Logged out: Queensland’s timber shortage as inaction sends supplies crashing
Flawed, out of date legislation and government inertia is grinding down the Queensland timber industry’s efforts to meet surging demand amid a frenzy to reach carbon reduction goals.
Timber Queensland CEO Mick Stephens.
Demand for timber is booming, forcing suppliers to consider privately held grazing land as one option to increase production.
Yet farmers say vegetation management laws make those plans a pipedream.
Timber Queensland CEO Mick Stephens says there’s more than two million hectares of “commercially viable” additional country across south-east Queensland alone suitable for forestry, a virtual blank canvas on which to plot the state’s future timber resources as soaring demand is expected to quadruple by 2050.
While some of these seemingly bonus swathes of land identified just happen to be on privately held farms, that in itself is no stumbling block, he says.
“With improvements, we could be doubling our current rate of production for this area alone,” Stephens says.
AgForce CEO Mike Guerin, whose organisation represents livestock producers and broadacre grain growers – some of the state’s biggest landholders – says it’s a proposal with very few downsides.
As far as co-locating cattle grazing and forestry is concerned, the science also backs the plan.
Graziers who keep their trees on pasture land, rather than clearing them for livestock, do far better financially and environmentally, a joint study by the Queensland Government’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Department of Environmental Science, along with the NSW Department of Primary Industries, the University of Queensland, Private Forestry Service Queensland and the Queensland Herbarium concluded last year.
Guerin says farmers want to plant more trees because they see the biodiversity benefits and soil erosion control, not to mention the financial incentives to sequester more carbon, potentially earn money from newly developed carbon markets and the final payment that’s made by forestry companies when the trees are harvested.
“A lot of young farmers like to plant trees under contract to forestry companies, because it’s like planting a superannuation fund into the ground,” Guerin says.
“At the end of their life cycle when they’re ready to harvest in 25 or 30-years’ time, they get a nice little pay cheque, just as they’re nearing their own retirement or handing over to the next generation.”
Limp political will
Harvested timber in Queensland comes from a variety of sources, with about half from managed plantations under private ownership, a small proportion of State forest and privately held farm country, mostly in southern Queensland.
From that resource Queensland is meeting 70 per cent of its own needs, about 1.3 million cubic metres of sawn timber a year, with the remainder imported.
Of the total 51.6 million hectares of country under native forest in Queensland, just 38,000 hectares, or 0.07 per cent, is currently harvested for timber.
But demand is expected to grow four-fold over the next 30 years, with post COVID interstate migration, regional housing booms and global supply chain disruptions causing short term, but severe demand spikes.
With the average commercially viable tree taking about three decades to mature to harvest, the race is now on to secure more land to meet peak demand in the coming years.
As Stephens explained to InQueensland recently during an interview at Timber Queensland’s head office at Kedron, establishing new plantations is tough, especially without government assistance – both financial and political – backed by the endorsement of public opinion.
Like the construction of dams, there’s a reservation to invest in projects perceived to be anathema to environmental interests and public amenity, especially when they come with high establishment costs and show zero returns for 30 years.
“Plantations in Queensland were set up in the 70s and 80s with government subsidies, deemed as a critical industry to ensure long term supply of timber,” Stephens says.
“Governments don’t subsidise these things anymore and so since the 90s growth in managed plantations has stagnated.”
Action plan gathers dust
While forests on farmland vary in quality and consistency, as documented in the report cited above, they represent an opportunity to deliver the timber industry more resource and farmers access to a more diversified income.
It’s why Stephens is keen to establish a more organised and professional ‘agri-forestry’ industry, one where graziers who are experts at managing cattle and pasture, also take a similar approach with their trees to maximise production and yield.
“Part of our goal is to educate the agricultural industry to be part of the solution,” he said.
“The economics is far better to retain forestry and grazing in tandem rather than clearing vegetation to grow pasture for grazing alone.”
Both Stephens and Guerin are in lockstep to pursue the goal more aggressively, but equally share frustrations with the State Government’s controversial vegetation management legislation.
Subjected to regular revision, the legislation still presents myriad regulatory barriers, Stephens says, with many of the provisions governing commercial forestry out of date and needing urgent review.
“So, the code itself is a barrier to accessing many commercial forest types, amid the general uncertainty that comes from having the codes under regular review and change,” he said.
He and Guerin are pushing for a specialised forestry, or Category F classification, within the management codes so that anyone planting trees for timber harvesting has certainty over the long term.
“Why would any producer at this point in time take the gamble of planting trees if they can’t be given the assurance they’ll be able to clear those trees for timber in 20 or 30 years’ time?” asks Guerin.
Last revised in 2018 following a turbulent 22-year history that has caused friction with farmers, the legislation that was first introduced by the Beattie Labor Government in 1999 and enacted in 2000 to limit land clearing, could now be preventing more trees from being planted.
Resources Minister Scott Stewart is adamant the legislation provides certainty for farmers and foresters, telling InQueensland that native forest practice can occur provided it complies with the self-assessable ‘Accepted Development Vegetation Clearing Code’, in place since 2014.
“The code allows for selective harvesting of native timber from regulated vegetation as part of an ongoing forestry business,” he said.
“It also allows for clearing activities that support forestry such as access tracks and timber log processing and loading areas, with requirements to protect environmental areas and values.”
But the government recognises it has a problem, with Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announcing a ‘timber action plan’ in November 2019 to be underpinned by a ‘timber advisory panel’ to support the industry’s long-term future.
Despite the rhetoric, there appears to be little urgency. Eighteen months later, and the panel is still to be assembled, causing angst among industry leaders like Stephens and allowing the LNP Opposition to pressure the government for answers.
Member for Gympie Tony Perrett asked Agriculture Minister Mark Furner in Parliament in April for an update on what progress had been made on the panel, including budgeted costs to move the announced plan forward.
Furner replied that an announcement would be made “in due course” and that the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries was still to complete a ‘scoping study’ into timber supply, including a review of forestry species currently captured in the legislation.
Demand through the roof
While the industry remains frustrated at the ongoing delays, the building industry, which drives demand, is signalling through its purchasing decisions that it won’t wait for supply issues to be resolved, especially as the drive towards carbon neutrality accelerates.
Lendlease is one company investing heavily in timber, leading the trend with their flagship project in King St, Bowen Hills, listed as Australia’s tallest office building using engineered timber.
According to Lendlease Building’s Queensland general manager Brad Protheroe, the benefits of engineered timber – effectively timber sheets glued together under high pressure – are extensive, including reduced waste, improved thermal performance and energy efficiency.
Australia’s tallest office building made from timber in Brisbane.
“It significantly reduces the carbon footprint of the building and the sustainably sourced timber is a fast-growing renewable resource,” he said.
There is also a growing body of evidence worldwide that using timber in building construction – called biophilic design – is associated with improved physical and mental wellbeing.
“The positive connection people have with wood as a natural material has the effect of increasing workplace satisfaction and wellbeing,” Protheroe said.
“Those in workplaces with a higher proportion of wood feel more connected to nature and rate their working environment far more positively. These people have lower stress levels, higher concentration and improved overall mood.”
Lendlease is not alone. The Garner Vaughan Group has just completed in Brisbane’s Kangaroo Point Australia’s tallest residential building made from timber.
According to the company’s website, the building will replace 1170 cubic metres of concrete and blockwork for timber, saving 3744 tonnes of carbon, equivalent to removing 700 petrol cars off the road for a year or powering a home with electricity for more than 300 years.
“The outlook for our industry long term is great,” Stephens says.
“Demand for building materials is strong and we have the lowest carbon footprint of any building material used.
“We’re very climate friendly – we need more trees for construction, not less.”
Queensland local government is also on board. Gympie and Fraser Coast councils have adopted ‘wood encouragement’ policies into their procurement framework, meaning companies tendering for building work are encouraged to include timber design as part of their offer.
The acute shortage of timber in the face of growing demand led Stephens last week to issue further communication to media about the timber industry’s short to medium term plans to shore up supply, including technology upgrades and mill expansions.
But it’s long-term, legislative reform and political support that will make the biggest difference.
“This unprecedented surge in housing activity has shown how critical and important timber really is for the economy, given the prevalence of timber framed houses, and timber cladding and flooring products in our homes,” he said.
“Timber Queensland and other industry leaders have consistently called on governments to support timber industry supply chains and better incentivise new tree plantations so we can keep up with rising population growth and long-term demand.”