Using forestry to repair our degraded landscapes: What will it take?
Corangamite Farm Forestry Project,
Department of Natural Resources & Environment,
PO Box 103, Geelong, Vic. 3220. Australia.
Australian forestry has traditionally been concentrated on our best land – the deepest soil, the highest rainfall and the flattest land is best. The challenge we face environmentally is that our most degraded landscapes are urgently in need of reafforestation – but with lower rainfall, shallow soils, steep or rocky terrain – this land is at the bottom of the forestry development list.
Drive around Victoria and it isn’t difficult to spot the non-agricultural parts of our landscape. Some parts turn purple, others go yellow and some turn faded bronze – in other words Pattersons Curse (Salvation Jane), Ragwort and Serrated Tussock … all noxious weeds (which cost our communities more than $10 million annually) that love land that is not under intensive agricultural use (land too steep/rocky or unmanageable for traditional pastures and crops). Of course forestry is not to blame - but forestry is arguably the only commercial land use that can save these degraded portions of our landscape. Critically, it is often these same portions of our landscapes that are priority areas for salinity, nutrient, pest plant/animal and water quality strategies (few of which have ever considered funding farm forestry development).
Weed infested land near Bacchus Marsh – traditional agriculture has failed the test. Can farm forestry provide the answer? … or will traditional plantation paradigms restrict forestry’s role in meeting the challenges these landscapes offer?
Fifty kilometres west of Melbourne is the Bacchus Marsh region, complete with a mix of rugged, wild and degraded landscapes. Landcare Foundation Victoria’s Rob Youl describes the damaged part of this landscape as “probably the most degraded in Victoria. Poor soils, steep valleys and lower rainfall (450-600mm per annum) predominates – with subsequent land degradation issues such as major erosion, salinity, rabbits and a myriad of pest plants such as Serrated Tussock. All of these are symptoms of land screaming out for a new and sustainable landuse” – but it’s not only the land that is screaming. Landholders in the area are desperately seeking support to help them cope with the huge Serrated Tussock problem. Many properties are spending from $5000 -$40,000 annually on Serrated Tussock weed control costs – only to turn around and do it again the following season. It is breaking them - economically and psychologically. These communities urgently want to see a light at the end of the tunnel – and landowners themselves have already identified at least 3000 hectares of infested/degraded land that they wish to revegetate – with either forestry or native vegetation - but can forestry solve their problems?
The weed - Serrated Tussock (a native to south America) is weed of national significance and currently infests130,000 hectares in Victoria with the potential to spread to over 4.6 million hectares in this state alone. With single plants producing up to 100,000 viable seeds which can then be blown across farms downwind for many kilometres – Serrated Tussock is widely regarded as the greatest weed threat to grazing lands in Australia.
Serrated Tussock can generally be controlled on arable land. However, huge areas of non-arable land is being invaded by Serrated Tussock (valley slopes, stony areas). Landholders are desperately seeking a new land use for these non-arable landscapes which can provide long term control options.
Farmers within the worst affected areas have observed that farm forestry can assist in reducing the impact of Serrated Tussock. Examples include:
- Radiata Pine (Pinus radiata) - Sites heavily infested with Serrated Tussock have previously been planted with Pine. Within only 5 years these sites have been successful in solving the Serrated Tussock problem. Whilst some Serrated Tussock plants are still found within the woodlot, these weed plants have restricted seedhead emergence and the lower pine foliage (and reduced windspeed) prevents these Serrated Tussock seedheads from escaping and blowing onto neighbouring land. As the pines get older, shading can remove remaining weed plants. Pine is better suited to >600mm annual rainfall zones– and as such, alternative species are needed for drier landscapes.
Sugar Gum (Eucalyptus cladocalyx) - Sugar Gum has long been observed by farmers as a strongly competitive and drought tolerant species which does not allow grass or crops to grow near existing stands of trees. This trait makes Sugar Gum an excellent species to plant on Serrated Tussock infestations within the drier areas (<600mm) of Victoria. Observations show that 10 year old Sugar Gum plantings located within the heart of Serrated Tussock infestations have drastically reduced the incidence and growth of Serrated Tussock underneath dense woodlots. The ability of Sugar Gum to produce high quality hardwood timber plus the potential use of thinnings for fuelwood/pulpwood is creating much renewed interest in this adaptable species.
We keep hearing about all the great roles farm forestry can play in beating land degradation – often from those who are paid to do so. But in this case, it is landholders who are pushing for farm forestry. “It is the ability of forestry to provide longer term control of Serrated Tussock which is the greatest driver for farm forestry development and land use change in our area” says local land manager David Watson. “We have woodlot plantings of both Pine and Sugar Gum which have successfully replaced Serrated Tussock infestations on some of our sloping country – all in less than ten years!” he says. “We know forestry can fix it – we just need to work out how we get all the key ingredients together to make it happen on a larger scale”.
Forestry can offer so much for these landholders – by turning a degraded paddock (that is a liability on the farm from both a cashflow and asset value) into a venture that at least provides a commercial return in later years. The returns may not be huge – but even low returns are a better proposition for landholders than the annual losses that they currently experience from their degraded lands.
Forestry is a critical player for a number of reasons. Landholders explain that they lack the funds, skills and experience to successfully undertake the larger scale of planting that is now required on their farms. Farm forest industry development can potentially fill all of these gaps – forestry development is in itself a professional landscape change industry - but how do we make it happen within these degraded areas.
The Bacchus Marsh region is currently the focus of a new and exciting approach which is aiming to coax forestry into the region as one of a number of longer term solutions to the regions environmental problems.
David Buntine of the Port Phillip Catchment & Land Protection Board explains “Grow West is all about developing a supportive framework to assist the Bacchus Marsh community to undertake a major landscape change program. It’s only early days, but Grow West aims to develop improved links and partnerships between all stakeholders (all government agencies, local communities, business, corporates, investors, forest industries, etc) to build one of the largest integrated landscape restoration projects in Victoria – and private forestry development has a big role to play” David says. “The result will be a single landscape project that will deliver outcomes for pest, salinity, nutrient and water quality strategies – and giving landholders and the local community what they want at the same time!”.
The key is to develop new and innovative partnerships between all key players – and when issues approach a crisis level such as that in the Bacchus Marsh region – that is where we are possibly most likely to find a solution first.
The following details current thinking, activities and discussions within the project to date:
- some landholders are considering offering lease free land to anyone who could plant it with forestry. The investor can grow and harvest the plantation - but leave the regrowing (coppice) stumps to be owned by the landowner after 20 years. Landholders are seeking innovative forestry investors who can take up the offer. Some are even suggesting placing advertising in targeted newspapers with “Free land for forestry” adverts which may conjure up some investor interest;
- recent Victorian Government legislation now paves the way for forestry rights and carbon rights investment as vehicles to assist in forestry expansion. Basically the land, trees and carbon can now legally be owned by three separate parties. For example – landholders could provide the land (and continue to own it) whilst outside investment owns, establishes, manages and markets (at any age) the trees using forestry rights. Using carbon rights legislation they could also forward sell the carbon rights of their plantations to others seeking this product. At present these mechanisms are not fully appreciated or utilised by landowners, investors, forestry companies etc. but it is expected that it will allow greater flexibility in the way farm forestry business and investment expands over the coming decades;
- traditional type plantation species and establishment recipes need to be challenged. Innovators within the project are working towards reducing establishment costs for degraded lands – after all……halve the establishment costs and you improve the economics considerably! Also, the majority of these areas are too drought prone for the two key plantation species used currently - Radiata Pine and Blue Gum – so new species are needed;
- future plantations need not be monocultures. Already one landholder has direct seeded a Sugar Gum woodlot with an understorey of Lightwood and Golden Wattles. The owner aims to use the wattles to increase nitrogen fixation for the eucalypts, increase biodiversity within the plantation (important because the area is located between two major conservation reserves), provide lower vegetation to capture blowing weed seeds, and in future the Lightwood could be used for craftwood products;
- forestry can be mixed with conservation plantings – this is already occurring under a Victorian Government “Plantations for Greenhouse” initiative where a 60 hectare degraded and steep hillside has been planted with three zones of forest cover - (Radiata Pine, Sugar Gum/Black Wattle plantings on the accessible zones and a conservation zone on the steepest/rockier areas where indigenous species are replanted and where no harvest will occur. This has been joint funded by the landowner and the Victorian Government under a pilot program. Much can be learned from pilot projects such as this;
- accounting for the public benefits of a private plantation. Each year we get closer to the situation where government actually purchases the environmental benefit offered by a private forestry planting – and new mechanisms are being sought and investigated to enable this to occur. A new initiative under the Victorian Government’s Western Regional Forest Agreement is actively seeking to provide financial incentives to those farm forest plantings which aim to produce hardwood sawlogs in areas which provide a direct and proven environmental benefit to the wider community;
- bringing all players together – the project is actively seeking to accelerate the linkages and interactions between landholders, government & public investors, the timber industry, forestry and carbon investors, plus conservation and corporate sponsors – get the right people together and the who knows what might happen!
It is this type of thinking, discussion and compromise that if matched by all stakeholders will see some major changes in how we restore landscapes. Grow West could be a pilot for the nation – where forestry becomes the environmental saviour – only time will tell!
So … will future generations inherit a landscape where forestry and agriculture have battled to secure their rights over our best and most productive land … meanwhile vast areas of low productivity & increasingly degraded landscapes remain untouched, unwanted and not contributing to our communities? Many would argue that is where we could be heading …
… will innovative use and development of forestry systems and partnerships enable large areas of degraded landscapes to once again contribute to our triple bottom lines. Here lies the challenge … and it’s up to us - foresters, landowners, investors and governments - to collectively and cooperatively make it happen.