In September 2018, the federal government unveiled a plan to radically expand Australia’s timber plantations by one billion trees over a decade.
Today, less than 1 per cent of that goal has been planted.
- The Commonwealth pledged in 2018 to plant 1 billion new plantation trees this decade
- Less than 1 per cent has been planted and the national plantation estate has declined
- The government maintains the target can still be reached
“At this rate, forget hitting the 2050 target; it will take 357 years to hit a billion trees,” independent senator Rex Patrick told parliament.
Despite the pledge to grow the national estate, Senator Patrick said plantation land had declined in Australia since a peak of more than two million hectares in 2008.
Statistics from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) show only 2,800 hectares of new plantation trees have been planted.
“That’s roughly 2.8 million trees against an annual target of 170 million that is needed [to meet the goal],” Senator Patrick said.
Minister sticking to the goal
Despite the slow progress, the government maintains the billion-tree goal is achievable this decade.
“We have to be reasonable about this,” said Jonathon Duniam, the Assistant Minister for Forestry.
When asked about the plan’s progress in parliament, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said “the reality was that that whole program was displaced because of the Black Summer events.
“It’s as simple as that.”
However, the stagnation in new plantation land came well before the 2019-20 bushfires destroyed 130,000 hectares of commercial plantations.
“ABARES are on the verge of updating those numbers and there are a number of things to take into account,” Senator Duniam said.
“Since [the Black Summer fires, NSW] has planted 4,000 hectares — some of that is replacement, some is new.
“There are plans for a further 7,000 hectares.”
To reach the billion-tree milestone, around one million hectares will be needed.
Where to plant?
Historically, much of Australia’s plantation timber has been grown on state- and territory-owned land.
“The big disadvantage [the Commonwealth has] is we don’t manage a single hectare of the land,” Senator Duniam said.
State-owned land allocated to timber plantations has steadily decreased over the years.
“The land is being converted to other uses — it might be residential development, it might be lost through fire, it might be competing land uses,” said Melissa Haslam, executive director of the Forestry Industry Federation of WA.
To compensate for its loss and for new plantations, Ms Haslam said “we’re either talking about low-yielding agricultural land or we’re talking about more crown land”.
Securing private agricultural land for long-rotation plantations is the basis of the Commonwealth’s plan, although it has yet to announce incentives for farmers to invest.
“The clean energy regulator is reviewing [the funding] plantation foresters can access to account for the carbon they sequester with new trees,” Senator Duniam said.
“I’m hopeful this will make it more attractive for them.”
Wilderness Society policy manager Tim Beshara is skeptical any further crown land will be allocated to sustainable plantations.
“There hasn’t been a track record of plantation rollouts that haven’t had enormous subsidies,” he said.
If the timber runs out …
Without a consistent supply of logs, sawmills will be forced to close and risk losing their skilled workforce.
“[WA] used to have an estate of about 90,000 hectares [and is] on track to hit about 45,000 hectares in the next 10 years,” Ms Haslam said.
“If that happens, we will see a collapse of domestic processing.”
Other states have similar problems, exacerbated this year by inconsistent supply of timber to mills.
Because structural timber takes decades to grow, planting in the short term is essential to ensure an adequate supply in decades to come.
“In 2050, we will have quadrupled demand for timber resources,” Senator Duniam said.
Mr Beshara agreed that wood products played a role in sustainability, but did not believe current plantations were being used to their maximum environmental benefit.
“[Australia] hasn’t been very good at plantations historically,” he said.
“The sector needs to establish its environmental credentials — all land care changes have an impact.”