The 'seeds' of industry

For many centuries Australian Aborigines have utilised and managed their surrounding natural forests. Depending on the region and the season, they used techniques such as burning and selective harvesting to use what they needed and to encourage regeneration.

When Europeans arrived they needed timber for building but their tools were inadequate for many of the hardwoods they found. The red cedar found in many areas of NSW and QLD was ideal as it was much softer and easier for them to work with. This species could be found in abundance in the hinterland in the Gympie region.

Red cedar (sometimes called ‘Red Gold’) was an invaluable resource used to construct buildings, machinery, furniture and infrastructure in many pioneering settlements. It even became one of the major export commodities at the time. Native hoop and cypress pines were also logged in some areas.

As forestry tools became more advanced, the hardwood eucalypts soon became accessible resources too and the industry expanded to include them. Forestry products were used for the construction of houses, railways, mine shaft supports, telegraph poles and more much as they still are today.

It wasn’t just the timber that was used though; leaves, fruits, roots and vines were all used for things like food, medicine and baskets. Some of the early pioneers were mindful of the ecology and only took what they needed but some plundered the forests rapidly with no thought of regeneration. Photographs and artworks of the goldfields across the country often showed vast areas of land that had been clear-felled so that barely a tree remained for miles. Many of these settlements are long gone and the forests have returned with mounds, ditches and small dams often all that remains to mark their location.

Early management

In the late 1800’s there was a small but gradual push to conserve the forests and protect them from clear-felling and wastage. In 1900, the Queensland government appointed the first Inspector of Forests to begin the delicate balancing act of forestry management. On the one hand there was an obvious and growing need for timber for construction across the state and beyond. It was vital for the growth of the economy both as a local resource and as an export commodity. However on the other hand it became increasingly clear that unless something was done to control the overexploitation of the forests, it would only be a matter of time before there were no more viable trees to use.

In some regions, selective use of the forests for grazing and recreational activities was allowed. In the areas selected for felling transport of the giant logs was done using horse and bullock teams later followed by steam tractors and early motor powered trucks.

Laws were created to regulate forest usage especially in ecologically sensitive areas and the first National Parks in Queensland were established in the Bunya Mountains and at Tamborine Mountain near Brisbane. Around this time people noticed that the areas of red cedar that had been excessively logged in the north of the state had actually started to regenerate naturally. During the Great Depression, unemployed men were given the task of re-planting many forests. In the following decades much research was done to find the best ways to encourage healthy re-growth (such as pruning and spacing) and to choose the best species to re-plant in each region. Great advances were made in timber cutting and processing techniques.

A key part of the economy

By World War 1 there were 8 plywood processing plants in the stage and by 1927 there were 257 saw mills many of which were privately owned. This had increased to over 600 mills by 1936. Other supporting industries also employed many people including transport suppliers, flooring contractors and furniture makers.

In the early 1920’s the Mary Valley was home to one of the first state run commercial pine plantations. Native hoop pine was mainly used to replace the dwindling supply of other softwoods. This species was especially suited to the soil and climate of the region. The harvesting procedures used for hoop pine were also originally applied to exotic pines however these were not successful. It took another 10 years for new techniques to be developed that allowed for the viable use of exotic pines in plantations.

Finding manpower

During World War 2 there was a huge labour shortage in the timber and many other industries. However the demand for timber was higher than ever due for the need to use it in defence constructions. It was classed as an ‘essential industry’ and the government resolved the labour issue by using European prisoners of war to do the work.

After the war thousands of European refugees were re-settled in Australia most were required to work in various government services for 2 years after which many decided to remain here. A large portion of the European men were sent to work in the timber industry to help meet the growing need for infrastructure materials. The use of early chainsaws revolutionised the industry around this time.

Maintaining balance

In the early to mid 20th Century there was a conflicting demand for land use. The Lands Department wanted to clear large areas of crown land for agriculture and legislation changes also allowed for more private ownership in these areas. At the same time, those involved with forestry management argued for many areas to be kept for conservation, managed plantations and recreation. After careful consideration, a high portion of the prime areas were set aside for the creation of State Forests.

By the 1970’s there was also a movement calling for the end to commercial plantations and a return to completely natural forests. From that point it became even more vital to balance the use of land and forests between the conservationists, the plantation operators and the developers.

The modern forest

Since the first appointment of the Inspector of Forests responsibility for these precious resources has been spread across multiple state government departments and private owners. In 2006 the government sold the commercial plantations to Hancock Queensland (HQ) Plantations and retained responsibility for the native forests. All are managed with the latest in industry technology and internationally recognised best practices.

So next time you are out in a forested area, pay attention to the little clues and signs around you reflecting its colourful history and thank those who fought for the forests to remain accessible to you and to future generations.