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Tree farms grow from environmental roots

OPPORTUNITY through adversity could well be the catchcry of WA’s tree farming industry.

Hundreds of farmers across WA are already engaged in tree farming, of oil mallee, maritime pine and blue gums.

The original impetus for these industries was environmental pres-sure, to tackle salinity on cleared farmland and to protect native forests.

But from this starting point, tree farming holds out the promise of many other benefits, including extra income for farmers and new timber processing industries.

The planting of maritime pine is being promoted by the Forest Products Commission, which believes this species is ideally suited to areas with sandy soils, low rainfall and low nutrient conditions.

The commission has planted nearly 16,000 hectares under share farming arrangements, and its aim is to plant an extra 3,000ha a year.

Commission general manager Dr Paul Biggs believes maritime pine is a viable proposition because of the multiple benefits that can flow to farmers.

These include cash income from timber sales, control of salinity and waterlogging through lowering the watertable, and the commercial value of carbon sinks.

The $80 million laminated veneer lumber (LVL) plant currently being built near Wanneroo by Wesbeam is expected to provide a market for maritime pine.

The LVL plant will initially source its timber from the Gnangara pine plantation, but this will be completely removed over the next 20 years and alternative supplies will then be needed.

Another major growth area in tree farming is oil mallee, which is suited to drier inland areas from Geraldton to Esperance.

Up to 1,000 WA farmers have planted about 16 million mallees in ‘alleys’ across 40,000ha of cleared farmland.

Chairman of the Oil Mallee Company, Professor Syd Shea – who helped to establish the blue gum industry – is aiming much higher.

His aim is to plant oil mallees on 2,000,000ha (2mha) of farmland over the next 10 to 20 years.

This is approximately two-thirds of the revegetation target set by the State Salinity Council, which considers 3mha to be the minimum area of revegetation needed to have an impact on the spread of salinity.

Like maritime pine, oil mallee holds the promise of both environ-mental and financial benefits for participating farmers.

An integrated wood processing plant currently being built in Narrogin indicates the potential.

The $6.5 million demonstration plant will use mallee biomass (wood and leaf) to produce: one megawatt of electricity (enough for 1,000 households);

200 tonnes of eucalyptus oil, which can be used as an industrial solvent or fuel additive; and 690 tonnes of activated carbon, for use in water and air purification.

If the demonstration plant works well, there are hopes for a series of larger, commercial plants across the Wheatbelt.

The plant has been jointly developed by Western Power, the Oil Mallee Company and Victorian company Enecon, which has the commercial rights to the technology developed by CSIRO.

Professor Shea believes even greater potential is offered by the use of oil mallee for carbon sequestration.

The Kansai Electric Power Corporation, Japan’s second largest power company, last year contracted the Oil Mallee Co to plant 2.5 million mallee (1,000ha).

“Kansai would pay all costs for growing and establishing mallee and an annual rental to farmers equivalent to the return from agricultural crops,” Professor Shea said. “Kansai was making this investment to provide offsets for the carbon dioxide they produced in Japan.

“If Australia signed the Kyoto Protocol they would be involved in very substantial plantings.”

While the area of land planted with maritime pine and oil mallee is expected to grow, the area planted with blue gums is expected to stabilise at around the current level of 250,000ha.

The industry has started to harvest plantations that were established about 10 years ago, with the volume of harvesting due to grow substantially over the next two to three years.

The blue gums are mainly pro-cessed as woodchips and exported to Japan and South Korea for paper production.

To support the industry’s growth, $52 million has already been invested in a new woodchip mill and port facilities at Albany. This included a $17 million contribution from the State Government.

Two new woodchip mills, to be developed by South Korean company Hansol and Japan’s Marubeni, are planned for the Bunbury area.

This would be additional to the two existing woodchip mills at Manjimup and Greenbushes, both of which export through the port at Bunbury.

The State Government is hopeful that the private sector will support further processing of blue gums by establishing a pulp mill in the South West.

It is pinning its hopes on the Chinese market, which is projected to need pulp imports to support its fast growing paper manufacturers.

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