Seeing the Forest for the Trees

An examination of the strange suggestion, spread by the Green Party, that our native ecosystems are at a greater risk than those of any other country on Earth except for Burma.

Part of living away from New Zealand is accepting that things change back home. Last week, for example, I learned that my favourite coffee shop, 32 The Terrace, has changed hands. I can no longer look forward to a latte made by Marg and Owen on my next trip to Wellington. On a grander scale was the discovery that New Zealand's indigenous forests have started vanishing.

On Friday, all of New Zealand's main online media outlets reported the news, with headlines like "New Zealand forest ecosystem crisis" and "New Zealand's forests disappearing". The rationale for the story was that US environmental group Conservation International had concluded that our forests are currently "the second most threatened in the world".

Radio New Zealand reported, "Only Myanmar is reportedly worse than New Zealand and countries often criticised for deforestation - such as China and the Philippines - fare better."

The media's attention appears to have been directed to this startling news by the Green Party's Kevin Hague, who issued a press release ("World's eyes focus on New Zealand's disappearing forests") that said, "New Zealand stands at the brink of losing some of our most precious plants and animals unless the Government works smarter to protect them".

Admittedly, I have been out of the country for a while. There are recent trends - like the fascination with Phil Goff's hair, or John Key's indestructible popularity - that I don't begin to understand.

But I figured things must have changed a lot if our management of indigenous forests is now comparable to that of Myanmar's military regime and worse than that of China, the Philippines - or, for that matter, a long list of countries such as Honduras, Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, Indonesia, Nepal, North Korea, Ecuador, Haiti, etc.

I went in search of what Radio New Zealand and Mr. Hague called the "report" that sparked this reportage. It turned out not to be a new research paper, but a press release issued by Conservation International to bring attention to the launch of the International Year of Forests.

Combining two things the media love - doomsday hyperbole and a good list - the lobby group issued a global ‘Top Ten Forests On the Edge of Collapse".

First: Myanmar. Second: us.

The press release included quotes like this one -- "Forests are being destroyed at an alarming rate to give room to pastures, agricultural land, mineral exploitation and sprawling urban areas " - which made it clear that the group's top ten forest hot spots were at threat of extinction today. Alarming stuff, and it got international attention, outside New Zealand.

Yet New Zealand's placing in this list just didn't seem to make a lot of sense.

First of all, I thought this might be because of Conservation International's measurement criteria. in determining which forests in the world are the most at risk of disappearing, Conservation International didn't measure anything as obvious as current deforestation rates. It didn't count the percentage of forest that was protected.

What it claimed to have done was to calculate New Zealand's "original" forest cover. Which it considered to be 100% of New Zealand. Then it claimed that only five percent of the "original" cover is left.

Another criteria for inclusion in the list was that forests have at least 1,500 endemic plant species.

And that combination was apparently how we ended up second.

So New Zealand's inclusion in the list rests on the fact that our  forests have many endemic species, and are a lot smaller now than they were before humans arrived. Much of that destruction happened shortly after inhabitation, and certainly a long time ago.

But even setting this objection aside, the numbers appeared plain wrong. About 6.5 million hectares of New Zealand is covered in native forest. That's close to 25 percent, and a long way from 5 percent. Even Conservation International's own figures don't match the claim.

Now I'm no forestry expert, and I figured it was possible Conservation International had a different way of measuring 'forest' than everybody else. So I emailed their PR person. I didn't hear back by the time I wrote this, but in the meantime, something odd happened to the organization's press release. References to New Zealand disappeared. It now reads:

"** CORRECTION: The press release distributed originally in February 2nd reported erroneously that New Zealand was #2 in the ranking, when New Caledonia is actually #2. See below correct version.***"


Whoops. Wee mistake there. New Zealand doesn't make the list at all!

It turns out I wasn't the only person alarmed by the news of New Zealand's vanishing forests. The New Zealand Institute of Forestry was understandably perturbed, and sparked the change in the Conservation International press release. Good on them.

It's a shame that the New York Times' Green blog still has us included in the list of shameful forest-destroyers, and that a bunch of environmental blogs and websites around the world have repeated the story.

It's disturbing that neither the Green Party MP who trumpeted the news in New Zealand, nor the media who reported it, seemed to spend any time looking at the "report" itself.

Neither Mr. Hague, his press secretary, nor a series of reporters and sub-editors stopped to think that the figures might be just a little counterintuitive. They just shared the grim news.