Category Archives: Management

Pruning blackwood

Here’s a couple of blackwood pruning questions from David in South Gippsland, Victoria.

Example 1

How would you tackle this one?

Cootes1

That’s an easy one David!

Read the Blackwood Growers Handbook Pages 55-60.

You have at least 2 clear options on this tree – the dominant on the left or the dominant on the right.

Blackwoods have an amazing ability to straighten up if you encourage them with good pruning.

Be brave!

PS. I should mention that Spring is the time to prune blackwoods. This gives the trees a whole growing season to begin healing the pruning wounds.

Example 2:

I think a deer might have got at this one

Cootes2

Looks like it!

The tree is fundamentally compromised from a quality wood production point of view.

I think with this one I would prune it to ground level and let the blackwood coppice. Then after a year select the best coppice shoot.

Try and get some venison sausages!!

Cheers.

Notes on West coast (NZ) blackwoods

IanBrown

New Zealand blackwood grower and co-author of the blackwood growers handbook Ian Brown has posted a useful and detailed update on his view of current blackwood management. It makes for thoughtful reading for current and prospective blackwood growers.

Here’s the handbook:

http://www.nzffa.org.nz/farm-forestry-model/species/blackwood/#Blackwood handbook

Here’s the update:

http://www.nzffa.org.nz/nzffa-member-blogs/ian-browns-blog/notes-on-west-coast-blackwoods/

I have two comments on Ian’s notes:

Firstly on the issue of blackwood growth rate and wood quality.

Certainly current research shows that growth rate has little to no impact on blackwood wood quality in terms of heartwood colour and basic density.

But my PhD research showed that blackwood wood quality can vary enormously from tree to tree. This is supported by numerous other studies, and is shown to be mostly genetically based.

So if you want good quality wood from plantation blackwood you need to plant good quality genetic stock.

Unfortunately we don’t yet have a blackwood selection and breeding program.

Fortunately the incidence of poor wood quality genes is relatively low.

Also note that research shows there is no correlation between heartwood colour and wood basic density.

Secondly on the issue of pruning height.

Pruning height will obviously affect the final value of the crop and in a big way since most of the value is in the clear pruned log.

Where the site dictates that you can only prune to 4 metres so be it.

But a fully stocked blackwood plantation of 200 trees with an average tree diameter of 60cm dbh pruned to 6 metres will have approximately 300 cubic metres of clear grade premium blackwood per hectare. Only prune to 4 metres and the volume of clear grade blackwood comes down to 215 cubic metres per hectare a reduction of 28%!!

Whilst you have the trees growing you may as well get the most value out of them that you can.

Thanks to Ian Brown for posting his comments.

Draft TWWHA Management Plan Representation

Tasmanian State forest industry policy continues to be highly politicised, divisive, destructive and costly to taxpayers.

The Draft Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area Management Plan is just such a case in point with the plan by Government to start logging the WHA for special timbers. I wouldn’t care if it was gold or diamonds. The idea is just rubbish.

Here’s my submission to the Plan review. It’s not at all complementary. I could have said a lot more but this will do for beginners.

Cheers!

DTWWHAMP

Dear Project Team,

http://dpipwe.tas.gov.au/conservation/tasmanian-wilderness-world-heritage-area/new-tasmanian-wilderness-world-heritage-area-management-plan

Special Species Timbers

As a forester and member of the forest industry for the past 35 year my representation is entirely confined to the issue of special species timbers harvesting as it is mentioned in the DTWWHAMP.

I will make my representation as clear and concise as possible since the issue of special timbers in Tasmania is so hopelessly clouded by confusion, passion and misguided policy and ideology.

It’s time for Tasmania to get real! Forestry (including special timbers) is business. It’s about commerce and profits. It is not community service or the provision of Centrelink services. And it is certainly not about wedge politics and crony capitalism.

1. The first mention of special timbers in the DTWWHAMP is on page 28. Special timbers harvesting is listed as an allowed activity in Conservation Areas and Regional Reserves.

So why is special timbers harvesting listed as a sustainable use in Conservation Areas, but only a controlled use in Regional Reserves? How are sustainable use and controlled use defined? Why the difference in use between the two reserve types? What other natural resources besides special timbers can be used in these reserve classes, or are special timbers the only resources available for use?

 

Reserve Class Purpose of Reservation

 

Conservation Area The protection and maintenance of the natural and cultural values of the area of land and the sustainable use of the natural resources of that area of land including special species timber harvesting.
Regional Reserve Mineral exploration and the development of mineral deposits in the area of land, and the controlled use of other natural resources of that area of land, including special species timber harvesting, while protecting and maintaining the natural and cultural values of that area of land.

 

2. The second mention of special species timbers is on page 74 where the zones where special species timber harvesting is allowed are listed – all zones except Visitor Services Zones.

Activity Visitor Services Zone Recreation Zone Self-Reliant Recreation Zone Remote Recreation Zone
Extraction of special species timber (in regional reserves and conservation areas only. Not including Huon pine salvage from the Gordon River area) Prohibited Permitted by authority or a licence issued by the Minister in accordance with the NPRMA Permitted by authority or a licence issued by the Minister in accordance with the NPRMA Permitted by authority or a licence issued by the Minister in accordance with the NPRMA

 

3. The third and final mention of special species timbers in the DTWWHAMP is in section 3.6.2 on page 81 where the main discussion on special timbers harvesting is located.

3.6.2 Huon Pine Salvage and Special Species Timber

The salvage of Huon pine from the shoreline of Macquarie Harbour pre-dates the declaration of the TWWHA. The activity is permitted under a longstanding arrangement between the PWS and Forestry Tasmania. Most of the timber originates from the Gordon River and is sourced from trees that were cut down many decades ago during the height of the pining activities in the western rivers that are now in the TWWHA. Salvage operations, which occur mostly in response to flooding in the Gordon River catchment, make an important contribution to supplies of this rare and valuable timber, and are important for the economy of the region. Only commercial salvage is permitted and it must be in accordance with the PWS-Forestry Tasmania agreement, which is reviewed every five years. Salvage operations will be considered by the RAA process and any other applicable assessment and approval process.

The objectives of regional reserves and conservation areas, as set out in Schedule 1 of the NPRMA, provide for the harvesting of special species timber. Special species timber is defined within the Forestry (Rebuilding the Forestry Industry) Act 2014 and includes blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon), myrtle (Nothofagus cunninghamii), celery-top pine (Phyllocladus aspleniifolius), sassafras (Atherosperma moschatum), huon pine (Lagarostrobos franklinii), silver wattle (Acacia dealbata) and timber of any other species or timber with particular properties as may be prescribed through the associated regulations. Extraction of special species timbers will be considered through the RAA process and any other assessment and approval process or applicable legislative process.

 

Over 50% of section 3.6.2 discusses in the most general terms the current salvage of Huon pine from the shores of Macquarie Harbour. A number of unsubstantiated claims are made about this resource and its importance/significance. No supporting data is provided. These operations are undertaken in accordance with some PWS-FT agreement document. This agreement document is not referenced nor is it available to the public. Why not?

The remaining 100 words of section 3.6.2 tell us that special timbers harvesting is provided for under Schedule 1 of the NPRMA, and will be considered through the RAA and any other assessment and approval process as required!! Relevant special species available for harvesting are listed, along with any other species or timber with particular properties.

It is difficult to imagine a more opened ended and uninformative a statement as this. It serves no practical purpose whatsoever.

The 2014 Forestry Tasmania Draft Forest Management Plan provides us with a bit more information about special timbers management in Tasmania:

“The Forestry (Rebuilding the Forest Industry) Act requires the Minister for Resources to cause a special species management plan to be made before October 2017. The special species plan will specify the land to which it applies, the supply level of each species of special species timber in relation to the land, and take into account the management of conservation and cultural heritage values of the land.

Forestry Tasmania indicates its planned annual supply of special species timbers in its Three Year Wood Production Plan, which is updated annually. Forestry Tasmania’s future management of special species timbers from PTPZ land will be informed by the special species management plan when it becomes available.” Forestry Tasmania will not be involved in any way with any special timbers harvesting outside the PTPZ.

In other words special timbers management in Tasmania is in chaos! Forestry Tasmania is scaling down its special timbers commitments in line with its diminished capacity to supply. And a Special Species Management Plan won’t be available until the next Tasmanian State election in 2017!

The DTWWHAMP contains no statement of Government special timbers policy, no guarantees of any assessment, management or performance standards at all. Nothing but silence. It appears that this major change in TWWHA management is to be taken entirely on trust.

In summary the DTWWHAMP tells us virtually nothing about the existing special timbers salvage that does occur in the WHA, and tells us even less about the planned expansion of special timbers logging in the TWWHA. Given the bitter, long and ongoing conflict in Tasmania around the so-called commercial management of public native forests the special timbers provisions within the DTWWHAMP are entirely inadequate.

The subject of special timbers harvesting is of such enormous significance to the future of Tasmanias Wilderness World Heritage Area it is worthy of an entire chapter in the DTWWHAMP in its own right it.

As an absolute minimum if special timbers logging must go ahead (against all logic and reason) it should not proceed until the management plan and harvest operations have received Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certification, to guarantee forest operations are of the highest possible standards (as befitting a World Heritage Area) and meet with clear majority community support.

Completely inadequate is the only way to describe the special timbers provisions of the DTWWHAMP. Not at all worthy of the high standards of the World Heritage Convention. A thorough and complete rewrite is recommended.

 

Yours sincerely,

 

Dr. Gordon Bradbury

Tasmanian Blackwood Growers Cooperative.

Summary of Stakeholder Submissions and Responses

seeking_your_input_blog_banner_2014

My apologies for such a long blog but the ongoing fiasco of Tasmanian State forest policy and practice continues to dominate the commercial and political landscape.

I wish it were different!

As part of the application process for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification Forestry Tasmania recently released a summary of issues raised by stakeholders and Forestry Tasmania’s responses to these issues. These two reports are available from their website.

http://www.forestrytas.com.au/topics/2014/11/forestry-tasmania-s-forest-management-plan-now-available

As usual my comments relate to Forestry Tasmania’s commercial management and performance, as well as to special timber issues. These are discussed in the report Forest Management Plan – Public Summary of Stakeholder Submissions and Responses (103kb PDF).

Commercial management

The first thing that is immediately obvious in the response documents is the ongoing absence of any serious discussion around commercial management and performance. There is not even a section in the document with the heading Commercial Management and Performance.

I find this utterly extraordinary. Actually I find it quite offensive!!

At a time when Tasmania faces a budgetary crisis and we are sacking teachers and nurses and dropping other essential public services, we continue to subsidise Forestry Tasmania. A Government Business Enterprise wasting scarce taxpayer’s money getting native forest products to market!

This is apparently more important than our children’s education or the health of the community!

It also says a lot about the lack of corporate governance by the State Government and the State Parliament.

Clearly FT does not regard taxpayers as important stakeholders. Also not enough Tasmanian taxpayers are visiting their local FT offices and complaining about this ongoing waste! Common people! Get to it!!

Here’s some stakeholder comments on commercial matters:

  • A common comment was that insufficient consideration was given to production and economic considerations. Some stakeholders were concerned that there was an over emphasis on environmental and social considerations compared to economic considerations in the draft plan.
  • Some stakeholders commented that Forestry Tasmania needs to be financially self sufficient and return a profit to its shareholders.

 

I couldn’t agree more with these stakeholder comments. And here’s FT’s response:

Positive financial outcomes are one of six strategic objectives now identified in the released Plan. Forestry Tasmania will implement the systems and strategies outlined in the Plan to meet the other five objectives, while also seeking to meet the objective of achieving positive financial outcomes. Forestry Tasmania’s Ministerial Charter details the activities that the Government expects us to undertake. In addition, Forestry Tasmania also produces a Statement of Corporate Intent, which is available on our website and describes the organisation’s financial performance targets as agreed by its Board and shareholder Ministers.

I find this response pretty pathetic especially within the context of the State budget crisis. Both the Ministerial Charter and the Statement of Corporate Intent are incredibly lightweight documents. You can find them here:

http://www.forestrytas.com.au/forest-management/policies

and

http://www.forestrytas.com.au/forest-management/forestry-tasmania-ministerial-charter

They provide little information on how FT is going to improve its commercial management and performance. I would think that given the ongoing State budget crisis and need for taxpayer support, that these matters would form a major part of the Forest Management Plan. Instead the FMP ignores these important issues.

Clearly the stakeholder concerns expressed above are in fact correct and have yet to be dealt with.

Forestry Tasmania continues with the charade that wood production is not a profit-driven, commercial business. Curious really. All private tree growers against which Forestry Tasmania competes in the marketplace, certainly regard wood production as a profit-driven, commercial business.

 

Special Timbers

At least there is a section in the document dealing specifically with special timbers (page 5). Not surprising given that this issue has dominated much State parliament discussion.

Here’s what the report says about special timbers:

The long term sustainable supply of special species timbers including blackwood was of concern to a number of stakeholders. This was expressed in a number of ways including:

o Suggestions that the Permanent Timber Production Zone land would not be able to sustainably supply industry needs.

Haven’t we known this for decades? Despite all the gloss, spin and promises the supply of special timbers has never been on a sustainable basis.

o Suggestions that current harvesting practices are leading to poor recovery and waste of special species timber.

The inevitable result of poor commercial management and an industrial forestry business model. Again no surprises.

o Requests for a detailed inventory of special species.

Such an inventory would cost more than the resource is actually worth. Which is why FT has never done one.

Response

  • Forestry Tasmania acknowledges the concerns stakeholders have about special species supplies. The Plan has been updated to detail how recent legislative changes affect the special species timbers supply from Permanent Timber Production Zone land. These changes have reduced the area of the Special Timbers Zone managed by Forestry Tasmania from 97 000 to 56 000 hectares. The Forestry (Rebuilding the Forest Industry) Act 2014 requires the Minister for Resources to develop a special species management plan by October 2017. The final Plan indicates that Forestry Tasmania’s future management of special species timbers from PTPZ land will be informed by the special species management plan when it becomes available.

So it’s going to take 3 years (!) to produce a plan that will tell us that the public native forest special timbers industry is over??!! Now let me guess! When is the next State election due? Oh that’s convenient! It’s just after the plan comes out. Stand by for yet another State election dominated by the forest industry! This is just too much! If it’s anything like the last Strategy in 2010 this plan will be a joke.

  • The Plan has been updated to include the results of the December 2013 review of the sustainable level of harvesting from Forestry Tasmania’s blackwood management zone.

This is true! It is now mentioned on page 32 of the Forest Management Plan (FMP). What is not discussed is why the ongoing harvest of blackwood from our public forests continues well above the sustainable yield at 10,000 cubic metres of sawlog per year. Is this blatant fraud or deception?

  • Forestry Tasmania is obligated to make available a minimum of 137 000 cubic metres per year of high quality eucalypt sawlog and veneer log from Permanent Timber Production Zone land. In the process of harvesting this product, a range of other forest products are generated, including special species timbers. Forestry Tasmania has a range of systems in place to maximise the economic value, use and recovery of all forest products arising from harvesting operations. The Plan has been updated to include that in addition to supplying sawmill customers with special species timber, Forestry Tasmania maintains its commitment to its Island Specialty Timber business in order to stock and supply specialty timber products to meet market demand. This includes a tender system for higher quality products.

I could really go to town on this one! Why do we have a legislated sawlog production volume but absolutely NO commercial performance objectives or criteria? It is the epitome of stupidity! And as for the “range of systems …. to maximise the economic value, use and recovery”. Clearly the systems have failed! Either that or the forest products produced by Forestry Tasmania are worthless! Either way the system clearly doesn’t work!

  • Forestry Tasmania is presently conducting an inventory of the special species timber resource , using LiDAR imagery, as a consultancy for the State Government.

What can I say? A futile exercise that will arrive just in time to dominate the next State election. I can’t wait! All of this for a “non commercial” activity! It really is a deeply offensive joke!

 

Well at least FT is being more transparent about the commercial management of special timbers. Here’s what the revised Forest Management Plan has to say:

In general, the harvest of special species timbers from the blackwood and eucalypt forest zones is a commercial activity while the harvest of special species timbers from the rainforest zone is a non-commercial activity and requires funding support (FMP, p. 32).

So a “commercial activity” is defined as one that requires ongoing taxpayer support, whilst a “non-commercial activity” is defined as one that also requires ongoing taxpayer support.

OK! Clear as mud!

Appendix 1 of the FMP (Summary of recent legislative changes related to land previously managed by Forestry Tasmania) is also worth reading as it sets the stage for the next State election campaign, and further blood-letting around the special timbers industry.

Conclusion

The stupidity around State forest policy and management is clearly set to continue for many years to come.

Whilst FT appears to have made some minor progress is terms of transparency and stakeholder engagement, there is still a very long and difficult road ahead.

As a member of the private special timber-growers industry my message to the FSC remains clear and simple:

Absolutely no FSC certification for Forestry Tasmania until:

  1. FT is restructured, managed and governed on a fully commercial and profitable basis;
  2. All harvesting of wood from public native forest both inside and outside the Permanent Timber Production Zone must be on a profitable, commercial basis. Absolutely no taxpayer support for public native forest wood harvesting at all.

The incomplete history of unsustainable blackwood mismanagement

Forestry Tasmania recently and quietly released the latest Review of the Sustainable Sawlog Supply from the Blackwood Management Zone (BMZ). As I predicted last year Tasmania’s iconic blackwood industry is about to go into serious decline if not disappear.

https://blackwoodgrowers.com.au/certification-and-supply/

Last year I reviewed the available information on the public blackwood resource and predicted a serious reconciliation in the near future. The reconciliation has now begun.

http://www.forestrytas.com.au/sfm/review-of-the-sustainable-sawlog-supply-from-the-blackwood-management-zone

The 2013 Review is a difficult document to read and understand. Important information is missing making it nearly impossible to “join the dots”. To help better understand the 19 page review I have compiled a chart of the planned vs actual production data that is scattered throughout the document. In fact the chart neatly summarises about 80% of what the review has to say, but it is still a very incomplete picture. There is no chart like this in the review.

Incomplete history

Chart notes:

  1. The 1991 Forest and Forest Industry Strategy (FFIS) set a blackwood supply target of 10,000 m3 of blackwood sawlogs per year.
  2. The 1997 Tasmanian Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) reaffirmed the FFIS blackwood sawlog supply target.
  3. The Forestry Tasmania 1999 Review of the sustainable blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) sawlog supply from Tasmanian State forest calculated the Statewide sustainable yield of blackwood sawlog at 8,500 m3 of blackwood sawlogs per year. The figure for just the BMZ was 6,800 m3 of blackwood sawlogs per year, with the remainder coming from the rest of the State.
  4. The Forestry Tasmania 2010 Special Timbers Strategy (STS) continued to reaffirm the blackwood supply target of 10,000 m3 of blackwood sawlogs per year until 2019.
  5. The Forestry Tasmania 2013 Review of the Sustainable Sawlog Supply from the Blackwood Management Zone (BMZ) recalculates the blackwood sawlog sustainable yield at 3,000 m3 per year. Production of blackwood sawlog from public forest outside the BMZ is expected to be negligible.
  6. Actual blackwood production figures from 1991 to 2006 are not publically available. The 2013 Review only provides actual blackwood sawlog production figures from 2008. Forestry Tasmania wood production dropped dramatically following the 2007 GFC.

Blackwood generally comprises >80% of all special species sawlog production from State forest. Between 2000 and 2007 special timbers production averaged 17,000 m3 per year, with some years exceeding 20,000 m3 (Forestry Tasmania Annual Reports). Clearly neither the so called supply target nor the 1999 sustainable yield estimate had any relevance to the actual production of blackwood sawlogs.

Where are the actual blackwood sawlog production figures between 1991 and 2007?

Why is Forestry Tasmania so reluctant to clearly demonstrate sustainable blackwood management and production?

Here are some other highlights from my analysis of the 2013 Review of the Sustainable Sawlog Supply from the Blackwood Management Zone:

  1. No mention is made in the 2013 Review of the fact that in 2010 Forestry Tasmania classified it’s blackwood and other special timber operations as “non-commercial, non-profit”, and subject to a significant taxpayer subsidy. There is no discussion of what impact this non-commercial focus will have on future blackwood forest management and production (it will have a major impact), or its impact on blackwood production from Tasmanian farms;
  2. An update of the current area of the Fenced Intensive Blackwood (FIB) resource is provided but still, after 30 years, no estimate is provided of it’s likely contribution to the future blackwood industry. There are no details of the financial investment that has been spent to date on creating this resource. The 1999 Review estimated this resource would provide over 250,000 cubic metres of blackwood sawlog to industry between 2040 and 2050.
  3. The major investment to establish 880 ha of blackwood plantations in the early 1990s has now officially been written off and will contribute nothing to the blackwood industry. The 1999 Review estimated this plantation resource would contribute over 370,000 cubic metres of blackwood sawlog to industry. No estimate is provided of the financial loss due to this asset write-off.
  4. As mentioned the 2013 Review provides grossly inadequate details and analysis of blackwood sawlog production since 1991. There is absolutely no way to verify whether blackwood has been sustainably managed or not. Limited available information indicates that since 1991 blackwood has been grossly over-cut;
  5. There is no discussion why in 1999 blackwood sawlog production did not drop to match the sustainable yield estimate. There is also no discussion or explanation of why actual blackwood production appears to have greatly exceeded even the FFIS/RFA/STS 10,000 m3 supply target.
  6. The 2013 Review provides no details at all about the commercial management of blackwood or the contribution of blackwood to the commercial performance and profitability of Forestry Tasmania. Given that the new Forest Management Bill 2013 provides Forestry Tasmania with a greater commercial focus does that mean that all blackwood operations will now be reclassified as “commercial and profitable”?
  7. The 2013 Review contains no discussion about the past and ongoing Sovereign Risk to blackwood production;
  8. Without any discussion or explanatory information the 2013 Review drops the blackwood sawlog sustainable yield from the BMZ from 6,800 m3 per year in 1999, to 3,000 m3 sawlog per year. It provides absolutely no details about how the 3,000 m3 estimate was calculated. It’s a number out of a hat! I personally doubt even this figure. I suspect the real figure is somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 m3.
  9. The 2013 Tasmanian Forestry Agreement had little impact on the area of the BMZ, so the dramatic drop in production is due to causes other than the TFA.
  10. And that concludes the 2013 Review. No mention at all of a major drop in blackwood supply. No mention of whether the 10,000 m3 supply target will remain in force. No discussion about what impact this drop in supply will have on Forestry Tasmania’s profitability, nor on the Tasmanian blackwood industry. Is 3,000 m3 per year even commercially viable to log, or is the BMZ now a liability?

The Review proudly states:

The blackwood forests are managed on a sustainable basis on a rotation length of about 70 years.

I’m not convinced. There is absolutely no evidence of ecological, commercial, political or social sustainability here at all. How can a drop in sawlog production from 10,000 to 3,000 m3 per year be called sustainable?

By 21st century commercial business standards the 2013 Review of the Sustainable Sawlog Supply from the Blackwood Management Zone is a profoundly deficient document.

As an example of an organisation seeking Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certification the 2013 Review completely fails. No meeting with stakeholders, no press conference, no presentation, no Q&A.

As a stakeholder in the Tasmania’s iconic blackwood industry I consider this is a complete disaster. Yet another Tasmanian forest industry catastrophe.

On the positive side the drop in supply from public forests should mean that blackwood log prices will increase. This will help attract the interest of farmers.

But on the negative side the forest product markets and prices in Tasmania have never been transparent. This continues to be one of the forest industries biggest problems. Also the volume of blackwood trade will drop dramatically. Businesses will close. The blackwood market will contract. Options for farmers to sell blackwood timber will shrink. And we still have many legislative, policy and management issues that inhibit private farm forestry, not the least of which is Forestry Tasmania’s taxpayer-subsidised blackwood production.

It is ironic that Tasmania is about to lose its iconic blackwood industry at the very time that New Zealand farmers are about to crank up blackwood production across the Tasman Sea.

Tasmanian blackwood has been Australia’s premier timber species for over a century. It is a Tasmanian icon.

Is the Tasmanian community going to surrender its blackwood heritage and commercial potential to New Zealand farmers?

Or will the necessary legislative, policy and management changes be made to allow Tasmanian farmers to rebuild the Tasmanian blackwood industry?

Will the forest industry open up and become more market transparent?

And will the Tasmanian community take up the opportunity?

Blackwood – the start of a learning curve

by Ian Brown

For over 30 years I have been on a learning curve for blackwood. I planted my first blackwoods in 1980 on a small abandoned farm property I had bought in the far north of New Zealand. It was a long way from home, but it was cheap, and the nearby coast was appealing for family holidays. It was located in an elevated valley, sheltered from prevailing winds, an adjacent range provided good rainfall, and had clay loam soils based on ancient volcanics. In response to a recent study carried out by Ian Nicholas at Forest Research, who had been working on a project to select a limited number of species to supplement our monoculture of radiata pine, my brother and I decided to trial some alternative species, including blackwood.

Blackwoods have been planted in New Zealand from the 19th century. It had been generally assumed that to produce good form they should be interplanted with another species, and many had been planted in native bush, or in mixtures with eucalypts or pines. There had been little interest in pruning blackwood for form correction.

1980 trial planting.

We planted 500 blackwoods in groups of 4 trees, 8 metres between groups, and interplanted with pines. When we visited the site in the first summer the blackwoods were growing strongly, and were about chest height, but some of them were developing double leaders and competing branches. It seemed logical to trim these back, leaving a single leading shoot. Without a clear agenda, we set to with secateurs. However competing demands for time (fishing) meant we did not finish the job. In the following summer, two things were apparent: the trees we had pruned were much better in form than the unpruned trees, and the pruning had not affected their growth rate. And the blackwoods were growing faster than the pines, which were clearly having no influence on them. Over each of the following summers we continued with form pruning, directing attention to competing shoots near the top of the trees, and from about year 4 followed through with clearwood pruning from the base. When the trees were above 6 metres we thinned them to one per group.

The pines lagged behind, and made no contribution until about year 4, and by year 6 were suppressing the blackwoods. We then felled the pines. This left a thick layer of slash, which made access difficult for further silvicultural work. The pines had clearly been more trouble than they were worth.

I have a trial plot on the site, and in 2010 at age 30 the mean diameter was 55 cm. It should be close to 60 cm by 35 years, when I hope to mill them.

The message we got from this block was that on a good site, blackwoods respond well to annual form pruning, without the need for a nurse. So we decided to try something novel.

1982. Open grown planting.

In 1982 we planted blackwoods, again in groups at 7 to 8 metre spacing between groups, in the open, and undertook annual form pruning, but without a nurse species. These are probably the first blackwoods to have had this form of intensive annual treatment. Of the systems we have tried, it proved to be the simplest and most effective, and with some modifications it has been the method I have used since then.

At the same time we planted blackwoods in holes cut in an area of regenerating native scrub. This worked well, but the trees still needed an annual visit for light form pruning and remove overhanging branches. I tended to get lost when locating the trees, and spent some time wandering about in circles. This might have been avoided by cutting lines in the scrub.

1983. Blackwoods and eucalypts.

   In 1983 we returned to orthodox management, and interplanted blackwoods in a mixture with with E. saligna. This worked well for the first few years, and we started to clearfell the eucalypts at about year 5. Half way through the program we encountered a problem familiar to growers who have tried this regime: we were seduced by the eucs, which were growing strongly, and looked too good to fell. So we kept them, in the hope of eventually milling both species. It didn’t work out. The blackwoods became badly suppressed, and the eucalypts thrived. Where we had thinned the eucs, the blackwoods grew well.

The message here was that nurse species provide some benefit for a limited period, but although improving form, they do not eliminate the need for form pruning. They add costs and complicate the management, and to avoid suppression have to be sacrificed on time.

In subsequent planting in the Waikato I have relied on form pruning on open-grown trees, planted in groups of 3 or 4 at final spacing. This has worked well, and has done so on other plantations in NZ that I have looked at, provided one essential condition is met: to grow blackwoods in the open and without a nurse you must have a good site, one that will encourage rapid growth. This means warmth, shelter, adequate moisture, and decent soils. On sites that are cold, dry or exposed, it is very difficult to control form in open grown trees. In those conditions you might get away with it by using a nurse crop. Or it might be better to simply plant another species.

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Photos are from the Northland planting, taken in April 2010. The top photo is from the 1980 planting. The scrub is natural regeneration. The tree marked 7 (below) is from the 1982 planting, open planted and annually form pruned DBH 70 cm at age 28. Naturally it is one of the bigger trees.

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Thanks Ian for a great contribution. I hope it generates some discussion amongst readers.

Australia’s largest blackwood plantation!

It’s in New South Wales! And it’s quite a story…

I’m happy to be corrected on this claim. Forestry Tasmania established a very large blackwood plantation resource 20+ years ago, but I understand these have all since failed. So this ~25 hectare plantation in Robertson, NSW must now rate as the country’s largest planting.

But let’s go back to the beginning…

Blackwood is one of the most wide ranging tree species in Australia with a natural distribution from southern Tasmania, to the Atherton tableland in far north Queensland and across into South Australia. Heading up the east coast blackwood is increasingly confined to the cooler high altitude locations along the Great Dividing Range. But blackwood as a commercial species has been confined to Victoria and Tasmania.

So it came as a surprise when I was contacted earlier this year about a blackwood plantation on the southern Tablelands of NSW. The town of Robertson sits at an altitude of 750m on the eastern edge of the southern Tablelands with a mean annual rainfall of 1600mm and a climate not unlike parts of Tasmania, but with a summer rainfall bias. The district is renowned for its rich red basalt soils. The original native forest was more closely related to that found in the mountains of central Victoria 500 km to the south, with blackwood a common tree. Remnants of warm temperate rainforest known as the Yarrawa Brush occur in the district.

Photos of the plantation showed some challenges but also plenty of potential. Survival and growth seemed to be pretty good, but as is commonly the case, pruning had not been timely or maintained, and thinning was obviously needed. The owner had made a very significant investment and I was curious to find out more. I offered my help.  Seven months later came the reply and last week I spent 2 days visiting Robertson.

Stunning!

My first experience with blackwood when I arrived, apart from seeing plenty of roadside and paddock trees driving into Robertson, was walking into the owners house and seeing an absolutely stunning timber floor. I didn’t recognise the timber so I took a guess and asked the owner if the floor was forest red gum.

“No!” He replied. “That’s local blackwood milled from the property”.

I was speechless!

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Stunning “Robertson Red” blackwood floor.

This looked nothing like the blackwood floors I have previously seen. The uniform rich mahogany red-brown timber, with a distinctive grain, was unique to my experience. Part of the explanation for the uniform colour was that all the timber for this very large floor came from just 2 trees! But these two trees had identical timber colour. I have seen this mahogany red-brown colour in Tasmanian blackwood but it is not common, with Tasmanian blackwood mostly having a lighter golden-brown colour.

The next 24 hours showed me that this red-brown colour is the common colour of the local Robertson blackwood. I made sure that the owner understood how unique and precious this local feature was, which needs to be preserved and managed for the future. Research has shown that blackwood wood colour is strongly genetically controlled, so in my opinion this “Robertson Red” blackwood has commercial potential.

The owner and the property

The owner Andy Kennard has a passion for timber and growing trees which he inherited from his father, despite the family having no farming or forestry background. This property is the family’s third attempt at tree farming. He bought the property 18 years ago with the objective of growing quality timber and cattle. Most of the planting occurred around 10-13 years ago. To date the focus has been on a range of eucalypts and blackwood. The property also includes remnants of native eucalypt forest and warm temperate rainforest. The rainforest includes blackwood and other timber species such as northern sassafras and coachwood. The remnant native forest is now managed for conservation values with the occasional wind thrown tree milled for timber.

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A hillside of native Robertson blackwood. The pale flowers belong to native Coachwood trees.

None of the people employed on the property have any forestry background or training so the tree-planting investment has been a big learning exercise. A point had been reached however where they didn’t know how to proceed or what to do next. And like many tree growers the thought of cutting down those precious trees was stalling any objective decision making. Beware the emotional attachment!

The Blackwood

The blackwood plantings are spread around the property in various paddocks on sites ranging from exposed ridge-top to sheltered lower slope and gully locations. The planting occurred between 2000 and 2003. All the plantings are on red basalt soils, with growth and performance varying widely even in the one paddock. A range of seedlots were used sourced from Tasmania, Victoria and NSW. No local Robertson blackwood seed was used. In a few areas eucalypt nurse crops were tried but these were a failure, due to the general poor growth of eucalypts on the property.

In the pure blackwood plantings initial stocking was 1100-1200 trees per hectare. In most locations survival was >95%. None of the blackwood paddocks have been fertilised under the current ownership. Early weed control is not known.

Early protection of the blackwood from domestic and wild animal browsers was a major issue. Standard farm fences proved sufficient to keep cattle out. But the wallaby, kangaroo and very active wombat populations have all been challenges requiring significant investment in fencing. Small amounts of ongoing deer damage is also apparent.

No thinning of the blackwood has yet occurred. Pruning has generally been OK but needed to be more timely and systematic. Most trees are pruned to at least 3 metres with pruning to six metres on the best sites. Given the lack of expertise and knowledge and the very large area to manage, the results have been very good. Cattle are grazed beneath the blackwood.

Results: poor to exceptional!

On the best sites blackwood growth and form is excellent, with 13 year old trees having diameters (dbh) ranging from 25-35 cm and heights of 12-16 metres. Some of the pruning on these trees has not been timely but nevertheless they are exceptional. At age 13 years these trees are half way to full commercial size!

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Exceptional blackwood growth and form (30 cm dbh in 13 years).

In one paddock the trees have good uniform growth and form but a serious wattle grub attack followed by the inevitable cockatoo assault a few years ago has left at least 80% of the trees worthless. The owner now needs to assess what can be salvaged from this paddock. The cause of the wattle grub attack is unknown. Wattle grub is relatively rare in the other blackwood plantings. The trees look healthy and are growing well. Anecdotal evidence suggests that wattle grubs attack when trees are stressed or are getting old. So was it genetics or soils? Or was it just natural random chance?

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A vast expanse of wattle grub affected blackwood, otherwise it looks pretty good.

On the ridge-top locations growth and form varies from ok to poor. Blackwoods hate growing in exposed windy positions where height and diameter growth and stem form become compromised. Robertson is on a high exposed plateau subject to strong winds. The property has some useful windbreaks but some of the high blackwood plantings are fully exposed the winds. Shelterbelts are needed to help improve the growth and form of these blackwood.

Despite the soils being derived from red basalt there are very obviously major soil issues for the blackwoods. This may be due to Ph, nutritional or soil structural issues or a combination of these. The owner is now organising soil testing across a range of sites both good and bad to see if the soil issues can be identified.

Records of the blackwood plantings are also in need to better management. Are the differences in blackwood performance due in part to genetics (seed source)?

Alternative Species

The owner has established a small arboretum where a range of local and other native tree species are being tested. Stand out performers for me were coachwood (Ceratopetalum apetalum), northern sassafras (Doryphora sassafras), silky oak (Grevillea robusta), red cedar (Toona ciliata), hoop (Araucaria cunninghamii) and Wollemi pines (Wollemia nobilis).

I’ve only ever seen coachwood and northern sassafras in native forest situations where they can be very impressive trees and certainly have a reputation for producing premium timber. So to see them planted in the open and growing very well was encouraging. These two species would be well worth considering on a small, specialised farm forestry basis. Silky oak, Red cedar and Hoop pine are more commonly seen in parks and gardens where their issues and potential are more commonly appreciated. Again at Robertson good growth can obviously be achieved given the right sites and treatment, when grown on a small scale.

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10 year-old planted Coachwood. Not bad at all!

And finally Wollemi pine at 4 metres in 4 years shows that even this unique tree has potential for producing softwood of equivalent quality to Hoop pine, but with much easier pruning.

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Wollemi Pine – 4 metres in 4 years!

With all of these species commercial rotations of 40-45 years might be possible if early performance is any indication, but with prices around $5,000+ per cubic metre for reasonable logs, these are still good investments.

And finally a word about eucalypts. For such a lush rich environment I saw very few outstanding eucalypts at Robertson. Amongst the species planted by the owner none seemed to be doing very well. I’m no eucalypt specialist but I can only put this down to soil problems.

Future

When these blackwoods were planted only New Zealand farmers and scientists were having any success growing commercial plantation blackwood. So for a novice enthusiast NSW landowner to plant 25 hectares was a brave venture. Despite this the results are certainly encouraging.

An action plan has now been drafted to get the blackwood management back on track. A thinning program has been sketched out, starting with the better performing stands. The scale of the thinning operation requires a mechanical approach, so research is needed to find an appropriate solution. Clearwood pruning will continue where it is still possible. Soil sampling and analysis will help identify what remediation is possible for some of the stands. Shelterbelts will be planted for the ridge top sites. An assessment of the wattle grub affected stand will determine what can be salvaged. Given that 82% of the trees need to be thinned anyway to get the stand down to 200 trees per hectare, there might still be something worth saving. Seed from the local Robertson blackwood will be collected for preservation and possible future planting. There was much discussion and a lot learnt by everyone involved including me.

So will Robertson NSW become a major centre for growing commercial blackwood?

No!

The land base is too small. Suitable areas are within about 5-10 km of the Illawarra escapement due to the terrain and steep rainfall gradient. But if enough landowners were interested there may be the potential for ~500 hectares of blackwood plantation. This could sustainably produce about 5000 cubic metres per year of premium blackwood sawlog. As a potential land use in this semi-rural landscape it is a relatively low-maintenance, high-value option. Close proximity to Sydney, and the Port of Newcastle and export markets, suggests that markets won’t be a problem.

There are still issues to be resolved including soil issues and determining the best genetics to plant, but hopefully growing Robertson blackwood should eventually be a profitable investment.

The visit to the Robertson blackwood plantation was definitely inspiring. Robertson clearly has blackwood growing potential. How the owner proceeds will determine whether that potential is realised and the challenges met. I’m looking forward to assisting and following progress here over the coming years.

Thanks to Andy and the crew for a great trip.