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ABARES shows plantations are shrinking

Australia’s timber plantations are continuing to decline, with more hardwood estates being converted back to agriculture, the latest figures show. Source: Philip Hopkins for Timberbiz

“This is a crisis,” said Ross Hampton, chief executive of the Australian Forest Products Association, and should be a wake-up call to policymakers.

In 2016-17, Australia lost 19,700 hectares of plantations, down 1% to 1,955,100 hectares from 1,974,800 hectares the year before, according to the latest ABARES report.

The biggest drop came in hardwoods, which fell by 19,800 ha, or 2.1%, to about 908,500ha. The land was converted back to agriculture, with most (78%) in Western Australia.

This followed earlier declines in hardwoods of 38,800ha in 2009-10 and 35,200 ha in 2014-15. Softwood plantations in 2016-17 rose marginally by about 100ha to total 1,036,900 ha.

The losses far outweighed the gains; about 200 new hectares were established in 2016-17, split evenly between hardwoods and softwoods.

The establishment rate has decreased dramatically from 86,600ha in 2006-07 to the 200ha in 2016-17.

Mr Hampton said the decline continued the troubling trajectory of several years.

“Nowhere in the world is there large-scale tree planting without government policy backing,” he said.

Australia can thank the policy makers in previous generations whose actions created a national plantations estate of about two million hectares.

“We urgently need to grow about 2.4 million hectares if we are to keep pace with housing growth and ensure the viability of our mills and processing plants and the towns they underpin.”

Mr Hampton said Australia already imported the timber used to frame about 60,000 houses a year, helping to create a constant deficit in wood products of $2billion.

“For a nation with ample land and expertise this is a travesty. Plantations use about half a per cent of agricultural land,” he said. “Adding another 400,000 hectares would take that to about 0.6%.”

Mr Hampton said the $20 million in the federal budget towards the government’s national forestry industry plan was welcome.

“But it is unclear just how the Government plans to generate a new round of tree planting. Industry presumes this will be addressed in the release of the full plan later this year,” he said.

The ABARES report showed that Victoria still has the largest area of commercial plantations (421,700ha), followed by New South Wales (394,400ha), WA (367,900), Tasmania (310,000ha), Queensland (230,000ha) and South Australia (176,000ha). Northern Territory has 47,500ha and ACT 7400ha.

Of the total plantation estate, 1,485,500ha (76%) is privately owned, 398,600ha (20.4%) is public, and 71,000ha (3.6 p%) is jointly owned between state forest agencies, and leasehold and freehold landowners.

Institutional investors still own 49% of the plantation estate, governments 21%, farm foresters and other private growers 21%, managed investment schemes 5%, and timber industry companies 4%.

Hardwood plantations are dominated by Tasmanian blue gum (51.7%) and shining gum (25.7%), both of which are managed mainly for pulp log production.

Softwoods are predominately radiata pine (74.5%) and southern pines (15.1%), both of which are managed for sawlog production.