"The past is never fully gone. It is absorbed into the present and the future. It stays to shape what we are and what we do."
Sir William Deane, Governor-General of Australia, Inaugural Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, August 1996.

A Chronology of the Victorian Government's Century in Plantations

David Williams, 2018 (bio)

A PDF of this article is available for download

Understanding the Government’s Century in Plantations

The Government’s more than a century in plantations included many achievements, as well as a number of disappointments and shortcomings. Overall the government’s plantation story was significantly successful.

There were many successes including:

  • Early statement and consistent affirmation of a policy of establishing plantations. Initially the goals were to rehabilitate land cleared in the 1850’s gold rushes, provide timber and avoid cost and unreliability of imported timber, generate revenue and create jobs through local sawmills. Commercial financial returns became a more important objective following increased investment with the plantations expansion program.
  • A record of achieving planting targets which aimed to meet Victoria’s future timber needs
  • There were significant advances in technology, equipment and practices resulting from effective research and development
  • There were a number of successful, energetic personalities that overcome many challenges

There were many challenges, the most significant of which was growing opposition in the 1970’s and increasing in the 1980’s. At different times environmental activists, affected local communities and farmers opposed different aspects of plantations for reasons including use of chemicals particularly aerial application, adverse environmental effects, clearing of native forests for plantations, use of purchased farmland for plantations and use of public money in an enterprise which was not providing a satisfactory financial return.

With the benefit of hindsight the questioning and opposition from people outside government needs to be evaluated in the context of changing times. Increasing questioning and opposition to all manner of policies and actions from the late 1960’s was considered a positive change by some and it was occurring at the time in other states as well as in North America and Europe. On the positive side there was commendation from some external parties on environmental standards, early move to cease clearing native forests and the Government’s use of an independent body to review and recommend areas for plantation expansion using a conservation lens. The attractive sale price for the plantations partly ameliorated the earlier poor financial performance.

The chronology listed below provides a snapshot of the events that shaped the government’s plantations century.

The listing in the manner presented necessarily simplifies the story. One might incorrectly conclude that a clear, coherent and consistent pathway was set at an early time to achieve the goal of establishing a well-managed, highly productive and extensive plantation estate for the benefit of Victorians. This is not so and the realty is complex and nuanced. Assembling the many inter-related chapters on the website over time will provide interesting insights into the plantation story.

Listing the significant events does not adequately convey the circumstances and the many influences on government plantation decisions. In many situations there had been a prior build-up period to garner support for a particular position before government actions. Government decisions mostly followed, rather led, public positions. Some of the circumstances and influences included:

  • The merits of a policy or position
  • Public support or opposition
  • Lobbying and cajoling members of parliament by influential “insiders”
  • Broader public and/or local affected community support or opposition
  • Government willingness, financial capacity and whether the government considered there was political advantage at the time
  • Larger scale impact on local communities as the program expanded to purchased private land combined with changing community expectations over time
The Plantation Story

The plantation story can be seen in 4 sequential periods, as follows:

  • 1888-1959 - low level activity. Only a small proportion of the total plantings occurred over the first seven decades. There was early recognition of the need for softwood plantations and repeated statements about plantations but there was limited planting activity
  • 1960-69 - busy decade. Total plantings increased steadily during the 1960’s decade. The Government adopted the plantation expansion (PX) program which committed ambitious area targets at the time, provided increasing funds, commenced planting in new areas across the state and secured attractive loans from the Commonwealth Government
  • 1970-79 – heightened activity and controversy for the first time. This decade was the busiest with a substantial proportion of total plantings being established. Whilst a period of great activity, it also saw controversy for the first time. Affected local communities and environmentalists became increasingly vocal in opposition to the preferred practice of aerial application of weedicides and concern about potential adverse environmental effects
  • 1980-92 – continued heightened activity & broadened opposition. High level plantation activity continued. The Timber Industry Strategy (TIS) confirmed increased area targets with the aim of supporting ongoing investment in a competitive processing sector. But opposition also increased and broadened particularly in the Strzelecki and Otways Ranges, and North East Victoria. Opposition was directed at a number of activities including use of chemicals, clearing native forests for plantation establishment, increased overall scale of plantations, potential adverse environmental effects and use of purchased farm land for plantations. Criticism and opposition from affected local communities and farmers represented a significant shift as these groups had traditionally been supporters of forestry and forest industries
Achievements of the FCV & its Predecessors & Successors
  • created an estate of 113209 ha composed of 105,964 ha of softwood and 7245 ha of hardwood plantations – the area by region is shown in the figure below
  • the estate incorporated productive plantations based on best practice
  • the resource supported new competitive mills in all major plantation regions with consequent social, job creation and economic benefits
  • the estate was ultimately sold to private investors for an attractive price of $550 million under conditions ensuring the continuation of the plantations. The Government also received $68 million in dividends from its state owned enterprise, Victorian Plantations Corporation
  • the plantation business provided sustainable log supplies for regionally based competitive processing sector well positioned for future prosperity in a timber hungry market

 

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