Victorian Governments’ Plantations Enterprise
David Williams (bio) - November 2018
The establishment of a government plantation enterprise in Victoria spanned more than a century under at least 40 governments of different persuasions and received varying levels of government support from time to time. The Forests Departments were early and consistent supporters of creating a substantial government softwood plantation estate from late 1800s. Their persistence was unwavering and ultimately proved reasonably successful.
There were a number of constraints in advancing the plantation program, primarily funding and land. Hence, progress was minimal in the early years. Access to suitable land was a challenge as forestry was a low-priority land use. The more productive and better-located land was allocated for settlement, farming and mining. From 1910 plantations were established on southern coastal areas because the land was considered “wasteland” and therefore available. This was a setback as the sites and growing conditions proved unsuitable and these plantations failed.
The years of the Great Depression provided an opportunity through government employment schemes and the estate grew significantly over the period. The war and post-war years saw activity slow to almost a standstill due to other government priorities and a lack of funds and labour. The program accelerated in 1962 when the Government supported the Forests Commission’s (FCV) Plantation Expansion (PX) program and this was further boosted with Commonwealth loan funds from 1967. High planting rates continued until 1990 when the Government announced its intention to exit the business.
The program was well planned and there were continuous effective efforts for improvement in plantation management. The establishment of formal research programs commenced in the late 1950s prior to the PX program. The research expanded to form comprehensive programs aimed at improving plantation productivity and in the 1970s, programs to address environmental matters.
The world was changing in the 1970s and 1980s and plantations were not exempted from changing public expectations. There was growing concern from external interests about the direction of the program and some plantation practices. A view expressed by some was that the program and practices were too focused on maximising timber production with insufficient regard for environmental values. The concern grew into increasing opposition about general environmental impacts and the aerial application of chemicals in the 1970s. The issues expanded somewhat in the 1980s as did the intensity and spread of opposition.
The Government sought to re-set the native forestry debate and the plantations program with significant policy changes in the Timber Industry Strategy in 1986 (TIS 1986). The Government was facing an intractable problem with the plantations program of needing to expand the estate, particularly in North East Victoria, to meet new supply commitments on the one hand, and the growing and more strident opposition from an increasing number of campaigns on the other hand. It announced its decision to exit the business in 1990 without resolving the conundrum.
There are a number of chapters to the interesting story of forest plantations in Victoria.
This paper addresses one chapter, albeit an important one. That being the establishment of a softwood plantation enterprise by State Forests Departments under more than 40 different governments of many and varied persuasions over more than a century.
The purpose of this paper is to contribute to the project of documenting the heritage of Victorian forestry on this site. Other completed papers on plantations are available on the website. Further papers are in preparation or planned.
This paper is complemented by two other papers available on the website:
- “A Chronology of the Victorian Governments’ Century in Plantations”
- “A Century in Forest Plantations – Success or Failure?”
The chronology lists many of the significant plantation events whilst this paper discusses the reasons for the commitment to plantations, the factors and circumstances that shaped progress, challenges and opportunities from time to time and the Government’s exit from the business.
The paper draws heavily on the Forests Commission Victoria’s (FCV) softwood plantations story because the availability of all FCV reports provided continuous and reliable information on circumstances and activity. References in this paper to FCV were sourced from relevant annual reports unless otherwise stated. The same level of information was not readily available to the author for the period prior to and post FCV. The overall story, however, is well told through the FCV’s history.
This paper addresses the story in four sections:
1. The Plantations Vision
2. The Program
3. Changing Expectations
4. Exiting the Business
1. The Plantations Vision
Commitment to Plantations
There was a strong commitment to softwood plantations from early days which was later expressed as FCV policy. The Department’s policy was supported with government funding in late 1920s – early 1930s during the Great Depression and again with the Plantation Expansion (PX) program from the 1960s. The Commonwealth came on board with funding from 1967-76 (Softwood Forestry Agreements 1967, 1972 and 1976)
The need to establish plantations of exotic species to provide light wood trees with timber qualities not found in indigenous timber was stated by Ribbentrop (Ribbentrop, 1896) in his report to the Minister of Lands and was supported by the State Forests Department well prior to the creation of FCV. Other early goals included providing jobs and processing mills in rural areas, revenue for government and reducing reliance on expensive imports.
The FCV was committed to softwood plantations from its creation in 1918. In 1920 it articulated a goal of establishing an estate of continuous annual plantings to attract permanent mills to process the timber. Again in 1923 the FCV stressed the need to establish plantations as soon as possible in response to the view at the time that there would be a shortage of softwood timbers from northern hemisphere forests as annual harvest volumes from these forests were thought to be exceeding annual growth. The Commission in 1924 suggested that other State and Commonwealth governments provide funding and ensure the availability of land for the establishment of a national estate to meet Australia’s future needs for softwood timber. In each of the following two years the Commission re-iterated its commitment to softwood plantations as ‘policy’.
Ambitious Targets from Early Times
The FCV backed its early commitments by announcing annual planting and total estate targets at various times.
The first estate target of 80,000 ha to be established at an annual rate of 2000 ha per annum over 40 years was stated in 1928. This was a brave target at the time given the average annual new plantings for the four years prior was just 850 ha.
In 1946 the FCV increased the target to 100,000 ha to be established at a rate of 4000 ha per year of new plantings over 25 years. On face value this appeared to be an ambitious target at a time when new plantings had dropped to a very low level during the war years (average of just 178 ha/annum for 1940-45). It was probably based on the Chifley Commonwealth Government’s plan to undertake a number of nation-building projects which included forestry projects. The Chifley Government and its predecessor Curtin Government had a policy of nation building to be carried out jointly with State governments. This was the period during which the Government commenced the Snowy Mountain scheme, established a government airline, sought to nationalise banks, established an aluminium smelter at Bell Bay in Tasmania and a number of other significant projects. The Chifley Government developed a list of thousands of nation-building projects as part of its policy platform for the 1946 election. At the time there was concern about the possibility of recession in the United States of America and the likelihood that such a recession, should it occur, would affect Australia. The projects were to be counter-recession initiatives if a recession occurred (Tennant 1970). It is likely that the Victorian Cain (senior) Government could have anticipated Commonwealth support for new forestry projects including plantation expansion. This period might have been the commencement of the ‘plantation expansion’ program almost two decades before it eventuated in 1962. In the event, Australia did not suffer a recession and the list of projects sat gathering dust until the change of government at the Commonwealth level in 1949.
The earlier target of 80,000 ha was re-stated in 1957. Again plantings were low at the time of the statement - being just 350 ha per annum from 1946-1961. One wonders what supported the FCV’s optimism at the time. However, the Commission would have been aware of the need for plantations to provide softwood timber to supplement native forests timber as the greatly increased demand was not being fully met during the for post-war period. The need for timber self-sufficiency was also an important topic in the post-war period. This resulted in the 1964 statement of a national softwood plantation target of 1.2 million ha by the Australian Forestry Council (AFC 1964). Victoria’s earlier target was to be its contribution. The Commonwealth Government came on board with funding in 1967 under the Softwood Forestry Agreements (Softwood Forestry Agreements 1967, 1972 and 1976). Victoria was set a target of 20,000 ha to be achieved by 1971 under funding from the first agreement in 1967.
Victoria’s Timber Industry Strategy in 1986 (TIS 1986) increased the target to 125,000 ha by 1996. The total area at the time was 94,900 ha. The target was reduced to 120,000 ha just three years later in 1989 with a commitment to support an increase of 6000 ha on private farms under lease arrangements (Share Farming Scheme, 1989).
In summary the FCV set ambitious targets soon after its establishment and reiterated higher levels over the following decades despite some periods of low activity, lack of government support or funding and a number of other challenges. The Commission obviously strongly believed in the need for plantations and the benefits that would flow to the State and rural communities. It was persistently pro-active and largely achieved its goals in the final analysis (Williams 2018). A complementary paper titled “Victorian Governments’ Century in Forest Plantations: Success or Failure?” examines this in more detail. The paper is available on the website.
Requirements for Success
The FCV’s plantation works were opportunistic with good progress when positive circumstances arose. The expansion of the estate progressed through ‘stop’ and ‘start’ phases where there was little activity during some periods and considerable activity during others. There were prerequisite conditions for good progress during ‘start’ phases. ‘Stop’ phases occurred when one or more of the prerequisites were not met.
The prerequisites for good progress were:
- Government support and funding. The high cost of the large-scale program meant that it could not be funded from normal FCV revenue so dedicated Government funds were required. Such funding was more likely if the program was publicly supported. The FCV proactively made the case to Ministers and Members of Parliament over many decades and highlighted the social and economic benefits to rural communities.
- Available land. There was great competition for land in Victoria from the earliest times. Settlement, mining and farming took precedence for the most productive and best-located land. Forestry was relegated to poorer land. Early plantations were used to rehabilitate land eroded by mining. Plantations were not widely regarded as a stand-alone viable land use in those times. Southern coastal areas became available from 1910 because the areas were considered “waste land” and not needed for other purposes. More suitable inland areas for plantations were limited until the 1930s.
- Labour. There were times when labour was a distinct advantage and other times when labour was limited, adversely impacting the program. The need to provide jobs during the Great Depression was a major positive for the program. On the other hand, the lack and high cost of labour during the war years and the post-war period contributed to very low levels of activity. It also led the FCV to move towards mechanisation from the mid 1950s.
There were periods of high and low activity. Substantial progress was made during the Depression years based on the need to provide jobs. Governments’ employment schemes ensured funding, land and labour. The Victorian and, later, the Commonwealth governments in the 1960s embraced the need for a substantial plantation estate. Funding became available which also meant support for providing land by clearing native forests initially and then purchased private farm land from the late 1970s. The scale of the program necessitated the development of mechanisation so labour became less critical. The early period preceding the Depression and the war years were times of low activity. The former period was limited by lack of funding and suitable land. The war and post-war years were constrained by lack of funds labour and other priorities.
2. The Program
Establishing the Estate
The FCV’s plantation program can be divided into seven periods as discussed below. The level of activity exhibits a ‘stop/start’ pattern depending on the opportunities or constraints experienced in the period as illustrated in Figure 1 and Table 1 below. Figure 1 covers plantings until 1982 (FCV’s part of the program) as reliable information readily available to the author. Table 1 covers a longer period until 1993 which includes TIS opportunities.
1. 1900-09 – Trial plantings. This was an experimental period where many exotic conifer species were planted in small plantations in a number of areas across Victoria. The average area of new plantings was just 22 ha per year and the total estate was just 391 ha by 1909.
2. 1910-25 – Coastal plantings. New plantations were established in southern coastal areas including Frankston, French Island, Anglesea and Port Campbell because the land was available as it was considered useless for other purposes. Access to more suitable land away from coastal areas was limited but new plantings occurred on land that was available at Mount Macedon, Creswick, Scarsdale, Harcourt, Castlemaine, Bright, Ovens and Mount Disappointment. The rate of new plantings averaged 193 ha per annum such that the estate had grown to almost 3000 ha by 1925.
3. 1926-39 – The Depression years. Activity lifted significantly during the Depression years through the Government’s employment schemes. Many thousands were employed in forestry works including establishing new plantations. New plantings occurred at a rate of 1556 ha per annum and the estate had increased six-fold to almost 18,000 ha by the end of the period.
4. 1940-61 – War & Post-war. The war years and the post-war period saw a sharp slowdown in activity. Funding, labour and other government priorities were limiting factors during this period. The annual rate of new plantings was just 303 ha and the estate had grown to almost 20,000 ha by 1961.
5. 1962-66 – FCV’s Plantation Expansion (PX) program. The post war period of inadequate supply of timber highlighted the case for plantation expansion and the Government supported and funded the FCV’s PX program. Annual plantings increased seven-fold to 2075 ha over this period
6. 1967-76 – Federal government support. A national plantation program was collectively prepared by the Forests Departments of the States through the newly-established Australian Forestry Council (AFC, 1964). The case was supported by the Federal Government and funds were provided for states to increase their plantings to achieve agreed targets. The agreements between the State and Federal governments were legislated under the Commonwealth Softwood Forestry Agreements of 1967, 1972 and 1976 (Softwood Forestry Agreements 1967, 1972 and 1976).
7. 1977-93 – Victorian Government support continued. The Victorian Government continued to support the PX program even after the Federal Government ceased its funding in 1976. The State re-iterated its commitment in its TIS in 1986 (TIS 1986) until it commenced the process to exit plantations by establishing the Victorian Plantations Corporation (VPC) in 1993. The Government sold the VPC to private owners in 1998.
The Estate Established by the FCV
The estate established over the FCV’s life from 1918 until 1982 is shown in Figure 2. The annual areas for the periods before and after the FCV are not shown as they were not readily available to the author.
The FCV established almost 86,000 ha of softwood plantations from 1918 until 1982 which sits well with the early targets of 80,000 ha. The TIS (TIS 1986) target of 125,000 ha to be established by 1996 was subsequently reduced to 120,000 ha in 1989. The softwood estate was 105,964 ha in 1993 when the government established VPC as the initial step in withdrawing from the plantations business. The modified TIS target was almost on course on a pro-rata basis in 1993.
Superiority of Radiata Pine
Many coniferous species were planted in different locations from early days and Radiata pine demonstrated its growth superiority in virtually all locations. It quickly became a preferred species but not by all. Ribbentrop (Ribbentrop 1896) cautioned against broadcast planting of Radiata pine. He noted ….”The broadcast introduction of Pinus insignis has no excuse whatever, for, though it is doubtless one of the fastest growing pines, its wood is of low character”.
Others in subsequent times were also not convinced of the preferred status enjoyed by Radiata pine. The State Forests Department and the FCV in 1915 and 1923 respectively felt the need to publicly put the case for Radiata pine. Even in these early times the Departments were able to point to a demonstrated successful track record of superior growth in Australia and positive financial returns and useful processed timber in New Zealand. The criticisms were based on concerns about the quality of the processed timber and potential biological risks of too much emphasis on a single species.
Radiata pine was considered suitable for almost any growing conditions in Victoria. It was widely planted in poor, shallow sands on exposed coastal areas from 1910. The conditions proved unsuitable and resulted in 10,000 ha of failed coastal plantations (FCV 1972). In hindsight this was an over-confident assessment of the adaptability of the species.
There was considerable successful research and development in Australia and New Zealand into improving the processed timber and pulping qualities of Radiata pine through tree selection and breeding, plantation management regimes, processing, drying and machining. Attention was also given to understanding and quickly and effectively responding to pests and diseases as soon as they were observed.
Radiata pine came of age in the late 1950s-early 1960s as processors were able to produce timber that met technical specifications for use as a structural timber. Radiata pine replaced green hardwood in the scantling market from the 1960s onwards based on superior ‘in place’ performance and cost. Also studies revealed Radiata pine exhibited good pulping properties for use in kraft pulp and fibreboard production. Radiata pine from government plantations became a major feedstock for the Maryvale pulp and paper mill, newsprint mill at Albury, pulp mill at Myrtleford, particleboard plants at Ballarat and Benalla, medium density fibreboard plant at Wangaratta as well as modern and competitive sawmills in Victoria and border areas in New South Wales and South Australia. Logs and woodchips are exported to Japan and China. The solid timber and fibre from Radiata pine plantations is sought in domestic and overseas markets. The early recognition of the superiority of the species is now well amplified in domestic and overseas markets.
Ninety-eight percent of the softwood estate vested to the VPC in 1993 was Radiata pine.
Selecting New Plantation Locations
The FCV had established an estate of 105,964 ha of softwoods by 1993 when the Government decided to exit its plantation business. The plantations were spread across Victoria and concentrated in three main regions: North East Victoria (40% of the estate), Gippsland (19%) and South West Victoria (17%). Figure 3 shows the extent of the softwood plantations in each region.
It is interesting to consider why these plantation areas were selected and whether they achieve the FCV’s goal of providing a supply catchment to provide sufficient sustainable volume to attract and support modern competitive processing industries.
Ideally, among other matters, locations for new plantations would be based on consideration of:
- the availability of sufficient suitable land at reasonable cost (if purchased private land) to provide a scale volume to attract competitive industries
- the availability of supporting infrastructure for the plantations and processing industries, such as transport for the delivery of logs and products to markets and the required skilled labour
- the proximity of sufficient markets for the full range of timber products.
In reality these considerations were of limited relevance to the FCV’s program. Availability of land was the over-riding consideration until the PX program in the 1960s. The goal to establish annual plantings of sufficient area to provide an ongoing log supply for permanent efficient mills was an important consideration, as was linkage to complementary supplies from other plantations and existing mills and/or commitments to establish new mills.
The opening up of new plantations over time can be summarised as follows:
- Pre-1910. Small areas of plantings on land damaged by gold mining as well as other trial planting areas in Ballarat, Creswick, Bendigo, Bright, Mount Macedon and the You Yangs
- 1910-1924 - southern coastal areas – plantations were established in these areas because the ‘wasteland’ areas were available. Clarke’s Reserve at Frankston had been set aside for the growing of timber and hence became the base for the Frankston plantation. Other major programs commenced at French Island and Anglesea simply because the land was available
- 1930s. Increased activity based on employment schemes during the Depression meant that government supported the FCV’s efforts to access land for new plantations in Aire Valley, Stanley Plateau, Bright and Ovens, Loch Valley and Narbethong
- 1962 onwards PX program. The earlier constraint on access to land was largely solved by Government support for the FCV’s policy to clear native forests for plantations under the PX program. With increasing criticism of native forest clearing from the early 1970s, the Government funded the purchase of private farm land for plantations from the late 1970s. Existing plantations were expanded and new plantations established at Shelley, Bright, Myrtleford, Warrenbayne, Rennick, Heywood, Strzelecki Ranges, Rosedale, Ballarat, Creswick and the Otway Ranges
North East Victoria, being part of the large Upper Murray plantation region, had additional attraction of linkage to large plantations in southern New South Wales so that large processing mills could aspire to draw on supply from both sides of the border. In the event the newsprint mill at Albury was viable because it could draw on pulpwood from both states as does the large competitive sawmill at Tumbarumba in NSW. Whilst the actual mills and their location could not have been predicted at the time of plantation decisions, the FCV approach of “build and they will come” did bear fruit in due course.
The Gippsland plantations had the logic of providing supply to the Australian Paper (previously Australian Paper Manufactures) mill built in Central Gippsland in 1937. The Company later operated a nearby sawmill at Morwell to provide an outlet for sawlogs. The Company also established its own softwood estate of almost 50,000 ha which was subsequently combined with the Gippsland plantations established by the Government when the Company was acquired by HVP Plantations in 2000.
Plantations in South West Victoria are part of the extensive Green Triangle plantation region which includes plantations originally established by the South Australian Government as well as large private softwood plantation companies in Victoria and South Australia. Supply from FCV plantations would have been seen as having the opportunity to supply large efficient mills that achieved scale by drawing on other plantations as well.
On reflection, whilst the location of the plantations was largely driven by availability of land rather than considerations of efficient locations for the projects, the locations turned out to be advantageous with timber supply from the plantations continuing to support competitive integrated processing industries in each of the main plantation regions.
Improvements in Plantation Management
Methods for improved plantation management were recognised in the early days. These included ensuring good genetic planting stock, nursery practices to provide hardy plants, good planting and establishment techniques and practices to improve growth rates and log form. Early efforts focused on plant selection, seed source, planting survival and plant growth.
A management regime was determined which formed the plantation management template. Various problems were resolved and improvements introduced through field observations and trials undertaken by enthusiastic foresters.
There were many advances from the earliest times and some significant developments included:
- Initial plantation management regime. Local foresters had little guidance on plantation management from northern hemisphere practices as growing conditions were vastly different. In the event, the State Forests Department laid out the regime initially in 1890. This involved less dense spacing of plants than was used in the northern hemisphere, with plants spaced at 2.4 m X 2.4 m. The purpose was to maximise production of quality sawlogs so multiple thinnings were applied with final harvest at about 40 years. This regime was successful and stood the test of time for sawlog-driven Radiata pine plantation regimes in south-east Australia.
- Nursery scale-up and lower costs. Early plantings were small in area and small-scale manual work practices used in nurseries limited the number of plants that could be raised. Scaling up the program required larger dedicated nurseries producing plants at comparatively low cost. This occurred in 1910 with a new conifer nursery at Creswick where 1.5 million plants were produced in the first year.
- Improved trees. There were planting trials at different locations from the very early times to ensure suitable species selection. Radiata pine quickly showed its superiority and seed was sourced from a number of places including interstate and New Zealand to provide better genetic stock. Propagation by cuttings commenced as early as 1941 to improve the planting stock.
- Reducing planting failures and early losses. Plant survival and losses were comparatively high during the 1920s. Low survival rates resulted from drying out of plants during long transport from central nurseries to planting sites and poor planting techniques. The former problem was solved by establishing local nurseries close to new plantation areas and the latter problem by greater attention to improved planting techniques. Another source of loss was from browsing by rabbits and other animals which was solved by fencing new plantings but at high cost. Fencing costs constrained the rate at which the program could be expanded.
Formal Research Programs
Formalised plantations research commenced in the late 1950s even though new planting rates were very low at the time. The FCV was planning for substantial expansion before its PX program was supported by the Government by setting up research programs to support the expanded program. The initial emphases were directed to tree improvement, plant propagation, nursery practice, nutrition, weed control and control of pests and diseases. The tree improvement program expanded, significantly increasing the value of the plantations over decades. In fact, tree improvement remains the largest area of research activity for the current private owner of the estate, HVP Plantations (HVP 2018).
Eradicating Sirex wasp was a major nationally coordinated campaign from the time the wasp was discovered in Victoria in 1961. The general approach with pests and diseases was to study the problem once it appeared, seek solutions and quickly apply them. Monitoring programs pro-actively provided early detection.
The research program was expanded in 1964 with the appointment of a Forest Pathologist and the commencement of hydrology studies. The 1970s saw the expansion of hydrology studies, development of computer-based yield regulation simulation models for plantations and comprehensive baseline biological studies in plantations.
The research programs were generally successful and provided substantial improvements in the plantation values. It is estimated that Australian softwood plantations are now 30% more productive than in the mid-1960s as a result of the many research programs (HVP 2018). Whilst this figures was estimated for Australian softwood plantations and therefore not specific to Victorian government softwood estate, it could reasonably be assumed a similar improvement would have occurred for the Victorian estate.
The history of FCV research is the subject of a separate paper which is in preparation and will be posted on the forestry heritage website in due course.
Even though Victoria experiences substantial devastating damage and even loss of life from periodic bushfires, the plantation estate faired comparatively well from bushfires over many decades. The 1939 bushfires represented the worst plantation losses for government-owned plantations with almost 4000 ha destroyed, representing more than 20% of the estate at the time. The majority of the losses (2400 ha) occurred in the Bright plantations. Southern coastal plantations were recognised as representing higher fire risks at the time they were established. Indeed significant fire losses did occur on French Island in 1920, Anglesea in 1936 and Frankston in 1955. The Anglesea plantations again suffered significant losses in the 1983 ‘Ash Wednesday’ fires. However, these losses were relatively moderate overall compared with the extent and severity of the impacts of fires on other land and assets across Victoria at these and other times.
These plantation fires did not weaken the Government or FCV’s commitment to the plantation business. Rather, the response was to increase and improve fire-prevention works and suppression efforts.
The most significant plantation fire losses occurred to the estate in the 2009 ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires when the plantations were privately owned. More than 16,000 ha of plantations and 6000 ha of the Company’s native forests were destroyed. This followed significant fires losses in 2003, 2006 and 2007. Again, the response was to focus on improved fire protection and suppression effectiveness. The losses did not adversely impact the Company’s commitment to the business.
3. Changing Expectations
The Changing World – 1970s & 1980s
The world was changing by the end of the 1960s. The post-war period had focused on economic growth and catch-up for lost opportunities during the war years. Management of native forests and plantations up until this time had focused primarily on timber production. Moving into the 1970s, community expectations were changing and there a desire for better environmental and social outcomes. Whilst much of the opposition was directed towards native forests in the early 1970s, concerns about plantations began to emerge.
The PX program had generally been supported by local communities during the 1960s, particularly by those directly benefiting from the increased economic activity associated with the new plantations. But, with the substantially increased rate of expansion, the impacts on the landscape and changes in land use focussed attention of some on the future effects if the program continued at a high rate for another couple of decades.
The initial expressions of opposition from non-local activists were about the clearing of native forests for establishing plantations (Routley and Routley 1973). Later in the decade, opposition came from some locals as well as non-locals and developed on a few fronts, including concern about the impacts of increased aerial application of weedicides in plantations, use of 1080 for controlling vermin in South Gippsland and general concern about the environmental effects of pine plantations. One significant event was the House of Representatives Standing Committee inquiry into the operation of the Commonwealth Softwood Forestry Agreements (House of Reps Inquiry 1975). The review was generally critical of the lack of consideration of environmental impacts by State Forest Departments although it did view favourably some of Victoria’s environmental practices and studies undertaken to better understand the environmental impacts of plantation establishment. It also commended Victoria’s process for determining public land use through the Land Conservation Council (The State’s independent agency for recommending land use). The other event was the intervention of the Federal Minister for Health to initiate an independent inquiry into the use of 2,4,5-T (2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid) in plantations and the occurrence of child abnormalities and birth defects (National Health and Medical Research Council 1978). The inquiry did not reach any adverse findings but did energise opponents.
The anti-plantations movement gathered further momentum during the 1980s with opposition spreading to all of the main plantation areas. Some activists employed confrontational tactics. Opposition to the aerial use of chemicals, claims about abnormalities and birth defects from previously-applied chemicals, physical obstruction to establishing new plantations, purchase of larger areas of farm land and recommendations by the Land Conservation Council to increase plantations in North East Victoria were the main areas of activity. A Senate Committee inquiring into Australia’s forestry and forest products industries found that pine plantations were excessive (Senate Standing Committee 1981). This provided a platform for opponents who claimed the government plantation business was subsidising the timber industry.
New opposition groups including ‘No More Pines’ in the Otway Ranges, ‘Pine Free Zone’ in the Tallangatta Valley and the broadly-based ‘Anti-Pine Alliance’ became rallying campaigns during this period.
4. Exiting the Business
The newly elected Cain Labor Government in 1982 brought in major changes to the method of governance and policies compared to the previous 26 years of Liberal governments. The Cain Government applied an economic management program to afford greater control over government and government resources for the implementation of its ambitious social, economic and environmental agenda (Doolan 2015).
Management of the State’s native forests was a priority for change. There had been considerable policy development in the late 1970s and early 1980s by internal party policy committees involving unions, conservation and other interest groups (Cain 1995). Many positions that were subsequently incorporated into the Government’s TIS (TIS 1986) were formed at this time prior to the Cain Government’s election. The broad thrust for native forests policy was increased national parks and increased environmental protection. The Timber Industry Strategy was a component of the Government’s Conservation Strategy which aimed at protecting the environment (Doolan 2015).
Policies for native forests and the native forest industry were the main subjects of TIS (TIS 1986). Forest plantations received little attention with a limited number of significant policy changes including increased softwood estate target to 125,000 ha by 1996, cessation of the clearing of native forests for plantations, need for improved financial performance and offering of long-term supply contracts for companies willing to undertake large capital investment in new processing facilities.
The unions were unsuccessful in their efforts to derail the early internal policy work which aimed at greater environmental protection and declaration of new national parks because of the likely adverse impacts on the forest and timber industries. However, unions were able to influence significant changes through the consultation process in preparation of the TIS as well as through informal internal party channels (Doolan 2015 and Cain 1995). It’s likely that unions would have pressed for increased plantation targets as a trade-off for loss of access to native forests and long-term supply contracts in the plantations sector as well as other changes in native forests. This could be inferred from the public response to TIS once it was adopted by the Government. It was well received by some forestry interests and unions but generally criticised by some conservation interests (Doolan 2015).
According to Premier Cain, reaching an agreed position on TIS was tough and demanding and it took some time to build sufficient consensus for it to be considered by Cabinet. The Premier regarded TIS to be the best example of very complex and successful negotiation and consultative process (Cain 1995). However, TIS plantations policy became the genesis of a curse for the Government. It recommended expansion to plantations to meet timber supply commitments, including commitments in a newly-agreed timber supply agreement with Bowater-Scott that was ratified by Parliament. The commitment to double log volume was to underpin a new large integrated mill incorporating sawmill, ply mill, pulp mill and timber treatment plant to be built at Myrtleford. This was to be the first such integrated mill in Australia and would reflect positively on the Government’s industry development credentials. On the other hand, increasing opposition to plantations was coming from a number of quarters (refer to above). The attempt to find a resolution through the Plantations Impact Study in 1989 chaired by a community representative was not successful.
Joan Kirner, the Minister responsible for TIS, replaced John Cain as Premier in 1990 and soon after announced that the plantations would be sold at a hoped-for price of $200 million and possibly double that amount if the land was sold with the trees (Weekly Times 29th May 1990).The sale was welcomed by some conservation groups such as the ‘Anti-pines Alliance’, which considered that, under government ownership, the industry was being subsidised. The acute government budget problems at the time would also have favoured the sale.
In the event, the Kirner Government was not able to complete the sale before there was a further change with the election of the Kennett Government in October 1992. Privatising government enterprises was a policy priority for the new government. The State Owned Enterprises Act 1992 was passed just months into the term of the new government. The establishment of the Victorian Plantations Corporation (VPC) was the first government-owned enterprise under the legislation. The VPC’s charter was to commercialise the plantations business and prepare it for privatisation. The VPC was purchased by HVP Plantations in 1998 for $550 million for forestry rights under a perpetual lease of the land (The Age 7th Dec 1998).
The management of the originally Government created plantations business by VPC and HVP Plantations is to be the subject of future separate papers.
Cain, John (1995). John Cain’s Years Power, Parties and Politics. Melbourne University Press 1995.
Doolan, Brian (2015). Institutional Continuity and Change in Victoria’s Forests and Parks 1900-2010. Master of Arts thesis Monash University 2015.
Forests Commission Victoria 1972. Forestry in Victoria Prepared on the occasion of the Eighth All Australian Timber Congress, Melbourne 1972.
House of Representatives Standing Committee of Environment and Conservation (1975). Review of the Operation of the Softwood Forestry Agreements Commonwealth Government of Australia 1975.
HVP (2018). HVP – 20 Years Growing Strong. HVP Plantations Melbourne 2018.
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