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“Forget your Geopark, tourism, and future plans – you can’t run a community with absentee land owners that are willing and able to destroy our waterways, our biodiversity, and our ecology.”

Those comments were directed to the Waitaki District Council by Five Forks farmer Jane Smith after a public meeting on Tuesday night to discuss the long-term effects of large-scale carbon farming in the headwaters of the Kakanui River.

After the meeting, Mrs Smith said she had “even less faith” that regional and district council regulators were going to put any urgency around the issue.

“I believe every attendee was completely underwhelmed … on what appears to be a series of buck-passing by councils.”

Those at Tuesday’s meeting cited various environmental concerns as well as fears that forestry conversions were not subject to the same level of scrutiny as other land use changes. Carbon forests also threatened the economy and the social fabric of rural communities, speakers said.

Addressing the “passionate” 120-strong crowd at the Weston Hall, Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher apologised for not taking action earlier on carbon forestry conversions.

Mr Kircher acknowledged he did not know Fairview, a farm near Livingstone, had been converted to carbon forestry until after a large fire in October last year. The forestry was a fuel source for the devastating fire.

New Zealand Carbon Farming (NZCF) planted Fairview about seven years ago and breached conditions of the Waitaki District Council’s district plan, Mr Kircher said.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t act. I don’t know all of the reasons behind that, but that is something that I think we should apologise to the community for because it’s not something we realised had happened at the time – and then when we did, we didn’t act.

“It exposed some shortcomings that we definitely need to fix.”

Recently, the council had been dealing with NZCF over Hazeldean, a 2590ha farm near Tokarahi, which the company has purchased.

“What they’ve put to us … is [a plan] that doesn’t require a resource consent. They skirt around the edges to make sure they don’t trigger the resource consent.”

The council was monitoring NZCF’s activity, but so far, its plans were permitted under the district plan.

“We are doing what we can to make sure that they stay within the rules … if they give us any reason to be able to do something, I can assure you we will.”

The council was seeking further legal advice for a district plan change, which was expected to cost about $100,000, and was also lobbying central government for change to the National Environmental Standards for plantation forestry. At present it did not cover carbon farming, and Mr Kircher had requested meetings with Cabinet ministers.

“Things are too late for Hazeldean but this is about the bigger picture.”

Everyone at Tuesday’s meeting was “after the same thing”, Mr Kircher said.

“Preserving and looking after our environment and our economy and our society . . . and carbon farming on this scale does threaten all of those things.”

Five Forks dairy farmer Lyndon Strang, who chaired the meeting, said carbon farming was one of very few issues that could unite so many different stakeholders.

Mr Strang said it was important that carbon farming went under the same close scrutiny as any other land-use change.

“We need to make sure that if it does happen in our catchment, that the health of the river, the health of the catchment, the health of the community … get taken into consideration.”

The Department of Conservation, Otago Regional Council, Irricon and Forest and Bird were also represented at the meeting.

Organiser Murray Simpson said he made an attempt to invite a representative from NZCF by email, but it had not reached the company in time.

Mr Kircher planned to hold another public meeting on carbon farming later this month.