By PHILIP HOPKINS
THE state government will spend $120 million in a deal with the private sector to establish 14,000 hectares of softwood plantations in Gippsland as part of the Victorian Forestry Plan, which aims to close the region’s hardwood native forest sector by 2030.
Agriculture Minister Gayle Tierney said the agreement with Hancock Victorian Plantations involved planting an extra 16 million trees to create a new forest estate.
She described the policy as the largest single investment in plantation establishment in the state’s history and said it would underpin new and existing jobs.
HVP, one of the largest private plantation companies in Australia, will match the Labor government’s investment almost dollar-for-dollar to buy, lease and manage the more than 14,000 ha of softwood plantations.
Ms Tierney said the new plantations would boost supply to the construction sector and had the potential to bring international processors to the region.
Currently, Gippsland is almost 100-per-cent dominated by hardwood processors.
Plantings of the softwoods will begin in 2023, subject to final approvals, and continue for 10 years. Softwood plantations normally take 30 years to grow to provide quality sawlogs.
All going well, these plantations would mature between the early 2050s and 2060s.
HVP chief executive, Stephen Ryan, said it was one of the most significant plantation developments of the past 20 years.
“We will generate employment by producing an additional 1.5 million seedlings a year at our Gippsland tree nursery, through land preparation and tree planting and by caring for the trees,” he said.
The Nationals Leader, Peter Walsh, slammed the policy as a replay of a $110-million investment, the Gippsland Plantations Investment Program, announced in 2020.
Mr Walsh, the Opposition spokesman on Agriculture, said the money had been sitting on the books for more than three years and had never been spent and had never produced any timber for Victoria.
“And two months out from a state election, they are trying to patch up the absolute mess they have made of the timber supply in Victoria,” he said.
The government emphasised the plantations would help Victoria cut its greenhouse gas emissions, removing about 7.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in the next 25 years.
The chief executive of the Victorian Forest Products Association, Deb Kerr, welcomed the announcement.
“Victoria imports on average 36 per cent of its softwood demand and desperately needs to secure future timber and fibre supplies.
“This support to establish 16 million new trees is welcomed to close the current shortfall in sovereign timber supplies,” she said.
However, Ms Kerr said the investment was originally promised as the transition for the Gippsland hardwood industry.
“With plantings only expected to commence in 2023, it will still leave a future gap in harvestable timber and fibre from 2024,” she said.
Ms Kerr said HVP’s participation would enhance Gippsland’s standing as a plantation region of major importance, while providing immediate jobs in new plantings, tree and land cultivation, and management.
“It also opens opportunities in the farm forestry space, for local landholders to participate,” she said.
Ms Kerr also welcomed the cutbacks in greenhouse gas emissions that the new plantings would provide.
A consultant’s report for the federally-funded Gippsland Forestry Hub found that Gippsland has more than one million hectares of land suitable for forest plantations.
Most of these areas’ suitability are classed as ‘high’ to ‘very high’.
The report also noted that including money from growing trees’ ability to sequester carbon dioxide could greatly improve the revenue from plantations.
However, it warned that the Andrews Government’s policy to end native timber harvesting – despite growing demand for the timber – would continue to reduce local processing capacity.
“Loss of scale threatens the ability of manufacturers to compete in an open economy,” it said.