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Opinion Philip Hopkins: Where is Australia going wrong exporting timber?

Europe’s huge forestry sector is underpinned by making most of its forests available to industry and much less forest is locked up in conservation areas compared with Australia, the latest forestry reports show.

Europe, regarded as the home of sustainable forestry, has 215 million hectares of forest, of which 80% – 150 million ha – is available for wood supply, according to the State of Europe’s Forests 2015 report. Other wooded lands cover an additional area of 36 million ha.

In contrast, Australia has 134 million ha of forest, but the net harvestable area of native forest is only 5 million ha – 6.7% of the total area of forest.

The 1.9 million hectares of commercial plantations, 1.5% of the forest area, takes the area available to industry to just over 8%, according to Australia’s State of the Forest 2018 report.

In Europe, about 30 million ha of forests are protected with the main objective to conserve biodiversity or landscape.

“This is equivalent to 12.2% of the European forest area,” says the 2015 report.

Formal conservation reserves of various sorts in Australia amount to more than 50% of the country’s 132 million hectares of native forest, Australia’s 2018 report shows.

The 2015 report builds on the landmark European study released in 1999 “Research in Forest Reserves and Natural Forests in European Countries”, under the auspices of the European Forestry Institute, the European Commission and European Cooperation in the Field of Scientific and Technical Research.

The editorial team was headed by Jari Parviainen, then head of the Finnish Forest Research Institute (now Natural Resources Institute Finland).

The report was part of a process to create a European network of forest reserves and co-ordinate research, taking into account the diverse conditions in European forestry. Like Australia’s Regional Forest Agreements, a catalyst for the research was the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

In the 1999 report, the percentage of protected forest varied from country to country. In Austria, it was 19.2%; the others included Belgium (0.1), Bulgaria (10.0), Finland (10.7), Croatia (7.3), Czech Republic (6.6), Denmark (0.2), France (1.2), Germany (4.0), Italy (6.4), Ireland (1.0), Norway (1.7), Russia (European 3.0) and Sweden (3.4).

Europe’s 2015 report says over the past 15 years, the area of protected forests has increased by half a million hectares annually. Finland, for example, now has 14% of its forests in reserves. “Approaches to forest protection vary considerable within Europe,” the report says.

European native forests supply both hardwood and softwood, with softwood dominant, but Australia sources its softwood from 1 million hectares of pine plantations; Australia’s native forest is overwhelmingly hardwood.

Europe’s forestry industry is dominated by private owners; 51% of forest (107 million ha) is privately owned, while 49% (102 million ha) is public forest.

“The majority of private holdings are forests of less than 10 ha in size,” the 2015 report says. The number of private forest holdings has increased by about 18% since 1990.

In Finland for example, Metsa Group’s mother company is a co-operative of 104,000 forest owners. Its subsidiary, Metsa Fibre, has up to 35,000 wood procurement contracts each year.

In Australia, private forestry has very little input, apart from Queensland and Tasmania. The native forest available for commercial wood production was 28.1 million ha in 2015-16, but this area includes 21.8 million ha on leasehold and private tenure.

“However, much of this area is rated as low commerciality, is isolated from markets, and harvesting is not financially viable, and is therefore used predominantly for grazing or for other purposes,” the Australian 2018 forestry report says.

Much of the 6.3 million ha of multiple-use public native forests is in the higher rainfall areas of south-west, south-east and eastern Australia.

This becomes the net harvestable area of 5 million ha when additional exclusions and restrictions to manage wood values are taken into account.

The 2015 Europe report shows that 87% (174 million ha) of Europe’s forests are semi-natural, undisturbed forests cover 3%-4% (7.3 million ha) and plantations 9% . The degree of naturalness of forests reflects the intensity and history of human intervention.

The widest, continuous natural forests can be found in Finland and Sweden and in remote mountainous areas of Central and Eastern Europe.

Timber and biodiversity

The European research shows the close connection between sustainability, biodiversity and timber production. Dr Parviainen said in the 1999 report that original forest had decreased during the past centuries.

“Their number cannot be further increased, but what is left, must be carefully preserved and protected,” he said.

Dr Parviainen said to maintain forest biodiversity in Europe, these untouched reserves were totally protected, while sympathetic “nature-oriented” silviculture (the science of cultivating forests and growing trees) was used in production forests.

“Natural forests are generally accepted as being a good model on which to base nature-oriented silviculture,” he said.

“Silviculture is essential for maintaining large-scale biodiversity in production forests …The protection network should include, apart from old forests, other stand components at various stages of the development cycle.”

Dr Parviainen said in Nordic countries, protected and production forests were next to one another.

“Due to the continuous mosaic-like forest cover, large land animals are able to move freely over the entire southern Finnish region,” he said. “Borders between protected and production forests are generally vague in Nordic countries.”

Dr Parviainen said a mosaic-like ecological structure aimed to maintain biodiversity on a regional scale. Finnish studies on threatened species showed that 90% survived adequately in production forests.

“The majority of the remaining species have always been rare and only appear in specific sites that differ markedly from the neighbouring ecosystems,” he said.

Dr Parviainen said nature-orientated silviculture served both as large-scale protection of biodiversity and timber production.

“Experience shows that sustainable forest management has been most successful when forestry is profitable,” he said.

In Europe, Dr Parviainen said a serious problem was the underutilisation of forest growth. To maintain forests’ resistance to outside factors such as pollution and global warming, wood usage should increase.

“If forests are not managed and thinned, they become old and dense,” he said, creating more and more dead and drawn trees.

“The most serious practical problem is the thinning of young forests. If this procedure is neglected, the optimal, natural production capacity of forests may be lost.”

Key features

Key features of the 2015 Europe report include:

  • The average annual sequestration of carbon in forest biomass between 2005 and 2015 reached 719 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in greater Europe and 414 million tonnes in the European Union’s 28 countries. “This corresponds to about 9% of the net greenhouse gas emissions for the European region and the EU-28.”

Policies on forest carbon and carbon balance have gradually shifted from a focus on sequestration capacity to a more integrated approach of sustainable forest management, the report says. “The emphasis is on the full chain of sequestration, the production of wood and wood products, and especially on renewable bioenergy.”

  • More than 110 million ha of forest are designated for the protection of water, soils and ecosystems.
  • More than 90% of the countries have specific objectives in relation to biodiversity.
  • 90% of forest and wooded land is available for recreation.
  • Europe’s forest area has continuously increased since 1990, and the rate of increase is fairly stable. The total growing stock of Europe amounts to 35 billion cubic metres.
  • Forests in Europe are mainly even-aged and between 20 and 80 years old; 12% are younger than 20 years, 40% are between 20 and 80, and 18% are over 80 years old.
  • An area of 155 million ha (70%) is covered by forests under management plans.
  • Two thirds of the reporting countries have targets to increase wood production and the use of wood in the context of sustainable forest management. A few of them (6 out of 34) have new explicit targets for increased use of wood, notably in the bioenergy sector.
  • Europe remains a major producer of round wood, with the value of marketed round wood reaching more than 18 billion Euros in 2010.
  • Europe has shifted from a net importer to a net exporter of primary wood and paper products.

Industry veteran and director of consultancy Margules Groome, Rob de Fegely, summed up the paradox of Australia’s position. Mr de Fegely said UN Food and Agricultural Organisation figures show Australia is the seventh most forested country in the world.

“If you look at the top 10 most forested countries on a per capita basis, Australia has the third highest most forest per person compared with any other developed country in the world behind Canada and Russia,” he said. “Both of them are leading wood products exporters – but Australia has a net annual trade deficit of $2 billion!”

Philip Hopkins is a well-respected Australian forestry industry journalist.