Getting a return for forest management

Wilga cattle producer Richard Walker

The higher something is valued, the more attention and care it receives and this applies to most things including our native forests. While there are plenty of reasons to value forests, without tangible economic returns, management will typically be absent, short-sighted or ad-hoc, and degraded forests will remain that way.

The most tangible value in a forest is its wood, a renewable resource that can sequester carbon and reduce resource intensity in building products. Planet Ark’s Make it Wood campaign claims that “Australia is in a good place to strengthen its sustainable wood management that would allow us to benefit both environmentally and economically.” The keyword here is sustainability. Can we harvest in a way that provides a return and benefits the environment?

Two cattle producers from Wilga in South West WA are showing this is indeed possible. Richard and Robyn Walker have spent the last ten years planning and carrying out a management regime in their 300-hectare regrowth forest that is paying both economic and environmental dividends.

“It’s a pretty uniform forest, all similar age from a clearfall in the early 1900’s,” Richard says in a thoughtful and considered tone. “Even though the trees are around 100 years old, the high stem density means they’re very small in stem diameter. They’ve grown up but not out.

“We decided to improve the health and growth of the forest and its productive capacity by thinning the forest. Our base plan was to mark everything to be retained, including habitat trees where possible, and everything else had to come out.”

Dense regrowth forest prior to thinning

By reducing stem density, the trees left behind have better access to water, nutrients and sunlight and are able to mature much faster. This not only benefits future timber production but can also benefit biodiversity with faster development of tree hollows compared to a higher density of smaller, slower growing trees.

Of course, thinning comes at a significant cost, so to offset the expense, there needs to be a return.

“Our focus was on being able to market and utilise everything we cut out to make it pay. If we couldn’t sell every single stick of it then we weren’t going to start the job.”

The Walkers started planning in 2008, but the challenge of securing markets to pay bills and generate a return for future management meant they didn’t start thinning until 2011.

In comparison, licensing and permits, which were secured within about three months, was relatively straight forward.

“Getting permission was mainly about developing a good management plan and meeting the criteria for managing a native forest.”

Part of those criteria required Richard to keep his cattle out of the forest. However, the Walkers had already decided to exclude livestock.

“The understorey performs a lot better without livestock. A forested area with constant grazing pressure will have practically no understorey and there’s a limited return anyway”

Nevertheless, the opportunity cost makes it vital to continue developing markets, especially for residue grade timber.

“Less than 10 per cent goes to milling mainly because we’re trying to improve the forest. That has recently gone to 15% because we sent some lower mill grade overseas to a cross laminated flooring plant. These industries are hugely beneficial to forest management. That means 85 to 90 per cent of what we produce is residue grade, chip and char and firewood. We are very keen to promote the use of residue grades, such as using char to make silicon. Woodchips is another very important product.”

The value of residue grade products can be low because managers typically offer the resource to contractors at no cost in return for services such as fire mitigation or clearing for development. According to Richard, this has a devastating impact on commercial viability and can lead to forest resources simply being burnt. To limit this outcome, Richard separates marketing from the hiring of contractors.

“It was better for us to do our own marketing and just pay contractors by the tonne for the harvesting. We were able to get a better return that way,” he said.

After forest thinning, tree canopies are able to expand and tree growth increases

Richard and Robyn use two types of harvest. The first, whole tree extraction, uses all of the resource and is very productive, but leaves little waste behind for nutrient recycling. The second, conventional harvest, involves cutting the stem and leaving the bark and limbs behind. This increases nutrient cycling but also fire risk and coppicing. The Walkers alternate methods depending on the level of soil fertility and fire risk in different parts of the forest.

Harvesting over the past eight years has retained more stems than would be ideal for a mature forest, so there will be a subsequent thinning sometime in the future.

“Also, with normal silvicultural processes in jarrah and marri forests there will be some regeneration. And eventually there will be different practices for developing a multi-layered forest,” Richard explained.

While it’s a very long-term or inter-generational project, it’s already giving Richard and Robyn a great deal of satisfaction.

“We can see immediate benefits from our work. We were really surprised by how much the thinning improved the forest. It looked quite thin and sparse at first because the trees were all struggling. But now the canopy is thickening up really well. We’re monitoring wildlife with cameras and getting some really good pictures. Animals seem to be thriving in that environment. So we’re keen to keep going down this path.”

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