Restructuring Victoria’s forest industry toward high-value plantations would benefit both the industry and forests.
The Victorian Government needs to have the guts and vision to commit to a long-term forestry plan that meets the needs of the timber industry, environmentalists and the people of Victoria.
What we have currently is not working.
Only 20 per cent of the 1.8 million metres cubed of native forest harvested by Victorian Government agency VicForests ends up in timber products - mainly flooring or structural timber.
The remaining 80 per cent becomes low-value wood chips, either for export or for the Maryvale pulp mill, near Traralgon.
Yet Victoria remains a net importer of timber products because imports dominate the durable timber, value-add market: most of the $100 million imported to Victoria annually is cladding (cedar), joinery for windows (cedar and meranti), or decking (merbau).
Victoria has some sawmills that compete in this market, but the annual allocation of species suitable to value-add, such as silvertop ash, is small.
Imports will become more expensive as other countries lock up their native forest and the Federal Government will soon ban imports of illegally logged rainforest timber.
So, where will we obtain the beautiful natural timber?
I suggest we plant it here in Victoria, harvest it and value-add ourselves.
Appearance grade timber is required by designers and architects because it’s fashionable and sustainable.
It has unique colour, texture and durability.
The Victorian timber industry should concentrate on producing value-added products which are difficult to substitute with engineered alternatives or for which the consumer will pay a premium for the genuine product.
This would both improve returns from our current native forest harvesting and replace imports.
The industry should shift to processing durable (class 1 and 2) Victorian timber species such as yellow stringybark, southern mahogany and silvertop ash.
Unlike mountain ash, these species are suited to selective harvesting (rather than clear-fell harvesting) in native forests - and they grow well in plantations.
Victoria would need only 100,000 metres cubed of sawn logs a year to become self-sufficient in durable timber.
This is a drop in the ocean compared with the 1.8 million metres cubed VicForests currently harvests, and would require just 400ha of plantation to be harvested annually - or 8000ha in total on a 20-year cycle. A long-term plan is essential to enable private industry to invest in infrastructure and research.
The plan should allow for selective harvesting of native forests to provide resource security in the medium term, and a transition period into using largely plantation resources.
- Woodchips for paper should come from plantation, not native forest. The plantation resource is already available in the Green Triangle on the Victorian-South Australian border. The logistics and economics of this switch need to be finalised.
- The Department of Sustainability and Environment should identify, and make available, volumes of these target species from native forests during the next 20 years.
- Plantations made up of species with at least class-2 durability, that are renowned for rapid growth and stability in sawing, should be established. Plantations should be intensively managed to produce saw logs and located close to sawmills and minor product markets. A public-private partnership could reduce some of the risk involved in such a venture.
- Government should offer incentives to help harvesting contractors buy equipment suited to lower diameter logs of yellow stringybark, southern mahogany and silvertop ash, as native forest harvesting equipment currently used in Victoria is designed to handle high volume clear-felling of forest coupes.
- Sawmills should be offered incentives to upgrade their existing facility with technology suited to smaller re-growth and plantation logs, or exit the industry. The size, number and location of new mills should be determined after the interest of the existing sawmillers has been assessed.
The author Chris McEvoy is a director and major shareholder of both Radial Timber Australia and Heartwood Plantations.