Are Plantations the Answer?

John Dargavel


We need wood: are plantations our answer? Whether they can be is a practical and scientific matter. Whether they are a good answer, and for whom are economic and political matters in the context of their time. Whether they are desirable or inevitable in future is a matter for reflection. In this paper I set out John Evelyn’s 1660s position in Sylva, Australian positions in the 1990s and 2020s, and conclude with a reflection on their larger context.

1660s Question

The context of the Restoration period (1660—1688) in England’s history was one of recovery from nearly twenty years of civil wars and upheavals. Among its problems were two maritime wars with the Dutch, an outbreak of the plague, and a great fire that destroyed the centre of London. Nevertheless, the population and economy grew, science and technology advanced and the arts flourished.

Demand for wood was rising to fuel iron and glass manufacturing, and to meet the needs of towns and cities, but its supply was constrained by the difficulty of land transport and the state of the woods and forests. The treed area was being continually reduced as agriculture extended, and as open fields and common land were enclosed. Most of the nation’s wood resources lay on private estates, such as Evelyn’s family estate at Wotton. During the civil war, extra felling, incursions, enclosures, clearings, and theft drastically damaged many estates, while royalists had theirs confiscated or fined. The royal (i.e. state) forests had already been severely depleted, but in the aftermath of war many were sold or transferred to Cromwell’s soldiers in lieu of pay. The difficulties of supplying the increasing demands for wood during the Restoration were felt most severely in cities and by shipbuilders.

Figure 1, Launch of HMS Lenox, Deptford Dockyard, 10 April 1678. Richard Endsor, 1996 from a sketch of the scene and a detailed drawing by Villem Van de Velde (1633–1707). King Charles II, the Duchess of Portsmouth and their son, Charles Lenox, are in the barge alongside. It took 2000 trees to build this one ship. The Lenox Project proposes to build and launch a full-size replica on the site of the former Royal Dockyard. Source: Courtesy Richard Ensor

The Navy’s perpetual difficulty in obtaining enough oak and other timber to build and repair its ships was acute. In 1662, with the Dutch threatening to attack, the Navy asked the very new Royal Society five questions. Should some of the royal forests be planted, and what was the best way to do so? — a practical matter. Should it have first rights to buy accessible timber on private land, should oak be banned for building London houses, and should every landowner have to plant one percent of their land with oak or elm trees? — political and economic matters. The Royal Society chose John Evelyn (1620–1706) to collate three of its members’ replies with his own which he did seven weeks later. He knew this fell short of what was needed and turned to the larger task of writing Sylva. After only five months of what must have been very intense writing, he sent it to the printers, although it took almost a year before he could present it to the Society and the King.

Evelyn’s unambiguous answer was that ‘an universal plantation of all the sorts of trees’ was needed to restore the nation’s woods and forests and supply the Navy. He devoted thirty of Sylva’s thirty-two chapters to the practical and scientific information needed to do so. This detailed arboriculture reflected his lifelong fascination with trees and landscaped gardens. Only two chapters concern policy. He urged landowners to plant on their estates and in my reading avoided dealing significantly with the royal forests. Given his own background, the political setting of the restored monarchy, and his desire to make his way in the world this was as understandable as it was prudent.

As a textbook and guide to planting, Sylva was a well-accepted book that Evelyn updated with new information in subsequent editions (1670, 1679, 1706). Although its style was too dated for eighteenth-century readers and it was superseded by several books published in England and Scotland with newer information, it took the topic into the modern, scientific world.

As a call to plant more trees, Sylva was ineffective in altering the wood supply situation significantly because of the time it took to grow trees — 100 years for oak, and an equivalent time before the ancient systems of government were replaced with modern ones. Rather than more plantations, it was importing wood, burning coal, and eventually replacing wooden ships with iron ones that provided substantial solutions. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that planting was widely undertaken, led by Scotland.

Evelyn’s call to plant more trees was answered by some of the larger, wealthier landowners seeking to improve the landscape of their estates. He had designed the family estate at Wotton in the renaissance style and was invited to design several others. Although plantations featured in his designs, the aesthetics of grand gardens lay nearer to his heart than the problems of wood supply. One writer thought that with Sylva and its appendix on orchards, he ‘single-handedly gave gardens their high profile in the eyes of the gentlemen of England’. Arguably, his greatest fame lies in landscape architecture.

1990s Question

In two-hundred years an entire continent had been transformed: cities, towns, roads, factories, railways, sports grounds, airfields, pylons, universities, research laboratories, libraries, art galleries, theatres, cinemas and an opera house had appeared. They presented the face of a self-confident, developed, urban Australia. Its prosperity had accumulated from mining and agriculture that had reshaped, or ravaged most of the rural landscape, while the Indigenous people had been assaulted by disease and guns, their land arrogated, and their survivors left to be a minority in their own country.

‘They hated trees’ was how the historian Keith Hancock described the agricultural pioneers as they cleared forests for their farms. It took a century before the need to conserve the forests started to take hold, and then half a century before substantial areas had been reserved as state forests and agencies established to manage them. Their brief was to ensure the long-term supply of wood, part of which they could meet by starting pine plantations. With better times from the 1950s, the agencies expanded, increased their scientific research and, with decades of experience and public funding behind them grew plantations well enough to supply expanding wood industries. Two forest industry companies followed suit by starting their own large-scale plantations. Others were started so that private plantations amounted to one-quarter of the national total by the 1990s.

The forestry agencies confined their interest to the state forests they controlled; outside were national parks with their own agencies, and beyond those lay the treed areas on private and leasehold land. Although their conservation had been neglected, a century of endeavours to encourage farmers to plant trees had led many to plant windbreaks and some to plant for soil conservation. Planting became more popular from the 1960s, often with an eye to the growing demand for wood. New Zealand led the way, marked by forming its Farm Forestry Association in 1957, soon followed by the Australian Forest Development Institute (later called Australian Forest Growers). A stream of practical Trees on Farms books published in the 1980s lauded the environmental benefits and agroforestry possibilities.

This established context was overturned from the 1970s by environmental concern and neo-liberal beliefs in polity and governance. The swelling environmental movement found the quality of ecological care and management of the state forests to be sadly wanting and sought to have them all turned into national parks. The states enraged the environmental movement by clearing native forests for their pine plantations, destroying the wildlife habitat in the process. They further enraged it by widespread clear-felling of native forests to export wood chips, logging in rainforests and pristine old-growth forests. It all resulted in seemingly endless political conflicts.

In the 1990s, plantations were held to be the answer, but to different questions. The environmental movement proposed stopping the exploitation of native forests by 2020 and replacing their supply of wood with crops grown in new plantations that would be established on former farmland. The forest industries proposed continuing to use the native forests, but also establishing more plantations so that it could expand manufacturing and export wood products. Both proposals were practically possible and would benefit from the advances in arboriculture and wood technology, but their economic value was unclear. Nevertheless, politicians thought that plantation expansion might answer both questions and take thorny forest problems off their agenda. The prospect played out differently as the context shifted over the next thirty years.

2020s Question

Clearly, plantations can be grown very well. Science and practice have been advanced through tree-breeding, cloning, fertilisation and chemical weed control so that the latest crops of wood are more uniform and better suited to industry than any before. However, how and where they could be grown well as the climate changes in future is unclear. Over the last thirty years, the social, political and economic contexts have changed so much that it is now unclear what questions and for whom, plantations might provide a good answer.

At first, it seemed that they would provide good answers to the environmental and industry calls of the 1990s. From the 25,000 hectares a year being planted in the 1980s, the rate boomed to 140,000 hectares a year at its peak in 1999-2000 and then fluctuated at about 50,000 hectares a year for a decade. The total area of Australia’s plantations was doubled.

The boom in planting probably helped the environmental movement’s persistent call for protection of the native forests be politically effective. Clearing native forests to establish plantations was almost stopped, and state governments progressively reduced the area of state forests by about two-thirds by transferring about twenty-million hectares of them (with other state lands) to conservation reserves. However, the politicians’ hopes that plantations and transfers would quell the contests have been only partially effective as some forest contests continue to appear on their agendas.

The boom in planting answered the call of only one part of the forest industry’s wish for expansion. Instead of planting pines grown mostly for construction timber produced for the domestic sawmilling industry, almost five times as many eucalypts were planted for the foreign and domestic pulp and paper industries. Eucalypts suited rapid expansion as they needed to be grown for only 10—12 years, compare to 30 years or so for pines. From five percent in 1990, eucalypts now make up almost half of Australia’s plantations.

Figure 2. New plantations, by type 1997–98 to 2017-18. Note: Eucalypts occupy 93% of the hardwood category. Pines occupy 99% of the softwood category. Source: Downham and Gavran, ABARES.

The boom in planting appeared at first as a triumphal answer for the new political economy of replacing public enterprise with private, but it failed: planting has slumped to its present level of some 3,000 hectares a year — half the rate achieved in the 1950s. The detail of the causes and consequences are beyond the scope of this paper, but four main themes need to be noted.

Privatisation. New Zealand privatised its state plantations from 1989 and the Australian states privatised ninety percent of theirs by 2007. The state forest and conservation agencies were re-configured and reduced under the new managerialist principles. Research was reduced at national and state levels and its adequacy for the future is unlikely.

Eucalypts. Australia had far less experience in growing eucalypts in plantations than it had with pines, and some of those made in the 1990s failed. Over seventy percent of the planting was done by managed investment schemes that raised their funds from the retail (i.e. individual) market.

Investment. The tax system was changed to favour investors in plantations, some of whom used the managed investment schemes to minimise their overall tax payments. Australia’s long history of such schemes is chequered by issues of probity and competence. Five of the six largest schemes collapsed financially.

High finance. Large institutional investment funds purchased state, forest industry and investment scheme plantations. They represent mainly international pension/­superannuation funds that balance their portfolios (according to risk, return, growth, property, etc) with a proportion of this type of asset in different regions of the world. They now control almost half of Australia’s plantations.

Reflection

These three histories of plantations prompt reflection on the changes and continuities of the larger context in which they were set. At first, the seventeenth century can seem so remote as to be irrelevant to our concerns. John Evelyn was born into a world of five-hundred million people, now there are seven billion. He could not have imagined that species could be extinguished, but they have; nor that the globe’s climate could be changed, but it has. Nevertheless, some themes span the centuries between us.

Personal qualities endure. Evelyn ensured that sick and wounded seamen were cared for, just as public health officials do for sick people today. Curiosity and ingenuity drove his life just as it does with scientists today. His passion for trees has not been lost. His insistence on ‘all the sorts of trees’ is today’s biodiversity, although such intelligent insistence may be in vain in any century.

Globalisation affected his life as it does ours. The Anglo-Dutch wars were tussles for power and trade that stretched to the East Indies, Africa and the Americas. Now, tussles between other great powers span the world. So too with contagions and the emissions that change the climate.

The questions that plantations might answer have changed with century and questioner. Evelyn was convinced that they could answer the Navy’s question and restore the English woods; both matters of public interest. He also showed that they could answer questions in private landscape designs. In Australia, state plantations were seen for a century as offering public answers to problems of wood supply. Private plantations followed state success.

Now the questions and questioners are diverse. Plantations have answered the neo-liberals’ call to shrivel public enterprise, but the public benefits and costs of this are obscure. Plantations have provided an asset that investment funds could buy to balance their portfolios. There is no reason to assume that they might wish to expand, develop or necessarily retain their holdings in Australia. National interest that weighed strongly for Evelyn, weighs lightly in Australia now.

Plantations must provide their inevitable answer to the problems of supplying wood as populations increase. Just as the long history of agriculture shows, arboriculture changes nature to productive purpose. Yet it can also provide answers for environmental benefit. Plantations feature in calls to protect the ecology of Australia’s forests, and for their carbon credits to off-set the emissions wrapping the world.

Plantations exhibit the great paradox: we strive with ingenuity to intensify production for our needs, while we seek to restore a natural world so that we can live in it.


About the Author

John Dargavel has been interested in John Evelyn ever since he found a third edition of Sylva in an Edinburgh bookshop over sixty years ago. He has practised and researched the science, history and political economy of forestry in Australia and elsewhere. He is honorary associate professor in the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University. He is currently investigating the paradoxes of how the environment appears in a variety of aspects of everyday life.

Contact: [email protected]


Further Reading

R.G. Albion, Forests and Sea Power: The Timber Problem of the Royal Navy 1652-1862 (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1926).

Australia’s State of the Forests Report 2018 (Canberra: Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences) https://www.agriculture.gov.au/abares/forestsaustralia/sofr/sofr-2018

Geoffrey Bolton, Spoils and Spoilers: Australian’s Make Their Environment 1788—1980 (Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1981).

Jane Brown, The Art and Architecture or English Gardens: Design for the Garden from the Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects, 1609 to the Present Day (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989).

John Dargavel, Fashioning Australia’s Forests (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1995).

John Dargavel and Noel Semple, eds, Prospects for Australian Forest Plantations (Canberra: Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, Australian National University, 1990).

Rhys Downham and Mijo Gavran, Australian Plantation Statistics 2019 Update (Canberra: Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences) https://doi.org/10.25814/5cc65ae71465f

John Evelyn, Sylva, or a Discourse on Forest-trees and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesties Dominions [London, 1st edn. 1664], in The Writings of John Evelyn, (ed.) G. de la Bédoyère (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1995). Reprint of 4th 1706 edn. at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/20778/20778-h/20778-h.htm

N.D.G James, A History of English Forestry (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981).

The Lenox Project, http://www.buildthelenox.org/

Principal Officers and Commissioners of the Navy, ‘Quaeries touching ye Preserving of Timber now growing, And planting more in his Maj. Dominions of England and Wales’, Royal Society, Classified Papers, 1662, vol. x(iii): 20.

Joan Thirsk, ed., The Agrarian History of England and Wales, vol. v 1640-1750, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).