Despite a rising reliance on imported timber, greater use of wood products to replace plastics and more pressure on landholders to grow vegetation to absorb atmospheric carbon, our national forestry estate is shrinking fast.
Australia's plantation area is on a worrying downward trajectory, declining by more than 250,000 hectares in the past eight years, according to the Australian Forest Product Association.
The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences estimated the national plantation estate contracted to 1.7 million hectares in 2021-22 - a reduction of more than 28,000ha in one year.
That figure does not include big areas of regrowth in state-owned native forests which are no longer harvested.
Adding further to the timber industry's stresses, Victoria and Western Australia have banned native forest timber harvesting from the end of this year.
"This continued decline in Australia's plantation estate is extremely concerning," said acting chief executive officer of the Australian Forest Products Association, Natasa Sikman.
The AFPA highlighted demand for timber had grown so much that plantation forests were being harvested younger and the total area of managed trees was subsequently on a steady decline.
"Collectively, the industry, federal and state governments and other decision and policy makers need to work together to get more timber trees planted for the future," Ms Sikman said
Timber imports for the furniture and construction industries are now worth more than $6 billion a year.
Up to 25 per cent of the wood needed to build Australian houses is now sourced overseas.
Australia also imports all its white paper products such as photocopy paper because insufficient timber is available to supply the Maryvale paper mill's production needs in Victoria's Gippsland, which halted white paper production this year.
The forest products association said reliance on imports would rise significantly more given the federal government alone hoped to build 1.2m new houses in the next five years, in addition to private sector housing demand growth.
Although some former plantation areas had transitioned to other land use in the past decade and recent bushfires had destroyed some areas of mature trees, the peak industry body said the main reason for a shrinking forestry area was insufficient new plantings keeping pace with the industry's long term growth needs.
It said more could be done to reward producers for the carbon sequestration benefits timber plantations and on-farm forestry provided so young trees could capture carbon dioxide and and retain it for decades after being harvested when mature.
"Countries such as the United Kingdom are including timber use in their net zero strategy," Ms Sikman said.
A key element of the British strategy was to boost public demand for sustainably sourced timber through procurement policies and identifying barriers for timber use.
"An increased plantation estate alongside a strong native sector will also be critical for Australia to meet its own net zero goals and contribute to the global climate change fight," she said.
Growing trees to store carbon and harvesting should be promoted as part of the carbon solution in the same way other vegetation and land management initiatives were encouraged for carbon sequestration.
Given global demand for timber and wood fibre products was forecast to quadruple by 2050, the AFPA believed Australia should be building a timber export industry, rather than importing from regions with less rigorous harvest regulations and environmental management priorities.
However, as Australian forestry plantations typically took 25 to 35 years to grow before they were fully ready for harvest, the industry was fearful about the looming shortfall.
ABARES' data showed 2021-22 did record a small 2300ha increase in Australia's new plantation area, almost evenly split between hardwood and softwood species, but those new plantings were dwarfed by harvest consumption.
Severe bushfires 18 months earlier had also reduced timbered areas in southern NSW and Victoria, with the NSW South West Slopes alone losing 45,000ha, or 40pc of the region's plantation trees.
Replanting had since taken place, but mature timber supplies remained much reduced.
Ms Sikman said the AFPA appreciated the federal government's commitment to plant one billion new production trees and signs of some improved corporate interest were positive, too.
However, more investment, supported by state governments and Canberra, was needed to reverse the plantation estate decline and deliver more timber in the construction sector.
Superannuation companies have been among those showing interest in forestry assets.
Earlier this month the $120 billion UniSuper fund bought one of Australia's largest plantation hardwood estates in partnership with Britain's Pension Protection Fund and Dutch asset manager APG.
The three acquired the 170,000-hectare plantation forestry estate in Tasmania from Australian-based natural capital investor, New Forests, plus the state's largest private forest management company, Forico.
The estate consists of about 90,000 hectares of productive plantation forest, two wood processing mills, a seedling nursery, fibre technology laboratory, and port access via a freehold facility at Long Reach, Tasmania.
New Forests will be retained to provide investment management services.
Forico calculated the estate had sequestered more than 123m tonnes of carbon dioxide and the plantation rotation was expected to sequester a further 24.7m tonnes before harvest, then be replanted for another rotation.
Forico chief executive officer, Ange Albertini, said, attracting and retaining long term equal investment partners in UniSuper, PPF and APG would help to secure a prosperous future for the local forestry industry.
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