A thriving pulp and paper industry needs a guaranteed supply of water, electricity and suitable, cheap raw material. With abundant water, hydro power and millions of hectares of forests, Tasmania is well placed for such an industry. Early hardwood timbers were not as profitable as pulping material. Advances in technology changed this and Tasmania’s pulp & paper industry began to flourish from the late 1920’s.
Large forest ‘concessions’ to ensure continuous and consistent supply were needed to induce industry interests. This is the primary reason many places in the world do not have pulp and paper industries - an unwillingness to allocate large expanses of forest resources for the cheapest price possible. Tasmania had already established a concession system for forest produce without much public opposition and saw only benefit for the state in embracing the new industry.
The first concessions were issued in 1924, by 1940 the size of the operations began to worry the Conservator of forests. The pulp and fuelwood requirements of the new industry represented almost half the total timber cut on all Crown lands in Tasmania. In the 1950’s pulping materials were being sourced from areas of saw milling concessions to keep up with demand. Concessions from almost 1 million hectares of forests, totalling hundreds of thousands of tonnes of material had been given out to the pulp and paper industry by the 1960’s. This does not include private land that was also being harvested for both saw logs and pulp material.
An industry exporting woodchips to Japan developed in the 1970’s. The government at the time felt it would be good to transform ‘stagnant’ forests (ie old growth) into continuously productive stands of forests. Economic crisis of the 1970’s also contributed to these decisions as Tasmania was struggling economically, with high unemployment. On crown land during the 1970’s, the local pulp harvest expanded from 450,000 to 600,000 tonnes. The export industry from state forests went from nil to 1 million tonnes, on private land this number increased from 300,000 to 1.4 million tonnes. Concessions offered to the industry were from 18 to 80 years in duration. 60% of all logs felled were sent overseas as woodchips. Only 193 people per million tonnes of resources were employed for processing in woodchip mills, whereas 7000 people could have been employed in paper production. Obviously quick profits with the least amount of investment was most attractive at the time.
The effects of the woodchip industry, relatively low economic returns and the environmental controversy surrounding it are detailed in the reports of the inquiry into Woodchips and the Environment by the Senate Standing Committee. A massive volume of evidence was presented including The Vanishing Forests by the Environmental Law Reform Group of the University of Tasmania and The Fight for the Forests by R. and V. Routley, among many others. Needless to say there is far too much information for one blog to cover. Numerous cases of mismanagement, corruption and unsustainable practices unlike any other state in Australia were detailed and were largely ignored by the Government.
Today in the Styx Valley in Tasmania’s south-west, the world’s last great unprotected stands of old-growth Eucalyptus regnans are still being clear felled and burnt. Over 85% of Tasmania’s old-growth regnans forests are gone, it is estimated that fewer than 13000 hectares of these trees remain in their old-growth form. Up to 6000 ha are scheduled to be logged and most will end up as pulp for paper production. This is just one region in the state where questions are still being raised on the wisdom of clear felling and allocating forests thousands of years old for wood chipping.
Old growth and high conservation value areas were and are still being lost to the export woodchip industry, leading to the extinction and near extinction of many flora and fauna species endemic to Tasmania. Outside the protected areas, specialty timbers like Myrtle, Celery Top Pine, King Billy Pine, Leatherwood, Sassafras and even Huon Pine are often just left on the ground and burnt. These tree species (often many centuries old) are slowly being lost to the export woodchip industry. Some of these timbers are extremely rare and hold a high economic value. Many even in the timber industry are deeply concerned about the management and loss of these specialty timbers.
There are claims and counter claims as to the wisdom of converting Tasmania's forest into woodchips, but many feel so much has been lost, for so little, to benefit so few. If not for the woodchip export industry of the last 60 years, what kind of forests would we have now and what potential
would it have? On the flip side, what would the economic outcomes for Tasmania have been without it? We will never know. At the very least, what’s left should probably be managed much better than it has been.