A Century in Forest Plantations
Success or Failure?

David Williams (bio)

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This paper reports on the evaluation of Victorian governments’ involvement in softwood plantations for the period of more than a century to determine whether the program was a success or failure. The evaluation concluded the overall program was strongly successful in meeting all but one of the ten goals.

Recognition of the need for and commitment to establishing a softwood plantation estate was a constant through the Victorian governments’ involvement in forest plantations. Whilst the circumstances changed a great deal, Victorians faced many challenges and there were a number of governments of quite different persuasions over the period, the commitment never waned. The financial capacity to deliver the commitment was limited at times and particularly for the first seven decades or so. Some of the early plantations were established through opportunistic events including the need to rehabilitate degraded land and provide work for unemployed under various government schemes from time to time. The FCV took a bold decision to commit to the Plantation Expansion (PX) program in 1961, which initiated three decades of rapid plantation establishment. The first five years of the program was funded by the FCV.

The work of the newly-formed Australian Forestry Council (AFC) in 1964 (Carron 1965-1991) provided impetus for plantation expansion across all Australian states. The AFC advocated an expansion program based on a policy of national self-sufficiency in timber products. This became a driver for the Victorian program until the self-sufficiency policy was set aside in the Timber Industry Strategy (TIS 1986). The Commonwealth Government provided a boost to the national and Victorian plantation programs with generous long term loans to expand softwood plantations. The loans were provided under legislated agreements known as the Softwood Forestry Agreements initially for the period 1967-71 and, subsequently, for the period 1971-77.

Even though the aims of the program changed over time, there was a common thread running through the goals. Changes were mostly about re-casting priorities and emphases. Goals can be categorised into three broad groups with ten specific goals as follows:

Financial returns

1. Annual returns
2. Asset value

Economic and Industry Policies
Timber Supply

3. Future softwood timber needs
4. Area targets
5. Import replacement and supplementing hardwood timber supplies
6. Development of regional communities
7. Partnership with the private sector

Environmental Standards

8. Land rehabilitation
9. Sustainable practices
10. Environmental values

The approach to evaluating the success or failure of the overall program was to determine whether each goal was achieved and then aggregate the “successes” and “failures”. Due to the qualitative nature of most of the goals (area targets and TIS target for return on investment being exceptions), a simple “success” or “failure” rating was applied.

The evaluation concluded a success rating for all of the goals other than the annual financial return goal. This was allocated a “fail” based on the likelihood that expenditure exceeded revenue on an annual cash basis for most of the century. The first financial statements on commercial forestry operations occurred in 1991 (Department of Conservation and Environment (DCE), 1991). Prior to then, financial records did not provide information in a form necessary for analysing the annual financial performance.

Accordingly, this evaluation concludes the overall program was strongly successful in meeting all but one of the of the programs ten goals over the course of more than a century.