1993 Flashback: Victorian Sawlogs Pledge to Create Jobs & Exports

Senior editor Jim Bowden recalls an interview with SEAS Sapfor 30 years ago on a long-term supply agreement for pine sawlogs

Mon 06 Nov 23


The creation of an export industry and hundreds of jobs will result from a long-term agreement finalised between the Victorian government and a major timber company.

Victorian Natural Resources Minister Geoff Coleman said the agreement gave the South Australia-based company SEAS Sapfor Ltd (Southern Australian Perpetual Forests)  a guaranteed supply of pine sawlog from western Victorian for the next 40 years. In return, it gave the government a guaranteed market for the logs, starting at 60,000 cub m a year in 1994-95 and increasing to 180,000 cub m a year from 2000.

“The company has undertaken to carry out a significant investment project by establishing a state-of-the-art, $53 million softwood sawmill at Portland by July 1994, with the capacity to process a minimum of 180,000 cubic metres of logs each year,” Coleman said.

“The company can commit itself to investment in an internationally competitive mill with confidence, knowing that the Victorian government has guaranteed the supply of sufficient quantities of timber for the next 40 years.

SEAS Sapfor – Australia’s largest forestry investment company – says the mill will create 250 jobs during the construction and fitting-out phase and a permanent workforce of more than 80 once it is up and running.”

Coleman said the company had forecast annual sales of $430 million a year initially from the mill, which would significantly contribute to economic development in Portland and western Victoria.

The mill’s proximity to Portland would also allow the company to develop a major export industry in milled pine products.  This would enhance its existing operation of exporting woodchips from the thinning and sawmill residues of plantation softwood timbers.

Coleman said there were about 20,000 ha of state-owned pine plantations in the Heywood, Rennick and Casterton forest districts to supply the SEAS Sapfor mill and existing local mills. Large tracts of privately owned plantations were also available as a further timber source.

“The government can fulfil its obligations without needing to buy further land to extend its plantations, although land previously used for this reason will be utilised,” Coleman said.

“It is also planned to increase the productivity of the existing plantations by replanting with genetically improved stock, applying fertilisers and using other improved silvicultural practices.”

The agreement between the government and SEAS Sapfor was ratified by an Act at Parliament, similar to that used to ratify long-term agreements to supply 100,000 cub m or more of sawlogs to three other companies in 1985, 1987 and 1989.

Sapfor’s ‘supertree’ on the way

Also, in 1993, Jim Bowden reported that Sapfor was using genetic engineering techniques to help produce a ‘supertree’.

In the southeast of South Australia, experiments are well advanced, and it’s expected that bulk seed to produce the ‘super trees will be ready by 1990.

Sapfor’s chief forester, Hans Dorgelo, says that genetic engineering in trees is based o the fundamental laws discovered a century ago, which have been adapted to the latest information obtained from other fields.

In the first production stage of ‘supertree’, seeds are culled from ‘elite trees in Sapfor’s forest.

“When we look for an elite tree, which may be one in 100,000 trees, we don’t confine ourselves to one area.  We monitor all our 24,000 ha of forests,” Dorgelo said.

“What we are looking for are superior specimens, trees that are bigger, stronger and of very good quality.  Every forester knows such a tree when he sees one.

“We hope that each of these elite trees is genetically superior, but just because it looks bigger and better does not necessarily mean that that is so.  The tree could have grown that way because of some unusual local circumstance, such as being planted over the carcass of a dead cow.

“We carefully identify the elite male and female trees and take their seed. The progeny of these trees is then monitored and rigidly tested to see if in fact they are superior.

“If we find that the progeny is not up to scratch, then we know that one of the parent trees is not genetically superior, and they are removed from the breeding program.

“It is very similar to establishing bloodlines in breeding stock.”

In the second phase of the Sapfor ‘super tree’ program, seed from the genetically superior progeny was crossed with seeds from the elite base stock to ensure as wide a genetic base as possible was kept.

Dorgelo said that in the second phase of the program, seed from the genetically superior progeny was crossed with seeds from the elite base stock to ensure as wide a genetic base as possible was kept.

“It is important to ensure that you do not breed a tree from too small a source of seed or you could face the risk of eventually producing a tree which is prone to a particular disease which may only occur every so often,” Dorgelo said.

“Ideally, we want to keep the best qualities of the base stock while boosting productivity.”

Under the program, trees in the first generation are likely to be between 12% and 20% greater in wood production, and a further 8% to 9% may be added in the second-generation progeny.

Dorgelo estimates that it takes about 10 years to produce a ‘super tree’ by careful cross-breeding and expects Sapfor to be ready to produce bulk seed for the new breed by 1990 … “or maybe even as early as 1988”.

Sapfor conducts the experiments cooperating with the CSIRO and the South Australian Department of Woods and Forests.

Sapfor’s national sales manager, Graham Pratt, said the elite trees were key to improving forest timber yields.

“We have come a long way from the old days of tree farming,” he said.

“When we started planting in 1926, it was a ‘slash-and-burn’ process. You walked along with a spade, dug a hole, and put a seedling in it. There was no fertiliser, and any sort of seedling was used.”

“But the difference between any seedling and an elite tree can be up to 25 percent in wood production.”

Sapfor emerged virtually unscathed from the recent bushfires, which ravaged South Australia and Victoria with more than 92%t of its forests undamaged.

Company executives say the policy of widely varying the geographic distribution of planting years has proved its worth in minimising losses even in what is described as a “one-in-a-100-year fire”.


  • Jim Bowden

    Jim Bowden, senior editor and co-publisher of Wood Central. Jim brings 50-plus years’ experience in agriculture and timber journalism. Since he founded Australian Timberman in 1977, he has been devoted to the forest industry – with a passion.


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