New Zealand Carbon Farming (NZCF) has refuted claims it does not care for the environment and rural communities.

Two public meetings on carbon forestry have been held in Weston recently, sparked by concerns about the sale of Hazeldean, a 2580ha farm near Tokarahi, to NZCF, which plans to plant about 1500ha of it in a permanent pine forest.

Many of the 150 people at Monday night’s meeting cited various concerns about pest management and the impact of carbon forestry on the Kakanui River and rural communities, a mistrust of NZCF, and worries carbon forestry conversions were not subject to the same level of scrutiny as other land use changes.

Responding to questions from the Oamaru Mail after a public meeting on Monday night, a NZCF spokesperson said native plants and wildlife were “highly valued and protected” by the company.

NZCF intended to “protect and restore the existing areas of native flora and fauna identified on the property, while planting and managing the rest of the land in a manner that will allow it to transition over time to a biodiverse native forest”.

With a wide range of land use changes in Waitaki, there was a host of competing claims on water from the Kakanui River, the spokesperson said.

“According to the Otago Regional Council, the Kakanui River is heavily used for irrigation, and concerns have been raised about water quality as a result of agricultural intensification.”

NZCF’s approach to planting at Kakanui was “guided by the science of regeneration”, using a nurse crop of exotic trees and relying on native seeds.

“[NZCF] has modelled that permanent regenerating forestry can remove between five and 10 times more carbon over 70 years than planting a native only forest from the outset.”

Pest management was also a priority.

“As further protection for native plants, pest management – not previously undertaken in any significant manner on the Kakanui property – is now actively in place.

“[NZCF] spends around $1 million per annum to eradicate pests from our properties nationwide.

“This programme has removed more than 14,000 pests from sites around the country in the past two years.”

The Waitaki District Council has undertaken a survey at Hazeldean with an independent ecologist, and started investigating allegations of illegal earthworks at Fairview, which is also owned by NZCF.

The council was preparing a submission to Fire and Emergency New Zealand’s consultation on the Otago Fire Plan, and looking into a district plan change, to include greater controls on carbon forestry.

Along with the Otago Regional Council, it had also been lobbying central government for change to the National Environmental Standards for plantation forestry. At present it did not cover carbon forestry, so it did not come under the same scrutiny.

Otago regional councillor Kevin Malcolm said councils had been put in a very tough position by the Government.

“Our plans are simply not robust and strong enough to cater for what has come down,” he said.

“Whether they intended the consequences or not, it’s been thrown at us so we now have to work together, and it’s exciting that we are actually working together to make sure we get our regional policy statement correct and our land and water plan for 2023 correct and in line with our district plan.”

North Otago Federated Farmers president Jared Ross said farmers had a big part to play in reducing emissions – and many were already farming their way to near carbon neutrality.

“Why is it that we’re looking to chase something like 400,000ha of required plantation forestry in the next 15 years, because that’s what our Climate Commission have calculated as a requirement to meet our emissions targets?

“If we’re farming in a near carbon-neutral space, why are we chasing targets of that magnitude?”