Unintentional path dependence: Australian guitar manufacturing, bunya pine and legacies of forestry decisions and resource stewardship

Bunya-Mountains-Bunya-Pines

Back in July last year I wrote about two academics from The University of Wollongong, NSW (Chris Gibson and Andrew Warren) who came down to Tasmania as part of a project they are working on concerning the guitar industry and its response to changes in the tonewood market.

At that time they had just published the first paper from their research:

https://blackwoodgrowers.com.au/2016/07/10/resource-sensitive-global-production-networks-gpn-reconfigured-geographies-of-timber-and-acoustic-guitar-manufacturing/

They have now published a second paper which looks specifically at the Australian industry and its use of Bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii).

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00049182.2017.1336967?journalCode=cage20

Once again like the first paper, this is not an easy paper to read, containing dense academic text.

Being a forester I was already aware of the history of Bunya pine, and the trial plantings made by the Queensland Government in the early to mid 20th century on public land.

New to me was some of the history about the use of native timbers in the local guitar industry, particularly Maton and Cole Clark. Bunya pine is a major sound board tonewood for these two companies.

But the article makes clear that both these companies are now relying on the old Government Bunya trials for their supply, and the future of those trials is clearly subject to the whims of political fortune. The pressure to clear the Bunya trials and replant with the faster growing more profitable Hoop Pine is always there. Future Bunya tonewood supply hangs by a thread unless alternative supplies can be established.

BunyaPineS

Maton and Cole Clark are clearly struggling to secure and control their future tonewood supply.

It’s a complex and difficult challenge. Not the least of the challenges is that Bunya takes 60+ years to reach a size that allows soundboards to be sawn from the logs.

Unfortunately the article provides few clues as to how the problem can be resolved.

Long term thinking and commitment is needed.

Both of these companies appreciate that relying on Governments for their timber supply doesn’t work.

What we need here is a business model that encourages farmers/landowners to plant tonewoods for both commercial return and non-commercial planting. This will involve the collaboration and support of many players, especially Maton and Cole Clark. These companies are too small to have the resources to grow their own tonewoods.

Perhaps a “Tonewood Alliance” is needed to get the ball rolling?

It can’t be “fixed”!

Trucks

http://www.themercury.com.au/news/opinion/latest-policy-proposals-would-have-done-nothing-to-resolve-issues-in-tasmanias-forestry-industry/news-story/4d90132d87faf0c065a6725126f0334c

This excellent article in today’s Mercury newspaper succinctly captures the pain suffering and the high cost to Tasmania of the failures of the last 35 years.

But I certainly don’t agree with the authors final note that the political system can somehow find a solution to the problem.

The one fundamental lesson of the last 35 years is that Tasmania’s political system cannot solve the forestry crisis.

Whilst we continue to log public native forest there will always be politics, conflict, corruption and waste.

That is the fundamental lesson.

This is true not just in Tasmania, which provides the most extreme case, but in all Australian States where public native forest is logged.

Putting our hopes in the political system again, when all indications are that the forthcoming State election will be a bitter and divisive contest with forestry once more a major issue, is sheer lunacy; a classic example of Einstein’s definition of insanity.

No political party (Liberal, Labor or Greens) has a plan to resolve Tasmania’s forestry crisis.

It is time to stop the endless madness.

It is time for the Tasmanian community to speak.

Taylor 2009 Spring Limited Editions

2009SpringLTDs

Above (L-R): Tasmanian blackwood/Sitka spruce, 416ce-LTD, Sapele/ovangkol T5-LTD, Madagascar rosewood/Sitka spruce 714ce-LTD

Following the release of the mysterious 2008 Spring Limited Editions Taylor Guitars continued its steady promotion of Tasmanian blackwood in 2009 with 4 Spring Limited models.

With value on people’s minds, we’ve cooked up a special batch of LTDs for spring — inspired by Madagascar rosewood, Tasmanian blackwood and ovangkol — and added premium features, all at a sweet price point (Wood & Steel, Vol. 59).

The blackwood models were once again released in the 400 series.

Sounding just as good as they look, the 400 Series Limiteds feature a honey-colored Tasmanian blackwood back and sides and are dramatically accented with creamy maple binding and [back] mini-wedge. With a Sitka spruce top, a sparkling abalone rosette, stylish mother-of-pearl diamond fretboard inlays and a high-gloss finish on the top, back and sides, the blackwood 400 Series Limited Edition is available as a 410ce-LTD, 412ce-LTD, 414ce-LTD or 416ce-LTD. Along with the 700 Series, the 400 Series features a sloping Venetian cutaway and Taylor’s Expression System® for high fidelity plugged-in playing.

Production numbers (courtesy of Taylor Guitars) were:

MODEL PRODUCTION
410ce-LTD 115
412ce-LTD 62
414ce-LTD 332
416ce-LTD 241

 

https://www.taylorguitars.com/

My next spotlight will be on the 2010 Spring Limited Edition models.

Previous Taylor spotlights:

2004 Fall Limited Editions – when Taylor Guitars first introduced Tasmanian blackwood

Taylor GS4e 2007 Fall Limited Edition

Taylor 2008 Spring Limited Editions

IST Blackwood Log Tender Results 2016-17

1617logs

In the interests of greater market and price transparency in the forest industry here is my annual summary of blackwood log tender results from Island Specialty Timbers (IST) for the 2016-17 financial year.

http://www.islandspecialtytimbers.com.au

This is the only publically available competitive market price data for blackwood logs.

During the year 20 blackood lots, totalling 20.4 cubic metres, were put to tender over 5 of the 8 tenders held by IST. That equates to 1 single truck load of blackwood material! Of the 20 lots put to tender only 6 were sold, totalling 7.2 cubic metres!

It’s been a quiet year for the local blackwood market.

Last year (2015-16) Forestry Tasmania sold 9,580 cubic metres of blackwood logs and craftwood, with the vast bulk of this volume sold on private long term sales contracts. The tiny volume sold through public tender by IST represents just 0.07% of the blackwood harvested from the Tasmania’s public native forest.

http://www.forestrytas.com.au/about-us/publications

For the August and September 2016 tenders IST put to tender 7 lots comprising pairs of blackwood logs. In the August tender the pairs were logs cut from single trees, whilst in the September tender the pairs were from different trees. All were plain grain logs. Only 2 of the pairs from the August tender sold.

None of the 11 blackwood lots from the September and November 2016 tenders sold!

Then came the March 2017 tender where 2 large blackwood logs from the same tree featuring tear drop grain were put to tender. Total volume for these two logs was 2.59 cubic metres. The larger butt log went for $1575 per cubic metre whilst the smaller head log sold for $1625. Total value for this single blackwood tree totalled $4130!! These logs provided the highlight in an otherwise quiet year.

Actually despite the low volumes sold plain grain blackwood logs didn’t do so bad. The 4 plain grain lots that sold averaged $418 per cubic metre for some reasonable quality logs, with prices up to $550 per cubic metre. I regard that as a good price.

The table below summarises the IST blackwood tender results for the 2016-17 financial year:

IST 2017 BWD summary table

The 20.4 cubic metres of blackwood put to tender compares with the total of 166 cubic metres of specialty timbers that IST put to tender in 2016-17, or only 12% of the total volume. This is despite the fact that blackwood is by far the dominant specialty timber harvested in Tasmania.

The chart below shows the average blackwood tender prices and total volumes for the past 4 years.

IST BWD pricevolume trend

Unfortunately the volume of IST blackwood tender material is too small and the quality too variable to allow meaningful market/price comparisons between years. Also IST generally only caters to the local southern Tasmanian craftwood market.

Large volumes of large, good quality logs from blackwood plantations should generally command better prices than shown by the IST result.

The blackwood market desperately needs more tradability, more transparency and more commercial credibility.

The only basis for a successful forest industry is profitable tree growers within a competitive, transparent marketplace.

Caveats:

  1. Island Specialty Timbers (IST) is an enterprise of Forestry Tasmania established in 1992 to increase the recovery, availability and value of specialty timbers from harvesting activities in State forests.
  2. Forestry Tasmania manages its special timbers operations (including IST) as a taxpayer-funded, non-commercial, non-profit, community service. Last year each cubic metre of blackwood log harvested by Forestry Tasmania received a taxpayer subsidy of $86! No private blackwood grower received any taxpayer subsidy.
  3. Note that all logs and wood sold by IST come from the harvesting of public native old-growth forest and rainforest certified under AFS (PEFC).
  4. It is unlikely that this tiny set of market-based blackwood log prices is representative of the broader blackwood market.
  5. The dataset is too small and variable in quality to allow any analysis or correlations to be made between price and log quality apart from the obvious result that feature-grain logs attract a significant price premium over plain-grain.
  6. These tender prices are effectively mill door prices that already include harvesting and transport costs. They are not stumpage prices.

So whilst Forestry Tasmania, the State government and the State parliament all regard the special timbers industry as a taxpayer-funded community service and political play-thing rather than a commercial opportunity, then blackwood’s commercial future remains difficult.

“The lack of price transparency for forest products, particularly from hardwood forests/plantations [in Australia], represents an impediment to the uptake of farm forestry. Unlike other commodities, price information for forest products is not published through the newspaper or accessible online. Better price transparency is required to encourage smallscale investment in trees” (p. 71. FWPA Report PN: PNA243-1112/2, 2013).

http://www.fwpa.com.au/rd-and-e/market-access/229-the-case-for-renewed-development-in-plantations-identifying-forest-values-and-the-constraints-to-attainment-stage-one-and-two.html

This quote from a recent forest industry report says it all. Even the forest industry recognises price transparency is a major issue, but then does nothing about it. One of the authors of this report was none other than the Director of Forestry Tasmania!

For previous years IST tender reviews see:

https://blackwoodgrowers.com.au/2016/06/23/ist-blackwood-log-tender-results-2015-16/

https://blackwoodgrowers.com.au/2015/06/18/ist-blackwood-sawlog-tender-results-2014-15/

https://blackwoodgrowers.com.au/2014/06/14/blackwood-sawlog-tender-results-2013-14/

 

The Green Shoots of Recovery

Green Shoots

Here’s a great article in the April edition (Issue 129, p. 41-46) of Acoustic magazine where Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars talks about sustainable tonewoods.

http://www.acousticmagazine.com/

Green Shoots

In the article Bob Taylor makes some excellent observations and comments which I fully support. Here’s my selection:

there is plenty that smaller guitar manufacturers can do to promote sustainability. “Each guitar maker has the ability to do something,” he says. “If a guitar builder is large like Taylor, they should do ethical sourcing of wood and replenishing. A small luthier cannot replenish, but they can ethically source wood. One part of ethical sourcing is to care about the quality of life and the pay of the people closest to the wood. We must each know that our wood is coming from places where laws are followed and people are paid”.

Totally agree with this comment. I find it extraordinary there are so many luthiers out there more than happy to help keep plundering the worlds rainforests. Even in Tasmania and Australia this is true!

And the same goes for consumers! Please stop plundering the worlds rainforests!

If people think that growing trees is or should be charitable work, then they don’t understand sustainability at all. Are tomatoes sustainable? Of course they are, because it’s profitable to grow them. We just have to make trees profitable to grow. This will happen in many different forms, because in many industries like construction lumber or plantation teak, it is already profitable. Small operations such as our Paniolo in Hawaii, or Crelicam in Cameroon, attract attention. This magazine is interested, as are the readers, and so are some industrialists or landowners. We can· show that it can be profitable if you’re in the right situation to do so. In the case of ebony, we have to start it with investment from us, which looks like charity really, but others will be able to profit from it someday, and the sustainable cycle can start. Without selling something there is no sustainability.

But I do think it’s possible to farm guitar wood, if I can be so basic in my description.

A huge round of applause for these comments!!

That’s it! It’s all about profitable tree growing. Unless and until tree growing is profitable there will be no tonewoods in the future. Bob Taylor understands this.

That means paying higher prices than what we pay now for plundered wood.

 

This move [the recent CITES regulations around rosewoods] has already had an effect on Taylor’s guitars: “All the rosewoods we use will be used in lesser quantities and on more expensive guitars. Why? Because there is expense associated with using the wood and exporting and importing both the wood and the guitar. That expense for permits is the same for an expensive or a cheap guitar. Consequently, we’ll see fewer1ow-priced rosewood guitars in the market.

As rosewood is one of the major tonewoods used worldwide, this means that other species must now come into the market to replace the reduced supply of rosewood.

“no [tonewood] species now can be sustainable without a proper planting programme”.

Here in Tasmania we have no blackwood planting plan. In fact we have no blackwood plan at all. All we have is a plan to continue to plunder our public native forests using taxpayers money. For details see here:

https://blackwoodgrowers.com.au/2017/05/08/a-strategic-growth-plan-for-the-tasmanian-forests-fine-timber-and-wood-fibre-industry/

“I often say that most guitar buyers are environmentalists, except on the day they spend their hard-earned money on their dream guitar. But I forgive them and understand. If we work together, we will find a new excitement. We are working hard to make beautiful guitars that please all the senses”.

Farm grown Tasmanian blackwood has the potential to become a profitable sustainable tonewood, but it will be a long slow road ahead under the current circumstances.

Insanity …

LogTruck

http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/weblog/article/insanity-1/

Here’s an excellent article by economist Graeme Wells on the failures and incredible waste of past and present Government forest policy in Tasmania. It makes for sober reading.

Unfortunately Tasmania’s political system only exacerbates the problem.

When will Tasmania get a fully commercial, profitable forest industry?

Tasmanian Government Response to the Strategic Growth Plan

MACSGP2017

http://www.stategrowth.tas.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/149438/Tasmanian_Government_Response_To_Growth_Plan.pdf

The Tasmanian Government has released a statement outlining its response to the forest industry Strategic Growth Plan, which I previously reviewed:

https://blackwoodgrowers.com.au/2017/05/08/a-strategic-growth-plan-for-the-tasmanian-forests-fine-timber-and-wood-fibre-industry/

The Response keeps the focus of forest policy firmly on a public forest resource and a failed, self-declared bankrupt public forest manager.

Any transition to profitable private tree growers is completely out of the question.

Absolutely nothing has changed!

The bulk of the Response is about what the long suffering Tasmanian taxpayer will continue to do for the forest industry.

The continuing wanton waste of taxpayer’s money on the forest industry is beyond belief! The forest industry has access to the Treasury piggy bank like no other industry in Tasmania!

It now appears certain that the Tasmanian taxpayer will take over responsibility for funding the construction and maintenance of all thousands of kilometres of forestry roads on public land. This is a direct contravention of competitive neutrality.

Remember there are private forest growers who receive none of these taxpayer benefits.

Finally on to special timbers discussed on page 4 of the Response.

As part of the continuing forest industry gravy train, the Tasmanian taxpayer is throwing money at a propaganda initiative to tell us about the benefits of continuing to plunder the last of Tasmania’s oldgrowth and rainforests for the benefit of a handful of venerable craftspeople.

Tasmanian Special Timber Woodcraft Sector Community, Market Awareness and Engagement Program Funding

Funding of $115 000 has been provided to the Tasmanian Special Timbers Alliance for the development and implementation of a Tasmanian Special Timber Woodcraft Sector Community, Market Awareness and Engagement Program. This program will support the implementation of the Special Species Management Plan.

It is all so sad, pathetic and predictable.

Forestry in Tasmania continues to be nothing but waste, politics, and conflict.

Many Tasmanians seem more than happy with this outcome.

As a forester I find the situation incomprehensible.

40 years of this nonsense and it just goes on and on….

When will Tasmania get a fully commercial profitable forest industry?

Not in the foreseeable future that is for certain!