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What is the State of the Forests Australia?

About 150 million tonnes of carbon are stored in Australian wood products, clear felling only makes up 9% of native forest harvesting, and forest activities pose relatively little danger to threatened species. Those are some of the conclusions of Australia’s State of the Forests 2018 report released this week. The five-yearly report, the most up-to-date and accurate yet, says Australia’s forest area has progressively increased since 2018, despite some forestry loss. Source: Philip Hopkins for Timberbiz

Australia now has 134 million hectares of forest, a net increase of 3.9 million ha between 2011-2016. Native forest makes up 132 million ha (98%), commercial plantations 1.95 million ha (1.5%) and ‘Other forest’ 0.47 million ha (0.4%). The latter comprises mainly non-commercial plantations and planted forests of various types.

The report says the increased forest area is due to the net effect of forest clearing or re-clearing for agriculture use; regrowth of forest previously cleared for agriculture; expansion of forest where there was not previously forest; environmental plantings; and changes in the commercial planting sector.

Other key features of the report include:

  • Carbon stocks in Australia’s forests rose by 0.6% to 21,949 million tonnes from 2011-2016. Of this, 85% was stored in non-production native forests, 14% in production native forests and 1.2% in plantations.

“In addition, 94 million tonnes of carbon was present in wood and wood products in use in 2016, and 50 million tonnes of carbon in wood products in landfill,” the report says.

Carbon dioxide sequestered by forests contributed to the land sector offsetting 3.5% of Australia’s human-induced greenhouse gas emissions over the period.

  • Clear felling, including fire-salvage clear felling and silviculture with retention, accounted for only 7000 hectares, or 9%, of the public native forest harvested in 2015-16. This was down from 17,000 ha in 2005-06 and 12,000 ha in 2011-12.

A total of 86% was selectively harvested, including commercial thinning; 5% by shelter wood systems; and 0.2% by variable retention systems.

The public native forest harvested in 2015-16 was 73,000ha – 1.5% of the net harvestable area of public native forest, and 0.75% of the total area of multiple-use public native forest.

  • The most common threats to endangered forest-dwelling fauna and flora are forest loss from clearing for agriculture and urban and industrial development; the impacts of predators such as cats, foxes, rabbits, pigs, cane toads and deer; small population sizes; and unsuitable fire regimes.

“Forestry operations pose a less significant threat …. compared with other categories,” the report says.

  • The 1.95 million ha of commercial plantation fell by 44,000ha, or 2%, between 2010-11, with hardwood plantations down by 5%.

This was due to the land not being commercially productive and being converted to agriculture or other uses. A total of 79% of commercial plantations are now privately owned.

  • Australia’s log harvest in 2015-16 was 30.1 million cubic metres, a rise of 13% from 2010-11. Of this, 86% was from commercial plantations.
  • From 2010-11 to 2015-16, the volume of logs harvested from native forests declined by 37% from 6.5cm to 4.1cm, having progressively fallen over the past 20 years.

Sawlogs from private native forests have also declined. “The reasons for this decline differ between states, and are not always clear,” the report says.

“Native forests remain the main source of hardwood sawlogs, because most hardwood plantation cannot be managed to produce sawlogs of comparable quality, although there is on-going research on this topic. Native forest sawlogs are primarily used to make feature-grade sawn timber products.”

  • The annual sustainable yield of high-quality sawlogs from public native forests in the states has declined by 53% from 1991-93 to 2015-16.

The reasons include more conservation reserves, increased restrictions on harvesting, revised estimates of growth and yield, and bushfires, especially in Victoria.

  • In 2015-16, the value of wood products industries was $23.7 billion.

According to the Australian Forests Products Association (AFPA) the report mapping the state of Australia’s forests has shown a serious reduction in the area of forest plantations in Australia and that this was an alarming decline of 44,000 hectares over the previous five yearly reporting period.

AFPA CEO, Mr Ross Hampton said: “This is exactly what we have been warning that the State of the Forests 2018 would reveal. There is no evidence that this downward trend has reversed in the three years since 2015 and it is my expectation that the next report will paint an even bleaker picture.”

He said that there has been no policy to increase, or indeed even maintain the area of plantation trees in Australia for production purposes. The only current available policy which might act as a brake on this trend would be for plantations to be able to fully participate in carbon storage policy but, as yet, the Government has not removed the barriers which stand in the way.

“State and Federal Governments over the last decade have continued to lock away vast areas of natural forest and have reduced the area and volume of timber which our industries can access,” he said.

“Industry can only access timber from a modest 5 million hectares of the total 132 million hectares of native forest across Australia and of that total only a tiny half a percent a year is harvested. Every area cleared, is regrown. Over the 20-year life of the last Regional Forest Agreements the natural estate available for forestry decreased by more than three million hectares.

“Whilst this has occurred, governments have not put into place mechanisms which will deliver offsetting growth in the plantation estate and it is showing in the statistics. Australia has a trade deficit in timber products of more than $2 billion and we have reached the ridiculous situation in which we are importing more than a quarter of the timber we need for our house frames. It is time for this to change and it must happen urgently.

“The Government has just announced four pilot ‘forest industry hubs’ and five more prospective hubs around Australia and a goal of a billion more trees.

“Both the planting goal and the focus on hubs are very welcome, however without changes to allow tree planting to gain carbon payments we may see little change in the alarming downwards trajectory in plantation plantings.”

AFPA will be campaigning in regional forest industry focused electorates during the Federal Election seeking answers to these questions from all Parties.

*A more detailed account of Australia’s State of the Forests Report 2018 will appear in the March edition of Australian Forests & Timber.