worse outcome, he said. A few months earlier, it was planting season for farmers.
“Tolaga Bay was badly hit, but actually Tolaga Bay dodged a bullet,” Dumbell said. “If that flood would’ve happened three months earlier, when Bola happened, it would’ve been absolutely catastrophic.”
Adding to the frustration in Tolaga Bay is a belief the council and foresters failed to act earlier.
In Easter 2017, ex-tropical cyclone Cook hit the Gisbourne region. The rainfall caused extensive flooding which carried forestry waste to the Ūawa River catchment at Tolaga Bay.
Cave said analysis of the event identified the key issues and risk factors in plantation forests. A report was provided to the Eastland Wood Council and forestry companies.
The council boosted its consent monitoring team with dedicated forestry expertise, and improved links with compliance teams in adjacent regional councils, Cave said.
“We also commissioned further research to guide future decision-making on matters such as consenting for forestry harvesting.”
But then the larger storm hit the region over Queen’s Birthday, 2018.
The effects are ongoing, Dumbell said. “An unbelievable amount of timber came out of the landscape in a six-hour period of time and caused massive devastation immediately, and it is still coming out.”
He said the court case might result in consequences for the forestry companies but it was hard to know how blame should be apportioned.
“One has to ask, did this happen because the forestry companies did it, or did this happen because council didn’t police the forestry companies to stop them doing it?
“The guy who chopped the tree down and left it lying on the riverbank, yes, he has a measure of responsibility. But who let him do it? Who didn’t stop him doing it?”
Dumbell said only when those questions were answered could there be surety that it wouldn’t happen again.
Forestry began on the East Coast after cyclone Bola, in 1988. “That’s why the forestry was there, to protect the landscape,” Dumbell said.
The Queen’s Birthday storm was nothing like the cyclone, he said. “But the outcome of the processes that were allowed to happen was as devastating as Bola.”
Walker was optimistic a proactive way to increase the safety of the community would be found.
He said visitors to Tolaga Bay would see written a proverb which reads, “Ka Tipu Te Whaihanga e Hika Ki Ūawa,” which means, “And innovation and creativity flourished my friend in Ūawa [Tolaga Bay]”.
“For Hauiti iwi, it is important that we are solution-focused in everything that we do,” Walker said. “Which includes dealing with the wood and debris.”