Rob Suisted

When the rain came for Tolaga Bay

These scenes are familiar to anyone living in a region where forestry dominates the landscape. Photographer Rob Suisted, who rode his motorbike through the backblocks of the flood-stricken North Island to capture the following images, says the land looks “like Papatūānuku has had her skin torn off”.

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In early June, heavy rain battered the eastern North Island. Above the Waioeka River near Opotiki in the eastern Bay of Plenty, slash and clear-felled logs were left on steep, denuded hills, primed to be washed downstream in a flood.

But wood products are New Zealand’s third largest export behind dairy and meat, and forestry directly employs 20,000 people, with an annual gross income of $5 billion—three per cent of our gross domestic product.

However, with climate change bringing heavier, more intense bursts of rain, scenes on the following pages will be more common. We may no longer be able to leave forestry debris on the sides of hills, or piled up on skid sites. Suggested solutions include changing the mix and age of trees, allowing buffer zones of mixed forest to catch errant logs, planting native forest around riparian areas, and changing harvesting methods.

This home in Tolaga Bay’s Mangatokerau Road sat solid through 100 years of flooding until a barrage of forestry slash—washed off the hills, dammed in the waterways and let loose in a sudden burst—inundated the property. It shunted the little house off its piles, pushing it 30 metres from its original base, on the left of the image. The logs are 10 metres deep in places—but inside the house, all the ornaments are still intact on the mantelpiece. Neighbour Steve Savage, pictured here, is grateful the house’s elderly occupant, Amber Kopua, was away for the night. “She wouldn’t have got out. In 20 years, I’ve never seen anything like that.” He believes one way of solving the problem is to leave the bottom third of the hills unlogged, acting as a filter. At a meeting in town on June 20, people were “spewing” about the damage, he says. “Farmers want full compensation for wiping out fences, drains and culverts. They want forestry to pay for everything. It was their logs that did the damage. But the forestry companies will do everything they can to avoid paying. Once they start, they’ll have to do it for everyone.” At least his own place was untouched. “I put floodbanks up years ago and the council were telling me not to. Lucky I didn’t listen.”
Pine logs and forestry slash cover the beach at the Tolaga Bay Holiday Park, 55 kilometres northeast of Gisborne. It’s next to the historic Tolaga Bay Wharf, the longest in the Southern Hemisphere. The ancestors of campground managers Dion Milne and Liz Kaa welcomed Captain Cook to this area in October 1769. An estuary to the right of this image was also choked with logs that the heavy rain washed down the Ūawa River. Milne, part of Civil Defence and a former forestry worker, says forestry debris occasionally washes up on the beach, but never before like this. “I can’t see how they’ve got away with leaving all these on the hills. Forestry and the Gisborne District Council do have a bit to answer for.” With the logs comes silt. Milne says once-deep rivers are slowly silting up, so it takes less heavy rain to cause flooding. And though logs float, silt is choking the sea floor unseen. Milne, a former crayfisherman, has seen plenty of pinecones in his craypots over the years, and has watched a familiar seabed rock 25 metres offshore disappear beneath mounting sediment. “Every time it rained, that rock got smaller and smaller, and then just vanished.”