Timber industry must add value

Recent wildfires have highlighted the fragility of Australia’s forest resources.

The latest wildfires to hit southeast Australia have pummeled the domestic timber industry. As John Power reports, timber production processes need a complete overhaul to remain viable.

Australia’s timber industry is under threat from poor political oversight, wildfires, disease, short-term commercial interests, as well as burgeoning insurance costs.

And if our wildlife had a voice, it would say, ‘Enough is enough.’

As it stands, our timber industry lacks strategic vision to address long-term building and environmental needs. 

Clearly, as both native and plantation forests burn at unprecedented levels, the local industry has a stark choice: embrace a different, more ‘value-added’ philosophy to tree selection, maturation and harvesting; or collapse.

Statistics regarding tree losses from the recent wildfires are still preliminary, and further losses are likely – summer is not yet over – but at the time of writing it appears some six million hectares of forest has been destroyed along the eastern seaboard. Of course, not all of this forest has direct relevance to our timber industry, but, as reported widely in mid-January, as much as 40 per cent of Victoria’s state forests specifically earmarked for harvesting under the stewardship of the forestry agency VicForests, might have been burnt out. Similarly, NSW has incurred substantial losses of high-grade trees destined for the timber industry.

Victoria and NSW are the two main producers of timber in the country, accounting for almost half of national production. Most harvested timber nationally comes from plantations, as seen in the table1 below. 

In 2017-18 Australia had softwood plantations covering a total area of 1,037,000ha, and hardwood plantations of 896,000ha. Total areas under plantation have actually been in decline in the last decade. New plantations nationally have fallen away to almost nothing: just 200ha were planted in 2016-17.  

In 2016-17 most harvested plantation hardwood (94 per cent), and 37 per cent of all plantation softwood, was chipped and exported as pulpwood; only 61 per cent of plantation softwood was used to produce saw logs and veneer timbers for applications in the timber industry2.

Australia is a net importer of wood products in dollar terms, with most imports being highly processed products like paper and plywood, and most exports being lower-value products such as woodchips and roundwood.

What are the immediate impacts of the recent fires on hardware-based timber sales? To date the timber industry has been largely reluctant to comment on the immediate or long-term consequences of the fires in relation to security of supply, pricing or product mix.

However, given the 30-year history of warnings about climate change, as well as the predictability of population growth and increased building requirements, it is fair to ask, ‘Has the local timber industry been the maker of its own demise?’

If we consider Victoria, for instance, it is noteworthy that state-owned timber resources were privatised more than 20 years ago by the Kennett Government on the basis that private operators would be better placed than government managers to meet ongoing public demand. Hansard records of Victorian parliamentary debate in April 1998 reveal the naivety of politicians’ expectations:

* “If we can treble the production of softwoods in Victoria we will go a long way towards meeting Australia’s requirements – bearing in mind that Australia is a net importer of timber, including softwoods – and by the year 2020 we should be a net exporter of softwoods, and it is hoped a net exporter of processed softwoods.” (Sheryl Garbutt.)

Similarly,

* “The objective of the State Government is to treble the plantation area by the year 2020. The bill [Victorian Plantations Corporation (Amendment) Bill] will go a long way towards achieving that because the government is introducing competition into public plantation forestry.” (Antony Plowman.)

Obviously, such dreams were hogwash, as the above data shows. On the contrary, since privatisation the Victorian industry has lost the authority to dictate longer and more geographically varied harvesting schedules to produce high-quality, construction-grade timber rather than pulpwood; failed to create a systematised approach to optimal species selection; and reached a point where the only way of securing ongoing local saw wood supply is to (a) make further incursions into native forests – surely a political impossibility in light of the trauma that the latest wildfires have inflicted on the wider environment, and a violation of recent Victorian Government commitments to phase out all logging of native forests by 2030 – or (b) increase imports.

Incredibly, the NSW government recently announced plans to privatise its own state forestry resources, though privateers might consider the investment too risky in light of the latest fires and the threat of similar future catastrophes.

Solution: Add value

Engineered timber products will only become more popular in response to declining natural timber resources. (Photo courtesy Frame Australia.)

One might argue that a short-term approach to Australian forestry has been a commercial inevitability, particularly in relation to hardwood plantations – it is natural for investors to opt for a quick, high-rotation harvest rather than wait for a potentially higher-value yield many decades later… after all, with each passing year the associated risks of fire, drought, erratic temperatures and disease only increase.

In such circumstances, and taking note of the current lost generation of new plantations, it seems fair to admit that Australia is incapable of supporting a long-term hardwood plantation sector delivering building-grade timber.

The softwood scene is slightly better off, but still at risk of ongoing declines as investors minimise commercial risks and replace plantations with other land uses such as farming.

There is one ray of sunshine on the forestry horizon, which is the prospect of adding value to existing plantation timbers with the help of new technologies. Significant research is talking place internationally into ways of using juvenile trees, for instance, to create engineered timber products with ‘aged hardwood’ performance. Companies working in this space include Melbourne-based 3RT Holding (www.3rt.com.au), which has spent years perfecting engineered products that have the look, feel and behaviour of mature tropical hardwoods.

Furthermore, taking such technologies to their next logical level, increasing numbers of construction companies are using engineered timber building products in offsite (modular) building systems. The goal of these systems is to prefabricate as much of a building as possible offsite, and then assemble the parts into a completed structure later. For more information on this technology in Australia, consider attending the upcoming ‘Timber Offsite Construction 2020’ conference, organised by Frame Australia, to be held in Melbourne from June 16-17 2020. Visit: www.timberoffsiteconstruction.com  

These kinds of construction processes maximise efficiencies in controlled environments, and marry engineered wood products with premium prefabrication techniques to make building projects faster, leaner and less energy-intensive.

Of course, a more extreme solution to the travails besetting Australia’s timber industry is to bypass timber or engineered timber products altogether and use synthetic products or metal alternatives.

Australian Hardware Journal first brought Modwood engineered products (www.modwood.com.au) to readers’ attention over 15 years ago, and the firm is still producing increasingly popular decking products that replace traditional timbers.

It is also interesting to note the findings of a 2018 report into builders’ preferred construction framing materials3, which observed the increasing use of steel framing in Class 1 (residential detached dwellings) projects in Australia over the past five years. One can only assume steel and double brick constructions will gain further prominence in coming years.

Footnotes

1. Derived from data in Australian Forest and Wood Products Statistics, Department of Agriculture and Water Resources ABARES, Sep. and Dec. Quarters 2017, May 2018.

2. Australian Forest and Wood Products Statistics, Department of Agriculture and Water Resources ABARES, Sep and Dec Quarters 2017, May 2018.

3 ‘Framing and Materials Use in Residential Construction’, prepared for Forest Wood Products Australia by Australian Construction Insights, September 2018.