Federal Government disengagement

Despite the forestry industry’s high and increasing plantation dependence that opens pragmatic conservation opportunities, the two major parties appear spooked by the public forest conflict. They judge that political safety lies in their mutual disengagement from native-forest conservation, while backing forestry and wood growing. Critical analysis is absent. The major parties maintain policy settings that drive ongoing plantation investment, but make no policy connection between Australia’s burgeoning plantation resources and the potential for protecting native forests. Reading the parliamentary debates reveals a stronghold of forestry misperceptions (Ajani 2007: 218–42) justifying this behaviour.

As the decade-old claim that Australia’s plantation resources are not able to meet the nation’s wood needs becomes untenable, two other claims remain forcefully asserted. The first is that Australia must continue logging native forests at current rates to supply the sawlogs for high-appearance sawn timber that (softwood) plantations cannot. Woodchip exports are then presented as a benign and sensible use of waste as a secondary business. So the decisive question is: how much of Australia’s native forest log-cut is used to make high-appearance sawn timber, and how much of this product sells on its appearance (rather than its price); how much is sold as speciality native-forest hardwood products, rather than commodities with an array of substitutes?

ABARE’s newly conducted national sawmill survey (ABARE 2008: 8–14) tagged only 36 per cent of hardwood sawn timber as appearance-grade (in volume terms, more softwood-plantation sawn timber is sold as appearance-grade). If, based on Neufeld (2000: 127) we allow for half of ABARE-reported appearance native-forest sawn timber being purchased on its appearance or aesthetic qualities, then perhaps around 2 per cent of Australia’s native-forest log-cut currently finds its way into these appearance products (in roundwood equivalent terms, around 0.5 million m3 of sawlogs per annum out of an annual native-forest log-cut of 8.8 million m3). Whilst governments and major opposition parties grasp at the ‘2 per cent excuse’ for rejecting forest conservation and overhauling an economically incoherent forestry-industry policy, Australia’s plantation resources keep soaring (Figure 1).

Various interlinked and time-dependent options exist for sourcing 0.5 million m3 of hardwood sawlogs per annum for high-appearance uses. Government resource projections indicate that hardwood plantations in the ground now will deliver increasing volumes of hardwood sawlogs, from 0.2 million m3 per annum over 2005–09 to 0.4 million m3 per annum over 2010–14 to 0.6 million m3 per annum over 2015–19 and rising to 1.1 million m3 per annum over 2020–24 (Parsons et al. 2007: 8). If these volumes or their quality are inadequate, the resource could be topped up temporarily using native forests (selectively logged, with forest ecologists setting the regulations) or improving recycling whilst more plantings for high-quality sawn timber are established. Given the small log volumes involved, finding the short-term, top-up logs in native forests at minimum ecological cost should not be an onerous or high-conflict task.

The high dependency of ‘timber’ workers on industry’s access to native forests is the second claim that restricts new forest policy. There are no government statistics to prove, or disprove, this claim. However, we can establish a reasonable feel for the employment reality. Processing generates most forestry-industry jobs, and here plantations and paper recycling dominate: 80 per cent of Australia’s sawn timber and wood panels are plantation-based and 90 per cent of our paper is made from recycled fibre, plantation pulp or other non-native-forest feedstock (Tables 2 & 5). Plantations also dominate wood supply. Plantation-wood growing, processing and exporting, together with paper recycling, probably generates between 75 to 80 per cent of the industry’s employment, allowing for higher labour productivity in the plantation sector.

The Commonwealth was instrumental in creating Australia’s plantation industry and employment reality. However, it has let misperceptions —notably around appearance sawn timber and jobs — silence its plantation legacy and be the excuse for not driving a fundamental overhaul of forest policy to address the interlinked imperatives of protecting biodiversity and water catchments and mitigating the effects of climate change.