Revisiting eucalypts—a strategic assessment
A prolonged recession is as good a time as any to re-examine one’s premises: to identify what is excellent and what is failing. For too long pine foresters have been involved in an industry that – like airlines, computer hardware and semiconductors – it has on aggregate suffered a loss of capital during the last decade. Over the last 50 years the State has invested $1 billion on forest R&D – and most of that on pine. This has not provided the expected returns because it failed to appreciate the huge natural variability with respect to wood quality, and especially in the corewood of pine. The intrinsic wood properties of today’s pine are little better than that of 80 years ago. The belated recognition that all species are unimproved with regard to intrinsic wood properties puts eucalypt and pine on an equal footing in that both face the same challenge of getting the best out of the existing resource, as well as of developing greatly improved breeds. Eucalypts, and alternative species generally, have been ignored by most forest companies with support coming largely from farm foresters and small investors. Many have been on the receiving end of the question “Why bother?” when pressing the case for the possibility of planting eucalypts. Too often this is followed by a condescending explanation of past failures, and that in the old days the Forest Service tested hundreds of species and that radiata pine was the winner. We tried, they did not work out. Yet any professional gambler will tell you that “you don't bet on the horse you think is gonna win, you bet on the horse that’s got the best odds”; and that you spread your bets/investments (alternative species) and hedge against uncertainties. Our failure to develop a large eucalypt estate is in stark contrast to other Southern Hemisphere countries (Table 1), both in temperate and sub-tropical regions. Most of these plantations are being established by the private sector, which is looking to maximize profit. Many of the new projects involve very high biomass productivity (either for pulp or energy production). These are cutthroat businesses where New Zealand has little prospect of competing on equal terms with countries like Brazil or Uruguay. However around the world there has been less progress with solid wood products and therein lies an opportunity.