Softwood Plantations in NE Victoria

Victorian Government Strategy

Bernie Evans (bio)

This article is derived from a paper presented to the
Murray Valley League for Development and Conservation Seminar
Wodonga, 30th March 1988

Foreword

This Foreword was written by David Williams.

Bernie Evans, Regional Manager was the local face of the Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands in North East Victoria in 1988. Softwood plantations were increasingly important in North East Victoria having expanded considerably over the previous 25 years. Expansion though brought increasing concern and opposition.

The need to establish a large softwood plantation estate in Victoria was identified and affirmed repeatedly by successive governments from early days after Victoria’s settlement. This was based on the need to provide for the State’s future timber needs. The policy gained traction in the early 1960’s with the articulation of an ambitious government plantation expansion program.

Plantations expanded accordingly and particularly in North East Victoria. New plantations were established in the Upper Murray and Benalla areas adjacent to local communities who were not familiar with softwood plantations. Softwood plantations had existed for some decades in the Ovens area. In a little over 20 years more than 10,000 ha of new plantations had been established in both Benalla and Upper Murray areas. Large scale clearing of native forest to establish these plantations was very visible on the landscape and brought plantations to the attention of local communities.

Lower level opposition to plantations had been increasing in the 1970’s based on environmental impacts of the plantations. But some of the opponents were members of broader environmental groups who lived outside the local communities.

There was a new dimension to the increasing opposition in the 1980’s. Local communities were concerned with the use of chemicals, particularly when aerially applied, and farmers were opposed to the purchase of farmland for conversion to plantations. For example, a community group in the Strathbogie Ranges was agitating at this time about concern the use of 2,4,5-T (2, 4, 5 trichlorophenoxyacetic acid - controversial herbicide used extensively during the Vietnam war) had resulted in health problems for some children through what they thought was contaminated water supply. Just a few years earlier in 1985, orchardists at Stanley complained about drift of herbicide aerially applied to nearby plantations. The orchardists were successful in having the practice discontinued on the Stanley plateau. The Tallangatta Valley was declared a “pine free zone” by locals in 1988. Concerning the purchase of farmland’ the then President of the Victorian Farmers Federation declared in 1987 that ….”farmers will be outraged to learn of good agricultural land being bought for pines”. This opposition represented a significant shift because these groups had traditionally been supporters of plantations and the forest industry with many employed or gaining other economic benefits from the sector.

The Government, in seeking to define a clear path for the contentious forestry sector (native forestry and forest plantations), announced a new comprehensive strategy in its Timber Industry Strategy (TIS) in 1986. The TIS was based on recommendations from a preceding timber industry inquiry which was open and transparent and involved extensive public input. The Government’s desire was to increase public support for its policies on plantations and native forests.

TIS addressed the full range of forestry and timber industry issues. The plantation initiatives included a number of matters with two components being contentious: 1/ ambitious expansion program over the following decade, and 2/ all new plantations to be established on purchased private farmland.

An irony was that the policy of requiring all new plantations to be established on purchased farmland that became so contentious was to avoid the adverse environmental impacts of the previous practice of clearing native forests for plantations.

These were the circumstances in which Bernie made a presentation to the Murray Valley League for Development and Conservation Seminar in 1988.

Introduction & Policy

Government Policy

Current government policy on softwood plantations grew out of the Board of Enquiry into the Timber Industry in Victoria that was conducted by Professor Ian Ferguson, Professor of Forest Science at Melbourne University in 1984 and 1985.

The Enquiry paved the way for the Timber Industry Strategy (TIS) which was released in 1986 and defined, in broad terms, the actions to be taken to expand the State’s softwood plantations (As well as, of course, management of native forests).

To put the Government’s strategies in context, the Victorian Government has, at the moment, three defined strategies:

1.  Conservation strategy
2.  Social Justice strategy
3.  Economic strategy, of which the Timber Industry Strategy (TIS) is a part, along with tourism, coal mining etc.

It is the responsibility of the Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands (CFL) to implement the TIS.

What does TIS say that is relevant to our discussion today?

  • The whole basis of the TIS is to promote a sawlog driven, high value added, long term employment maximising timber industry; and to achieve the best use of wood taken from the forest
  • To ensure a balance between timber production and environmental protection
  • To ensure long term sustainable development and long term employment growth, i.e. regional sustainable yield

The main objectives stated in the TIS for managing softwood plantations are:

  • Phase out, by June 1987, the establishment of softwood plantations on areas carrying native forest, as clearing of native forest has been recognised as one of the major environmental impacts of the pine program in the past. In the main future plantations will be established on previously cleared land purchased by the Government. This policy of no further clearing of native forest has now been implemented.
  • Manage Victoria’s softwood plantations to provide financial returns to the State of at least 4% on funds invested.
  • Define and achieve plantation establishment targets.

Areas & Targets

Softwood Management Areas and Plantation Establishment Targets

As at March 1985 (when TIS was compiled) Victoria had 91,300 ha of public softwood plantations (and a further 89,000 ha of private plantations), divided between eight Softwood Management Areas in the State.
Each of these management areas has been assessed individually and a target area set to be reached by 1996 to enable each management area to be viable in its own right in terms of being of sufficient size to support competitive industries.

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As shown in Table 1, North East plantations are composed of Benalla/Mansfield, Ovens and Upper Murray with an area of 41,000 ha as at March 1985. The 1996 target involves expanding North East plantations by a further 16,400 ha or 1,500 ha/a.

These targets have been determined as the minimum required to guarantee sustained and competitive industries in each management area including in our case in the North East.

Should the existing industry expand further, or new industries establish, then other supply areas will be tapped. There is already significant interaction with NSW as far as supply to ANM Albury is concerned.
Current supply of raw material (wood) from State owned plantations to the major softwood users in the North East is laid down in tight agreements with Government and the committed volumes are in line with the management area planting targets stated above.

These agreements currently commit the three management zones in the North East to increase softwood sawlog production from 210,000 m3 (tonnes) per year in 1987/88 up to 500,000 m3 (tonnes) per year and small round wood (pulp wood/preservation material) from 183,000 tonnes up to 205,000 tonnes in the same period.

This current Government commitment to industry accounts for all of the available sawlog in the Upper Murray and Ovens Areas, with small additional volume being available from the Benalla/Mansfield Area of some 20,000 m3 (tonnes) per year increasing to 140,000 m3 (tonnes) after 2015.

With regard to small round wood it has been calculated that there is a current surplus of 210,000 tonnes per year in the North East (130,000 tonnes from Upper Murray and Ovens) rising to 320,000 tonnes per year after 2015 (240,000 tonnes from Upper Murray and Ovens) after taking into account target plantation and current commitments.

This is shown in Figures 1 & 2.

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These additional volumes of softwood have been identified for all softwood management areas. Expressions of Interest were invited through advertisements in daily newspapers on 20th February, from parties interested in the processing of this additional wood. A prospectus providing background is available.

Once these additional volumes of softwood have been committed we then have to balance as best we can plan, between plantation area targets (as defined in TIS) and wood commitment to industry.

How much additional land is required in the North East to reach TIS planting targets?

I refer you back to Table 1 showing therplanned increase in plantation areas across the State and in particular the North East.

I will now deal specifically with the North East and what action is needed to achieve the plantation area targets. These are shown in Table 2.

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What does this mean in terms of number of farms purchased?

Obviously this depends on the size of the property purchased but looking just at Upper Murray Management Area for a moment (i.e. Tallangatta and Upper Murray Shires), the average size of the last 5 properties purchased by the Government is 230 ha.

If we assume this average continues, this would mean another 22 +/- properties in this management area to reach the TIS target in 1996, assuming there is no movement of the target area between the Upper Murray, Ovens and Benalla zones, or 60 +/- properties in the entire North East.

NE Targets

Achieving TIS Plantation Area Targets in the North East

To implement the TIS the Department purchased freehold land for new plantation development. These purchases are all undertaken on a “willing seller – willing buyer” basis either by direct negotiation or through agents. No major land purchase is made without formal valuation of the property by the Valuer-General – and often as additional independent valuation – or without clearance of the Land Monitoring Division of the Department of Management and Budget who prescribe the maximum price that can be offered for individual properties.

All proposed purchases are subjected to rigorous financial evaluation that involves projecting all establishment and tending costs and future revenues related to timber productivity. Other criteria used for evaluating land for purchase include strategic considerations such as location with respect to existing plantations or other public land, internal access and external roading, steepness of the land and fire protection. Small isolated blocks are not of great interest as it is desirable to consolidate as much as possible around the existing plantation resource.

All these factors lead the Government to purchase land for plantations that will give the best financial return to the State’s taxpayers. Decisions on land purchase will therefore be largely based on an assessment of the financial viability of plantation land use on that particular parcel of land. Because of this land most in demand for intensive agricultural uses such as dairying or cropping, even if suitable for pines, is too expensive to be considered for purchase. The overriding reason is simply that the high cost of this intensively farmed land mitigates against the financial viability of plantation land use. On the other hand, what is considered “marginal agricultural land” tends to be “marginal pine land” as well. The land that proves most suitable for purchase for pines is generally also average to good grazing land, though restricted to higher rainfall parts of the State.

What other avenues are there to increase the base of State-owned or controlled plantations apart from Government purchase of private land?

A plantation share farming scheme, which is a joint venture between private landholders and the State has been established for growing pines (as well as hardwoods).

This scheme is still in its infancy with legal details still to be finalised. But in the future this scheme could have a significant impact on the availability of wood to meet future government commitments to industry.

General Comments

General Comments on the Softwood Timber Industry

Why radiata pine?

Early trials in South Australia, Victoria and NSW to assess growth and wood production potential of softwood species demonstrated the superior characteristics of radiata pine as a versatile forest plantation species, with commercial plantings of radiata pine following these trials. Commercial plantings commenced in the North East at Bright in 1916 and Myrtleford in 1927.

Why not native species?

Our native commercial species (principally eucalypts) that grow naturally on normal softwood plantation sites simply do not measure up to radiata pine as a species with growth rates and wood properties suitable for production of high grade timber for sawlogs and veneer logs with fall down products being admirably suitable for production of paper, fibreboard, preservation material etc.

There are however, ongoing studies reviewing this situation and it is now likely that plantations of native hardwoods will be grown on short rotations on suitable sites for production of pulpwood.

This will not, in my view, replace radiata pine as the most versatile and economic plantation tree species on these sites for many years to come.

What is the economic advantage of pine plantations?

Already the softwood industry is worth some $200 million a year to Victoria and is a significant employer in the manufacturing workforce. However, it remains of economic concern that softwood imports are far too high. The forecast value of Australian forest and forest products imports is currently about $1.6 billion a year and yet Victoria has the climate, soils, expertise, established markets and the industrial infrastructure to have competitive advantages in growing and processing (or value-adding) softwoods. North East Victoria and Southern NSW are particularly well located to take advantage of this situation.

As clearly documented in the report of the 1985 Board of Inquiry into the Timber Industry, the State’s softwood plantations are making a substantial and increasing contribution to regional, state and national economies. To improve our knowledge and understanding of this important issue with respect to the North East Victoria, a socio-economic study aimed at determining the value of the softwood timber industry is currently being conducted by CFL in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (DARA) and the timber industry. The North East softwood study is examining, amongst other things, the employment implications and the income generation, directly and through support services, of the Government’s plantation program.

However, even before the results of this study are available, the industrial benefits (e.g. employment) at Myrtleford, Wodonga and Albury, in both mill and bush, are obvious. Furthermore, the industry “value adds” to a high degree in the North East Region e.g. production of high grade newsprint at Albury and production of high grade veneer, seasoning and construction grade timbers at Myrtleford and Wodonga, further enhancing the earning capacity of the industry in the Region.

Some further local benefits within the North East

  • Employment benefits. CFL and local contractors are locally employed because of the existence of softwood plantations. The annual wages paid to just full time CFL employees in Tallangatta Shire is in the order of $300,000. Summer and winter casual employment for pine planting and other tending works add significantly to these figures. Those people would not be employed by CFL but for the softwood plantations. Similar figures apply to other areas of the North East.
  • Farming incomes are augmented.
  • Families of plantation employees support local schools.
  • An extensive infrastructure is required to support the timber industry e.g. engineering works, electricians, retail supply shops, schools etc.
  • Agistment grazing is available in plantations to assist local farmers.
  • CFL fire protection structure and strategies are much more intensive and sophisticated because of the softwood plantations.
  • Rates paid by plantation employees helps offset plantation rate loss.
  • Funds can be sought (and obtained) for upgrading of roads due to usage by log trucks i.e. Special Impact Grants.

In relation to long term roading requirements to accommodate softwood logging traffic in North East Victoria, CFL is currently engaged in a major joint planning exercise with the Department of Industry, Technology and Resources; Department of Management and Budget, the Road Construction Authority, industry groups and with local government under the umbrella of the Municipal Association of Victoria.

Some broader based benefits

  • Provides a legitimate alternative crop for suitable agricultural land i.e. in some areas the best use for cleared land might well be softwood plantations. A rotation of trees, including radiata pine, on areas that have supported improved pasture for 30 years or more, is likely to benefit the soil. Agricultural scientists have identified problems in both NSW and Victoria on these improved pasture sites including soil acidification with adverse effects on plant growth due to increased levels of soluble aluminium and manganese. Afforestation of these improved pastures with radiata pine is likely to improve the soil and gradually revert the nature of organic matter back to its original state. Studies are currently in progress on this issue.
  • Water yield can be managed from a plantation area by regulating the growing stock.
  • The “greenhouse effect” – now reliably predicted to be a 2o rise in the earth’s temperature in the next 50 years. We need more trees back in the landscape.
  • Salinity. Soil salting, whether dry land or in irrigated areas, is one of the greatest threats facing Victoria’s environment. Widespread clearing of deep rooted trees over the past 150 years is the major cause. Replacing these trees in the recharge areas of the catchments, whether by pine or native species, will assist in remedying this most serious problem.

Concerns

There are of course some issues and concerns, otherwise we wouldn’t be here today. Issues include funding for shire roads, loss of shire rates and perceived breakdown of small rural communities.

While I appreciate that there are a number of these concerns for local communities and local government authorities, I can assure you that the Department and the Government welcomes consultation on these issues as a matter of achieving the co-operative development of the softwood industry in North East Victoria. I am certain if we address these problems in a positive way the North East will be a much richer place, from all points of view, in which to live in the future. Communication forums such as this will only assist in achieving that end.

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