A terrified Clare James clung to her teenage son on top of the coal range as water rushed into the kitchen and debris slammed into the exterior walls of her brother’s house in Tasman district.
It was May 2010 and heavy rain had turned a stream that ran through the rural Tapawera-Baton Rd property into a torrent that burst its banks washing tonnes of debris, including silt and logs, into the backyard. That stream comes from an area in plantation forestry.
“I was holding him [her son] against me, trying to make sure he wasn’t watching what was happening because he was already really frightened,” she says. “I thought we were going to die. I thought: ‘The house will go, we’re in it, we can’t get out, nobody’s coming’.”
There were four cats on the property and they were screaming, James recalls. Four chickens were washed away and later found drowned.
Five sheep managed to get themselves on the hill behind the property.
“We would have gone for the hill, too, but there were trees coming through the backyard and we couldn’t; it was just too dangerous,” she says. “It all happened so fast and I was standing there thinking: ‘I’m going to hear my son die … and I can’t do anything about it’ and that was the worst thing.”
Then James saw a tractor. A big, powerful machine with forks on the front that were being used to shift logs from the route so rescuers could get access.
A grateful James and her son squeezed into the cab of that tractor and were taken to safety.
Three years later, in June 2013, former logger Lindsay Dennis was on his quad bike during another deluge, checking the Shaggery Rd property where he lived at the time, near Motueka.
“I don’t know what made me look around [but] there was a wall of water and logs coming at me,” he recalls. “I chucked it [the quad bike] into reverse and backed up the bank, and watched the logjam go into the corner.”
But that wasn’t the “scary bit”.
It was the next morning that Dennis realised how lucky he’d been when he returned to a spot he’d visited on foot the day before.
“Where I’d walked up to check on where this water was coming from, there were four slips across that road … and I wouldn’t have been able to outrun any one of them if they’d come down while I was there.”
For fellow former Shaggery resident, Dieter Proebst, the 2013 flood was not the first he’d experienced. A qualified forestry consultant, Proebst has kept a record of the weather events he endured during his years in the area between 1982 and 2017.
Nor was the 2013 flood to be the last for the Shaggery.
On February 20 this year, ex-Tropical Cyclone Gita slammed into the Nelson-Tasman region. Its heavy rains brought down slips across pockets of Tasman district and turned several waterways into torrents including Shaggery Creek.
Along with a massive load of silt, tonnes of logs were washed down from the hills above where plantation forestry covers a swath of the land.
Proebst has been in the pages of the Nelson Mail sporadically since the ’80s, urging better land management. As part of Eco-Net in the 1990s, he was calling for improved forestry practices on fragile Separation Point granite (SPG) soils along with more stringent council rules, increased monitoring and enforcement.
Forestry consultant Roger May, who was also part of Eco-Net, has estimated there is about 15,000ha of plantation forestry on SPG.
This strip of granitic bedrock is about 10km wide and extends for more than 100km from Separation Point in Abel Tasman National Park to Mt Murchison. It is deeply weathered at the land surface, can be several metres deep, is extremely erodible and readily breaks.
“In the early ’90s, we were just the dumb old hippies, the greenies jumping up and down,” Proebst says in an interview post Gita.
“There was no economic incentive to saying: ‘Let’s keep our prized horticultural or primary production land intact, let’s not bury the bit of topsoil we have under bits of debris’.”
Dennis says flooding and debris after heavy rain in June at Tolaga Bay in the North Island reinforced the need for change.
“Tolaga Bay just shows again what we’ve been saying and they can’t deny that that’s logging slash,” Dennis adds.
“We always hear this rubbish about slips in the native [forest]. Yes, there is … but in the native it goes so far and stops, it doesn’t end up on the farmers’ properties destroying everything in its way.”
In Tasman district, he wants to see some areas retired from forestry, particularly the steep land with SPG.
“We’ve absolutely got to retire some of this ground from pine and we’ve got to try and get the forest companies to look at different species,” Dennis adds.
Like May, Proebst feels a sense of deja vu. Photos he took of a logjam in the Shaggery in 2013 look similar to pictures of the same area after it was hit by Gita.
He has other photos in late 2011 and early 2012 showing the construction of landings or skid sites at the Shaggery for harvesting.
“I would call it pavlova in the rain.”
Dennis adds that every landing had high cuts. “Not one of them didn’t have a slip. That’s typical Separation Point granite; it’s very vulnerable ground.”
Concern about the potential of “severe environmental effects” from the construction of roads for harvesting go back further.
Proebst has a copy of a Forest Research Institute bulletin from 1988 that features a picture of the Shaggery on the front under the headline: Erosion and sediment production from forest roads in south-west Nelson.
The article says the Forest Research Institute’s land-use impacts group in 1985 began an detailed study on the effect of forest roading on water runoff, amount of sediment eroded and the sediment supply to streams in two forests.
It was estimated that 2.6 million tonnes of loose material were disturbed during the construction of 200km of roads through granite in the Golden Downs and Motueka forests.
“Some of that material and that from the road surface itself had entered local stream courses, resulting in sediment deposition, which has concerned various local authorities,” it says.
Thirty years later, in April this year, sedimentation was on the Tasman District Council’s agenda when a new study found almost 90 per cent of the fine sediment at the mouth of the Moutere River came from pine forests.
The study also found that recently harvested pine forests along with bank erosion were responsible for a high proportion of sediment in the Waimea Inlet.
A month later, another report produced for Sustainable Marahau Inc was released. It found the Kaiteriteri and Otūwhero inlets were being ecologically degraded by sediment that is smothering plant life.
Ross Morton, of Sustainable Marahau, said the incorporated society wanted a non-biased study in order to “see if our suspicions were correct” – that inlets downstream of areas under pine plantation were more susceptible to significant sedimentation and that was having a negative effect on the environment.
Proebst says Gita has reopened the conversations around land management.
Calls for changes to forestry practices have been stronger since the February storm, including a submission signed by more than 3500 people.
The council has indicated some possible changes.
Environmental and planning committee chairman, deputy mayor Tim King, in May said activities would be considered in both the upper and lower levels of the catchments.
“We’ll be looking at what we allow and how we allow it on land at risk of erosion and instability, as well as reviewing whether it is appropriate to allow buildings in exposed areas at the bottom of [SPG] catchments,” King said.
The council will also consider more stringent rules for plantation forestry on SPG than stipulated in the National Environmental Standards for Plantation Forestry, which came into effect on May 1.
Those considerations will come as part of a review by the council of its land disturbance rules that will likely go out for public consultation in 2019.
Proebst says he’s not interested in apportioning blame. “I’m interested in solutions and we need to collaborate with everyone concerned.”
He is keen to see a move away from clearfelling, particularly if the land is erodible or very steep.
“My degree is what we would call sustainable forestry so on erodible lands, you’d never do any clearfelling more than a quarter acre, you’d just do small patches off steep lands and leave the fabric of vegetation cover in place but, of course, you’d grow higher-value crops than Pinus radiata.”
Proebst acknowledges the challenges of making such a change.
“How can we incentivise who will pay for something that will make a transition to better things,” he asks. “How long will that take?”