Opinion: It is time for the WA Government to let go of our pine plantations

Gavin Butcher Countryman
A pine plantation.
Camera IconA pine plantation. Credit: Laurie Benson

South Australia did it in 2012.

Victoria managed it back in 1998, Queensland in 2010, Tasmania in 2017.

Only WA and NSW have held on to their pine plantations as commercial businesses.

Why have most States decided to relinquish these massive estates…and realised significant financial windfalls through privatisation?

More than 50 years ago across Australia governments took the lead in expanding plantations with financial assistance form the Commonwealth.

Softwood was a new industry and the scale of the investment was large.

Even as the industry developed, the Federal Government maintained its primary role as the plantation grower while timber processors focused on developing their plant, technology and markets.

Fast forward 50 years, and despite the industry having fully matured, the WA Government continues to take responsibility for supplying the wood.

It is now time to question whether the industry should take this responsibility, including the privatisation of 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 Forest Products Commission is predicting that it will provide an unimpressive return of -5.7 per cent (that’s right — minus 5.7 per cent) 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. Why?

The only public information on the Government’s plans 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 the fire provisions surrounding the plantations when being asked for development approval.

Their concerns seem reasonable — their communities are 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.

The lack of a planning process means no consultation and concerns from councils, industry, community stakeholders and the public have not been heard.

Instead, the Government’s response indicates it doesn’t need Shire approval, claiming exemption under the Public Works Act.

This suggestion should have everyone outraged. All developers need to follow the rules.

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, it is gaining a significant advantage over other timber investors.

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

Since the announcement land prices have skyrocketed to around $15,000 per plantable hectare, reducing the achievement from “at least 33,000ha” to 25,000ha.

Other more cost-effective methods of achieving the plantation expansion have been dismissed.

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 sawlogs until after 2045, so they aren’t the 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 four and a half years of the current State Government it had no interest in forestry.

During this time, the area of State Government-controlled plantations reduced by 4500ha.

The Commonwealth announced in December 2020 that it would allow existing plantations to qualify for carbon credits, seemingly awakening WA’s interest.

Recent announcements by Premier Roger Cook said WA will not meet greenhouse gas reduction targets, the only State to fail to achieve a reduction.

There is little wonder that the opportunity to use the offsets through forestry was pursued with such fervour.

It’s possible that the primary motive for these trees is the carbon they will sequester, not the wood.

Industry should seek independence from the Government timber monopoly.

The treatment of the native forest industry is one case in point, when it becomes politically expedient it was sacrificed.

Similar things have already happened to plantations.

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

The wood was sold under contract but once harvesting started concerns over Carnaby’s cockatoos emerged and there was again an outcry.

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

It’s time for the State Government to change its methods for encouraging plantation forestry and follow eastern Australia — pass the pine plantation baton on to the private sector and, with government support, let it take control of its own destiny.

Gavin Butcher is a forester and a former Forest Products Commission director.

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