Pining for the big one – The 20-20 vision

Is it double vision or short vision? There seems to be no logic behind the government’s push for more plantations

Have you ever noticed how foresters, economists and engineers all seem to suffer from the ‘bigger is grander’ syndrome? Size is their obsession too. How did they decide on this target? Well just don’t you ask too many questions, in fact don’t ask any questions at all – about how estimates are actually decided. Set a target (pick an impressive figure), don’t look at the market or social trends, put the blinkers on, the head down and dig holes. Keep digging, don’t stop until you reach the target and when you do, still don’t stop because the next generation of foresters or engineers will set a new target. That gives life a real purpose.

But seriously – the Bureau of Resource Sciences (BRS) is again telling us Australia needs to be planting more trees to reach THE target. That’s three million hectares by 2020 – or the grand ’20-20 vision’ as the Federal Government call it. But does it have any rational basis?

Plantation saturation

Currently Australia has about 1.6 million hectares of plantations – half the 20-20 target (softwoods and hardwoods). That’s the size of East Gippsland plus another half of it again. We Ozzies are static wood users. Over the past 30 years we’ve hovered around a steady 4.4 million m3 pa of sawntimber (softwood and hardwood combined). It fluctuates with housing booms and busts but averages out to a steady 4.4m, which we’re still on. Of this about a fifth is now imported sawntimber (mostly softwood from New Zealand’s plantations).

If no new plantings of pine are made, ABARE predicts there will be 9.2 million m3 of softwood plantation sawlogs available by 2005 or about 6 million m3 when sawn. That will happily cover all our domestic needs. This is believed to be an underestimate by economist Dr Judy Clark of the ANU. She predicts at least 10.6 million m3 will be available by then – and more in the future with productivity improvements on the existing plantation land area.

Australia currently produces more wood composite products than we know what to do with. MDF and particleboard are made from pine sawmill waste. We consume almost 80% percent of what we produce and export 350,000m3 that we can’t use here each year. Our increasing use of MDF and particleboard is one reason why we use less native forest sawntimber. And that trend will inevitably continue. Now we see native forest timber flooring, that has had a huge advertising campaign based around it (EcoSelelct) being turfed out of the market by cheaper, better wearing, look-alike strip flooring (melamine and veneer) glued onto MDF. The hardwood sawn timber industry is finding it more and more difficult to compete with plantation grown timbers.

As well as all this, Australia exports 2 million m3 of softwood chips p.a. and we also export 1 million m3 of whole softwood logs (half of which could be milled) each year. This shows there is more softwood around than can be processed for the domestic market.

Wine, films or tree growing ?

So let’s consider the push by certain plantation investment companies to choke up inappropriate places with wall-to-wall pines. It becomes clear that they really have no concern for markets, or investors’ money, let alone the environment. They are prospectus pushers who profit from those wanting a feel-good way to invest. It’s a pity the future for wood prices looks so poor.

Jill / ABC 10/05/04

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