Is Now the Time for WA Government to Sell Pine Plantations?

Perhaps Victoria, QLD and SA have set good examples?

Mon 27 Nov 23


South Australia did it in 2012. Victoria managed it way back in 1998. Queensland in 2010.

And Tasmania completed its privatisation of plantations in 2017.

Only Western Australia and NSW have held onto their pine plantations and endeavoured to operate them as a commercial business.

Why have most states decided to relinquish these massive plantation estates when most have sold them to private industry? 

In WA they had been difficult to sell as the Forest Products Commission has admitted in its annual reports for the past 10 years. It is concerned that there isn’t enough wood to meet its contractual commitments. 

Selling the trees would require the shortfall to be brought to account as any new owner would never accept this liability.

More than 50 years ago the major drive to expand plantations occurred across all states, with financial assistance form the commonwealth. It was recognised that more timber was needed to sustain the supply of building materials in the future. At the time it was deemed necessary for government to take the lead. Softwood was a new industry, and the scale of the investment was large.

Native forests were cleared in those days to provide land for pines. Even as the industry developed, the government maintained its primary role as the plantation grower while timber processors focused on developing their plant, technology and markets.

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WA Forestry Minister, Jackie Jarvis (right) celebrating the $350 million Cook Labor Government investment to expand the softwood plantation timber industry. (Photo Credit: Jackie Jarvis Facebook page)

Fast forward 50 years, and despite the industry having fully matured the WA government continues to take responsibility for supplying the resource. It is now time to question whether the industry should take responsibility for its own resource, including the privatisation the existing trees.

The blue gum industry has been operating in total private ownership; there is no reason why the same shouldn’t work for pines.

There are good reasons for WA citizens to ask the question, “Is it time for the government to let go?”

At present growing trees looks like a poor investment. This year the FPC is predicting it will provide an unimpressive return of -5.7% (that’s right minus 5.7%!) on our equity on the forestry business. While this is going on the state government is ploughing $350 million into expanding this poor business operation.


To date the only public information on the government’s intentions comes from its press release on September 8, 2021. In the subsequent two years there hasn’t been a business plan, a cost-benefit analysis or even a substantial policy statement to explain the proposal.

Examination of the FPC’s website is enlightening about community activities (bike riding, painting competitions and grants) but no detail about its plans to invest $350 million.

Local government is not impressed. The shires of Nannup and Boyup Brook have raised serious concerns about adequacy of the fire provisions surrounding the plantations when being asked for development approval. Their concerns seem reasonable as it is their communities at risk and local volunteer brigades are the front line when it comes to first attack in many areas.

Five years ago, Nannup Shire residents suffered from a fire emerging from one of FPC’s plantations.

Community requirements would have been considered had there been some consultation through the publication of plantation development proposal for this significant investment.

Listening and responding to the comments and issues from councils, industry, community stakeholders and the public should be part of such a process.

Instead, the government’s response is to indicate that it doesn’t need shire approval, claiming it can gain exemption under the Public Works Act.

This suggestion should have everyone outraged.

All developers, including plantations developers, need to meet those requirements. Why should the government get a free pass? Isn’t the government a signatory to the Competition Principles Agreement? By avoiding accountability to local government FPC seems to be gaining a significant advantage over other timber investors.

Unfortunately, although $350 million is a lot of money and is an exciting prospect for the future of the softwood industry, most of it is being spent in buying dirt, not planting trees.

Since that announcement land prices have skyrocketed and are around $15000 per plantable hectare. At this price we will be lucky to see 25,000 ha, not the “at least 33,000 ha” originally announced. Other more cost-effective methods of achieving the plantation expansion have, apparently, been dismissed.

It is fair to ask what are the outcomes being sought from this massive investment? Additional sawlogs are urgently needed by industry now, but these new trees won’t provide any sawlog until after 2045, so we aren’t investing as a saviour for our current industry.

Growing these trees won’t employ many people but will face a significant fire and climate risk.

For the first 4½ years of the current government there was no interest in forestry. The area of government-controlled plantations reduced by about 4500 ha. Interest was only awakened after the rules for carbon credits from plantations changed. The federal government announced in December 2020 that it would allow existing plantations to qualify for carbon credits. 

We have seen from recent announcements by Premier Cook that WA will not meet greenhouse gas reduction targets, the only state to fail to achieve a reduction with our emissions having grown by 5%. There is little wonder that the opportunity to use the offsets through forestry investment was pursued with such fervour. It seems possible that the primary motive for these trees is the carbon they will produce, not the timber that may be harvested in the future.

There are other reasons why industry should push for independence from the government monopoly on timber supply. The treatment of the native forest industry is one case in point, when it becomes politically expedient the industry will be sacrificed; it’s too small to be valued. Similar things have happened to plantations in the past. 

When the dropping water table on the Gnangara Mound was causing consternation, pine trees were made the scapegoat, even though the primary concerns were the public and private abstraction and reduced rainfall.

Contracts were put in place and the Gnangara wood was sold to supply the Wesbeam factory … then once harvesting started concerns over Carnaby’s cockatoo emerged and there was again an outcry as too many trees were being felled.

As a result, some of the trees (that have been sold) are now to be retained … leaving the industry short of timber.

It’s time for the government to look at other instruments to encourage plantation forestry in WA and follow the example of eastern Australia. It’s now time to pass the pine plantation baton onto the private sector and, with government support, let it take control of its own destiny.


  • 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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