State and federal governments are behind a push to improve forestry outcomes, supply jobs, and in the process reap reward from what is currently a $2.4 billion industry in NSW.
By 2050 global demand for wood products is predicted to quadruple.
As a result, the potential to supply excellent timber from carefully managed private forests, both native and plantation, is enormous and – quite literally – growing.
Blocking the way is the state of our forests, where good stands of harvestable timber are a rare commodity thanks to decades of under management.
Of course, forests are a living entity that respond to correct intervention. The downward trend in silviculture can be turned around within 15 years, reckons Queensland forester Sean Ryan, using the right practice with an outcome that will please both the bank manager and the environmentalist.
All that is needed is education, desire, a sensitive eye, a willingness to thin, knowledge of product and markets, and patience to maximise returns.
“Other agricultural ventures have a lot of support, like beef, fibre and cropping and yet saw log timber has not,” rues Mr Ryan, who points to six million hectares of suitable privately owned forest in northern NSW and southern Queensland.
But farmers baulk at planting trees. Take a look around the North Coast and you can see why timber plantations no longer have respect from investors.
Current land clearing figures used to highlight deforestation take into account the loss of these massive investments, funded by mum and dad who were goaded into parting with hard earned cash for quick return.
“They planted the wrong trees for anywhere,” recalls Mr Ryan. “They went for the lowest common denominator. They aimed at the bottom of the commodity market – at pulp for paper and it never eventuated.”
In Queensland the managed investment schemes experimented with a cloned cross between river red gum and Timor white gum, also a eucalypt, which offered such great promise on paper until disease wiped out the identical stock within weeks.
The thing not usually factored into this business of forestry is how long it all takes. Short rotation, as advertised by those many MIS schemes, convinced the innocents that a 10-year payback was possible and would be so profitable they needed to write-off taxes.
“These schemes failed to take into account the realities of forestry on the North Coast and in southern Queensland,” said Mr Ryan.
What we see now is a rapid return to pasture where poorly performing Dunn’s white gum once stood. New owners, who purchased from administrators, are clearing land, grading with a stick rake and planting improved grasses. The trees are chipped for fuel in co-generation power plants or shipped to China for paper and veneer – even chopsticks.
Will the new owners of these failed plantations ever try timber again? Not likely. But in spite of the bad rap, native forests all over the state just keep growing and becoming more, and more crowded with a jumble of saplings fighting for light.
The reason for this rapid regeneration is that, unlike in the forests of Victoria and Tasmania which rely on re-seeding for propagation, native stands in NSW are supported by resilient lignotubers, or young saplings, which might appear to be but a tiny shrub, yet possess a great carrot of a root and the ability to bounce back from foraging, fire and even disease.
“These lignotubors can live for 80 years under the canopy of an existing forest until their turn comes around,” Mr Ryan said.
Andrew Hurford, whose family runs a sawmill at Kyogle, has always believed in the power of trees to supply enduring products which, in his case, involves flooring, including clear lengths of spotted gum and blackbutt which show off the finest floors all over the world.
“I consider trees wonderful in the way they make use of resources,” he says. “Their tops are like solar panels and their trunks like batteries, made from carbon dioxide, and which are a commodity which can be stored until needed.”
The Hurford’s experimental plantation on Warrazambil Creek, north of Kyogle, has been run as if it commercially mattered, but has also allowed Mr Hurford to tweak technique.
Central to that is thinning and removing limbs as the individual trees climb. Fertiliser has been applied to each stem and the understorey is kept free of fire danger.