Caught between a rising demand for timber, the difficulty of meeting national carbon reduction targets and pressure from environmentalists who have secured a ban on all timber harvesting in native forests, which account for the majority of Australia’s 134 million ha of forest, the federal government is reviving incentives for plantation forestry.
The plantations that benefited 25 years ago from strong fiscal incentives by the Australian States currently represent, after the 2019-2020 megafires, only 1.7 million ha divided between Eucalyptus (about 0.7 million ha) which produces fibre in short rotations, and pine (about 1.0 million ha) which produces domestic structural timber in 35-year rotations Radiata pine (30 m3/ha) is becoming the major pine, with maritime pine plantations usually installed on dryer sites (15 m3/ha) being progressively abandoned in view of the superior yield of improved radiata pine varieties.
The country’s genetic improvement programme is embedded within a tree breeding limited company [www.treebreeding.com] and fully funded by all private organisations involved in radiata pine and eucalyptus globulus plantations. It has led to a 20-25% increase in productivity in two and a half generations for both species. For radiata, this gain is estimated on the basis of a composite index – corresponding to the market value of standing wood – combining growth, shape, wood density and branching. The company’s aim is to release continuous varieties in the future with volume gains of 1% per year without compromising the other characteristics of the composite index. The future of Australia’s timber resource therefore lies with radiata pine, which has no major health problems on this continent, and the intensification of its production by all means. The selection work on maritime pine was stopped because this species was favoured in regions where rainfall was lower than 700 mm/year, which does not allow for a high level of production.
The state has large land reserves, much of which is converted into national parks (wilderness areas); it cannot sell them but can lease them and many investors, often American, are interested. The limited availability of land for afforestation remains a problem for both small operators and large international investors who use these plantations to improve the carbon footprint of their financial portfolios while seeking an immediate return that is disconnected from other traditional investments.
The decision taken in 2023 by the federal government to stop exploiting the native eucalyptus forests, of which 28 million hectares are considered exploitable (including 8 million hectares with high potential) – managed by progressive cutting and natural regeneration, and a revolution of 60 to 100 years – deprives the country of 3.5 million cubic metres of sawn timber, often of high quality (Karri, Jarrah Muayr, red gum, mountain ash, manna gum) and very durable. In the best sites, these eucalyptus trees are frequently over 50m high, and can reach a diameter of 3m at 200 years, which corresponds to yields of over 30 m3/ha/year.
Australia therefore finds itself in the position of exporting raw materials such as wood chips and pulp, but with a trade deficit that forces the country to import wood in all its forms.
To compensate for the ban on harvesting in native forests, the government is launching an ambitious programme to plant one billion trees, i.e. around 400,000 ha by 2050. These plantations, which are largely intended for export, are preferentially installed near ports and are also eligible for carbon credits.
However, carbon storage is a complex issue in the Australian context where fire has sculpted the forest since the aboriginal people first arrived on the continent 60,000 years ago. Oppression of indigenous peoples led to a distorted fire regime in native forests, where fuel was actively managed by aboriginal people who regularly burned a few hundred to thousands of hectares with a frequency of about 10 years. Settlement has led to a build-up of fuel, resulting in very high intensity megafires that can exceed one million ha (1939, 2009, …).
The problem of fires impacts the insurance possibilities for plantations. Despite the prevention measures implemented (rigorous brush clearance) and fire fighting measures purchased by the plantation owners, it has been observed that on average 0.3% of plantations burn each year, with peaks of 3-4% (1993, 2009, 2020), which seems to constitute the limit in terms of risk-taking that insurance companies are willing to bear. However, plantation forests burn less than native forests, which constitute a risk when they are adjacent to plantations.
Given the size of the country, the most effective preventive solution in this ecosystem dominated by natural forests is the generalisation of prescribed burning. However, the area of prescribed burns currently carried out each year, i.e. about 200,000 ha, is well below the area needed to maintain the risk level at an acceptable level. At least another 100,000 ha would be needed. Some states are beginning to hand over fuel management to indigenous peoples, who have greater control over burning conditions. Plantations may also be subject to prescribed burning, with the exception of radiata pine plantations (rooting system not compliant with prescribed burning).
More information : cf note from the embassy
Information collected during the southern tour organised by GROUPAMA FORET – IEFC Member – April 2023 – contact Pascal Mayer pascal.mayer(at)groupama.fr
Credits photo: frenchmoments.eu