Australia’s Timber Crisis: Government Throws Money at Trees

Penny has dropped as government's wake up to the fact there is not enough timber to build houses.

Fri 07 Jul 23


After a decade or more of indifference and neglect, the federal and WA state governments finally realised that wood is a basic and essential resource for our economy.

But wood is rapidly becoming a scarce commodity due to the investment drought that followed the blue gum boom and the withdrawal of native forests to placate green protesters.

The penny has dropped; there isn’t enough wood to keep mills operating and build the state’s housing needs; the two governments are falling over themselves to get more trees into the ground.

In September 2021, Premier McGowan announced a 10-year program investing $350 million to establish around 35,000 hectares of new pine trees. These plantations will be controlled by the Forest Products Commission (FPC) and, in addition to the wood, will generate carbon credits to help meet the state’s carbon reduction goals.

WA’s pine expansion model has been supplemented by the commonwealth government’s $74 million national grant program handing out $2000 per hectare for new plantations but leaving the landowner’s ongoing control, management and financial returns.

Mark McGowan was a strong supporter of fuel reduction burning in forests. Wood Central understands that McGowan was wedged into the accelerated Native Forest Ban by the WA Labor left-factions. (Image credit: The West)
The policy was announced by the former WA Premier, Mark McGowan. Last month, Wood Central exclusively revealed that McGowan was wedged into the accelerated Native Forest Ban by the WA Labor left-factions. (Image credit: The West)
Which program is better?

The WA model sees it buying cleared land throughout the southwest, paying between $10,000 and $15,000 per plantable hectare, with only about 70% of most farms able to plant commercial trees. 

The recent spike in land prices now means that the $350 million will be lucky to produce 25,000 hectares of new trees.

The federal grant program hands out cash to the investor and takes no further interest in the venture. It will achieve at least 36,000 hectares for a significantly lesser investment.

One problem with the WA government model is highlighted by the concerns of local governments.

Both the shires of Nannup and Boyup Brook have expressed concern about the loss of farms and families from their communities, as well as indicating a reasonable concern in the FPC’s ability to manage the fire risks.

Pine plantations represent a significant increase in fire hazard for those communities which are ill-equipped to control fires in large pine plantations.

The FPC has limited capacity to manage the fire risk, with thousands of hectares of plantation to wildfire over the past decade.

To date, the government has not produced a comprehensive strategy for the rollout and protection of these plantations, let alone engaged in effective consultation to bring regional communities with them.

In the past, the FPC has heavily relied on the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) to manage fire risk for its plantations.

However, due to priorities which see most of DBCA’s staff migrate to coastal offices, there has been a progressive run down of personnel at locations such as Nannup and Kirup.

The FPC’s ranks will also likely dwindle as it no longer needs staff to manage native forest harvesting.

Last month, Wood Central contributor Gavin Butcher revealed that the WA Forest Products Commission was in financial trouble – requiring a $25 million injection over the last two financial years to stay afloat.

By contrast, the $2000 grant scheme will likely see a greater dispersal of smaller plantations.

These will still need similar protection, but this will be in the direct interest of the landowner who will remain on site rather than in an office in Bunbury or Perth.

Just having people on the ground won’t be enough, though.

There needs to be a significant upgrading of regional firefighting capability rather than on a piecemeal plantation-by-plantation basis and a high reliance on volunteers.

The Department of Fire and Emergency Services could step in and help with landscape-level fire planning.

The grant scheme is much more likely to leave landowners on the farm than the buy-out scheme.

It also encourages the integration of trees onto the farm.

But based on past uptake, it may struggle to achieve the area of new plantations required to meet future timber needs.

Both schemes target land that can generate carbon credits, providing immediate financial returns to compensate for the low value and long-time frames for timber investment. The federal grants are limited to new plantations, inconsistent with its carbon scheme, including replanting options.

The WA government should consider improving its scheme to include more cost-effective, community-friendly landowner-based options, and it should address the fire risks.

Most ventures of this scale would need to have a cost/benefit analysis, consultation program and assessment before being given the go-ahead by an independent review.

It appears none of this was done before the government charged ahead. 

The investment will be applauded as we need more trees for various benefits.

But it is important to undertake the planning needed to minimise the costs and adverse impacts of the program.

The federal program could also be improved by ensuring that any broadscale plantations approved under its scheme are adequately planned to address community interests and expanding the land to include the same categories as the carbon plantations.

The 2019-20 Australian Bushfires resulted in a devastating loss of biodiversity. According to an ABARES report published yesterday, Australia could soon enter a new EL Niño weather pattern.
Last month, Wood Central exclusively reported on the elevated fire risk in Western Australia following a survey of pastoral conditions by WA Forester Roger Underwood.
Why the rush?

WA’s plantation resources have been in decline for at least a decade. Private pine plantations once clear felled have not been replanted, and the state government has clear felled the Gnangara pine plantations without effective replacement.

In addition, about 10,000 hectares of plantations have been lost to wildfire since 2010. 

Timber companies have considered it to be largely the state’s responsibility to supply it with wood and did little to invest in trees for their future. As a result, a large deficit in wood supply has emerged from 2030 to 2045.

All the action in planting trees today will have little benefit for the timber shortfall as they won’t mature until at least 2050.

It all seems too late, meaning we will be importing a lot of timber.

On the positive side, these trees will store significant amounts of carbon, which will be used as an offset in the energy transition over the next 30 years.


  • Gavin Butcher

    Gavin Butcher is a former director at the WA Forest Products Commission. With a career in plantation and native forest management spanning more than 25 years, he is a specialist in the strategic, analytical and financial fields of forestry management. Mr Butcher holds a Bachelor of Science in Forestry and has lectured at Edith Cowan University.


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