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Blackwood – A Tasmanian perspective It could be good news for New Zealand

Gordon Bradbury, New Zealand Tree Grower November 2013.

Since writing about blackwood production in Tasmania for the Tree Grower back in August 2006 things have gone from bad to worse. The global financial crisis and two more forestry agreements have come and gone, and the forest industry in this state is a shadow of what it was 20 years ago.

Blackwood sawlog production from state forests has been running at between 10,000 and 15,000 cubic metres a year for the past 17 years. But all this is about to change with the implementation of the Tasmanian Forest Intergovernmental Agreement 2013. The last review of the public blackwood resource by Forestry Tasmania in 1999 identified the sustainable blackwood sawlog resource as 8,500 cubic metres of saw logs a year.

This production was then predicted to increase, in about 2018, with the addition of approximately 250,000 cubic metres of logs from blackwood plantations established by Forestry Tasmania between 1992 and 1995. This plantation harvest was to be spread over a 20-year period, to then be followed by another 250,000 cubic metres from ‘fenced intensive blackwood’ state forest regrowth beginning in about 2034.

This second new resource was to be harvested over a 15-year period. However recent discussions with Forestry Tasmania indicate that −

  • Blackwood plantations have now been written off as a complete failure
  • The intensively-managed regrowth resource is not expected to become available until at least 2050.

Reduced yield

With the end of public old-growth eucalypt forest logging under the Tasmanian Forest Intergovernmental Agreement, blackwood log production will come almost entirely from the north-west swamps. The 1999 resource review estimated the sustainable yield from this area as approximately 6,700 cubic metres a year. My own understanding is that this is an overestimate and the real sustainable figure from the swamps is less than 4,000 cubic metres.

The other broadside to the blackwood industry which I was unaware of until recently, came in 2010. Forestry Tasmania officially classified its special timbers production activities, including blackwood, as ‘non- profit non-commercial’ subject to a massive taxpayer subsidy. This was also the year I completed my PhD at the University of Tasmania in blackwood genetics and wood quality and became a forest industry volunteer.

When Ian Nicholas last visited Tasmania in 2011 he inspired me to push for the establishment of a Tasmanian Blackwood Growers Cooperative under the reforms then being proposed. Blackwood is a common native tree on farms across northern Tasmania. There is a sizable existing blackwood resource, but most of it is unmanaged trees of poor form.

The best hope for this resource is the international tonewood market which has recently shown great interest in blackwood. There is also significant potential for Tasmanian farmers to grow more commercial blackwood in plantations, but unlike their New Zealand peers, most Tasmanian farmers have no knowledge of how to do this. The absence of market information on blackwood prices, along with demand and supply problems, means there is no incentive for farmers to invest in the blackwood industry.

The objectives of my Blackwood Growers Cooperative are to −

  • Help realise the commercial potential of the existing private blackwood resource and provide greater market transparency
  • Provide expertise and support for farmers to grow blackwood in commercial plantations
  • Build the blackwood industry to once again become a profitable Tasmanian commercial icon
  • Begin a selection and breeding program to improve blackwood timber quality and consistency.

Not successful

State forest policy, together with recent forest industry disasters and highly politicised debate around the forest industry, meant that my chances of success were never great. With no state government or industry support for my proposal, it failed to obtain any of the recent $100 million dollars of federal government funding.

Therefore the prospects for the blackwood industry in Tasmania are grim. Log volumes will soon decline dramatically, while continued taxpayer subsidies to Forestry Tasmania and under-pricing of blackwood logs will ensure that no Tasmanian farmer will invest in blackwood. The timber which has been Australia’s premier quality timber for the past 100 years will stop being produced in commercial volumes.

A review of the special timber resource is expected in the coming months. It is not known whether this will include a review of the blackwood resource. Certainly no change is expected in state forest policy to make blackwood commercial and profitable.

Good news

This is good news for New Zealand farmers growing blackwood. Interest in New Zealand blackwood will increase as production from Tasmania declines. Australian processors will soon be looking for alternative supplies.

New Zealand growers need to get organised and begin marketing their blackwood across the Tasman and then get the price and market signals working to encourage more planting.Tasmania’s folly will be New Zealand’s gain. In the meantime I will continue to promote my proposal for a Blackwood Growers Cooperative in the hope that common sense will eventually prevail.

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