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Timber losing its hard edge

THE construction industry will be able to count on the supply of plantation softwood timber increasing by about 27 per cent over the next 20-30 years. But the volume of plantation hardwood for similar and higher value use will lag far behind over the same period. By 2040-44, hardwood plantation log volumes will only be about half that of today's level of native forest timber, and probably lower in quality, according to national forecaster ABARES. The details came in the report, Australia's Plantation Log Supply 2010-2054, issued last week by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences.

The supply of coniferous (softwood) sawlogs, 9.5 million cubic metres a year in 2009-10, was forecast to be steady at about 10.5 million cubic metres a year for the next 10 to 15 years. This would rise to about 12.1 million cubic metres a year in 2030-34 - about a 27 per cent increase. Softwood is used extensively in house framing and in some engineered products, but also has potential to be used in commercial construction. Lend Lease hinted at this in launching its high-rise tower last week in Docklands that will be built with engineered softwood panels of cross-laminated timber, or CLT. The company said it had had talks with the local industry for a supply chain of radiata pine rather than European product. In contrast, ABARES said hardwood plantation sawlog production, 136,000 cubic metres in 2009-10, would rise to 1.3 million cubic metres annually in 2025-29. Production was forecast to peak at 1.4 million cubic metres in 2040-44. By comparison, native forest production was about 2.5 million cubic metres in 2009-10. But ''most sawlogs from broadleaved plantations will be of lower quality unless they are thinned and pruned'', ABARES said.

More than one-quarter of native forest sawlogs are used in higher-grade products such as window frames, doors, floors, staircases and furniture. About 40 per cent is used in structural products, while the remaining 33 per cent is used for fences and pallets. ABARES said plantation hardwood sawlog output would be dwarfed by plantation pulpwood (woodchip) production. Broadleaved plantation pulpwood output, 4.421 million cubic metres in 2009-10, was forecast to reach 13 million cubic metres a year in 2015-19, peaking at 13.8 million cubic metres in 2030-34. This would be enough to supply extra pulp and paper capacity in Australia. Hardwood plantation sawlogs made up only 9 per cent of the forecast total broadleaved plantation supply. ''This reflects the relatively low level of investment in broadleaved plantations aimed at sawlog production compared with pulpwood,'' ABARES said. The chairman of the Australian Forest Products Association, Greg McCormack, said the consequences of locking up more native forests were becoming clear. ''A replacement plantation resource has not been established and where they have been, the quality leaves a lot to be desired,'' he said. Plantation hardwood for quality sawlogs needed good soils, a proper rainfall zone, the appropriate husbandry and much longer growing time, he said.