Wood is a precious commodity – up there with water and whales.
But the flow of Australian wood, in the shape of prime grade sawlogs, has hit a brick wall, literally.
A nation-wide housing boom is threatened by the dual impact of labour and product shortages – and this includes engineered and non-engineered timber supplies – rising costs, competitive alternative building materials, fixed-price contracts and supply-chain issues … think the collapse of prominent Victorian home builder Porter Davis.
As such, building projects are being delayed with typical home builds now taking an additional 10-12 weeks to complete.
The significant timber shortage is expected to continue through 2023-24 with Australia to remain short on timber until 2035 and beyond.
Increasing timber production is one answer, but not a quick fix. As we all know, you can’t just grow a new timber plantation overnight.
Typically, these can take up to 25-30 years before harvest.
And where are those billion trees?
In September 2018, the federal government unveiled a plan to expand Australia’s timber plantations by one billion trees over a decade. Today, less than 1% of that goal has been achieved.
Through all of this, it is galling to learn that some timber growers in South Australia are continuing to export those prime grade sawlogs to who knows where …India, China?
Some growers, some quantities.
An industry observer in the state says this has been going on for a long time. Volumes of more than 2000 tonnes a week are waving a goodbye as they pass sawmills and wood processors on their way to the Port of Portland in Victoria. Yes, 2000 tonnes a week off overseas.
We can only wonder what the return ‘salute’ from industry to the hapless hauliers might be as they turn a forked road southwest to the sea.
Joining the bunfight, South Australian Timber Processors Association CEO David Quill says the main concern is for sawmillers who have been told there will be supply reductions in July this year with no alternatives suggested.
“The reason behind this reduction is, essentially, the ongoing inventory of the plantations and previous sales, whether they went to domestic or overseas markets, diminishing the availability of logs,” Mr Quill said.
“There is no doubt these exports have played a huge part in the supply issue.
Mr Quill said the state government could also assist in securing the future for sawmills by revisiting the lease agreement with OneFortyOne which was signed in 2012.
“I agree the government is limited by its amount of intervention, but limited intervention is better than no intervention,” he said.
“I also believe the government could revisit the lease agreement of the forest and look at potential clauses which could give the forest owners some flexibility; it is not set in stone and there is still hope for the two family-owned sawmills.”
He said the important thing people needed to realise was that trees continued to grow all the time and as the housing market eased, the supply of trees did also.
“This could give the potential for the release of more sawlog,” Mr Quill said.
“I do believe one of the sad things was that the Legislative Council inquiry into the timber industry wasn’t published before the government went into caretaker mode.
“I believe had it been published then things would have been looked at more favourably.”
Mr Quill said parties involved had spoken to previous and current state governments with the discussions indicating there was an opportunity for some relief from the situation.
“This is something that can be avoided, should be avoided and, I believe, could be avoided,” he said.
All of this comes with the proposed closure of native forest production in three of the five Labor states – Victoria, NSW and Western Australia – with the timber action plan still under review by the Palaszczuk government and industry.
South Australia Minister for Forestry Clare Scriven said there was a huge demand for timber nationally and internationally following the 2019-2020 bushfires in NSW and Victoria which had increased the pressure on timber supply.
This had led to intense competition for timber resources among home builders and bigger construction firms.
And has brought the clarion call: “Give us the wood and we’ll give you the homes.”