A bold cypress pine venture is looking to establish productive plantations in Queensland’s Western Downs on land considered not viable for agriculture.
The development aims to bridge a widening gap in future timber supply with a plantation resource that thrives in a low rainfall belt.
The initiative is driven by the three ‘pioneers’ of the scheme – Associate Professor David Lee, Forest Industries Research Centre, University of the Sunshine Coast (project leader), Greg Phipps Eco Cottages at Cooroy, and Victor Gersekowski, a Cecil Plain’s cypress sawmiller.
Softwood supply in crisis with no investment in forest plantations
Forest plantations currently supply 80% of wood used in manufacturing. But despite current demand and rises in timber prices, investment in plantations across Australia is at a standstill.
“Softwood supply for the building industry is in crisis,” Greg Phipps said.
“Environmental policy is driving demand for more trees in rural landscapes to sequester carbon, improve water quality, reduce soil erosion and provide biodiversity habitat,” he said.
“The long-term demand for timber is projected to grow through building demand, renewable, biophilic design and low-carbon benefits.”.
The cypress timber industry is relatively small by Australian and international standards, based mainly on white cypress pine (Callitrs glaucophylla), a native conifer with distinctive timber properties, an innovative alternative with natural termite-resistant qualities.
White cypress was traditionally sold on the domestic market and regarded by the building industry as a relatively low-value product, mainly due to poor marketing and variable product quality.
The project will establish Australia’s first cypress plantation
There are no cypress plantations in Australia, so this project aims to establish a novel cypress pine plantation in the Maranoa region stretching from the Carnarvon Ranges in the north to the NSW border, and then from Mungallala in the west to about 20 km east of Miles.
The main towns include Roma, Condamine, St George and Goondiwindi.
The native timber industry in the region focuses on the harvest and milling of cypress pine which contributes significantly to the local economies of Injune, Roma, Mungallala, Surat and Mitchell.
Historically, much of the private resource has had little forest management input. Silvicultural regimes for cypress forests have been developed principally for Crown estates and there has been no parallel application of silvicultural regimes on private land.
In the past, large volumes of cypress pine were harvested from private land. However, this has declined over many years. Future harvest levels from private land are also uncertain due to extensive land clearing for agriculture.
For the industry to maintain and potentially expand levels of harvest it will have to look for land other than Crown land and a stimulus to encourage private landholders to manage their forest areas for timber production.
Few landholders in the sub-humid zone have seriously practiced farm forestry. Most capitalise on the available standing timber when the economic need arises and fail to adequately manage their forest in the interim period, substantially decreasing long-term productivity and quality.
Of a total area of about 4.1 million ha dominated by cypress pine in Queensland and NSW, about 1.3 million ha is on freehold land. While much of this is currently low in productivity the potential freehold resource is quite significant.
Cypress pine could drive greater engagement with private landowners
Cypress pine utilisation in Australian buildings is less than 1% despite its abundance and wide geographic distribution in Australia.
“There are now compelling reasons for many private landholders to take a second look at forest management and for a cypress processing industry to support this,” Professor David Lee said.
“The cypress industry is reliant on Crown resources in Queensland and New South Wales where harvesting and varying degrees of forest management for timber production have been practiced for up to 100 years,” he said.
Privately-owned resources on freehold land contribute to the annual cut, more so in Queensland than NSW. However, this has recently declined and is likely to continue to decline.
In most cases, decreased harvest levels can be attributed to either loss of the resource through tree clearing for agriculture purposes, more recently in Queensland, or reduced productivity in remaining stands from lack of management.
Current research by Professor Lee focuses on the domestication of species for plantation development, breeding improved varieties, wood property characterisation, and carbon sequestration of eucalypt and pinus tree species for plantations in NSW and Queensland.
During the last five years he has refereed 30 journal papers, two book chapters and numerous reports and conference papers. He has also managed over $15 million in research funding since 2000.
Eco Cottages has also worked with Dr Rob McGavin, research facility and project manager at the DAF Salisbury facility in Brisbane, and Mick Stephens, CEO, of Timber Queensland, the peak state industry body.
DAF Salisbury has undertaken research and development on a range of wood products since the early 1990s.
First commercial production of cypress pine plywood
This R&D also includes another breakthrough project at Salisbury. Last month saw the first commercial production of cypress pine plywood.
“This has to be the biggest innovation in the cypress industry for many decades,” Dr McGavin said.
“As far as I am aware, cypress pine has never been able to be rotary peeled, preventing the manufacture of engineered wood products such as plywood and LVL,” he said.
“This is due mainly to the small log size and propensity to split, characteristics that limit the use of traditional veneering equipment.”
But Dr. McGavin said adopting spindleless veneering technologies, a major research focus of the DAF research team for over a decade, had opened many opportunities for under-utilised resources to be more efficiently processed, including cypress pine.
This included semi-industrial scale processing trials at DAF Salisbury and pilot commercial-scale trials with project partner Big River Group, based at Grafton, NSW.