Opportunity grows for eucalypt forests
The failure of railway sleepers imported from Peru highlights the potential for New Zealand-grown eucalypt timber if an industry can get off the ground, says Marlborough forester Paul Millen.
Mr Millen is the manager of the New Zealand Dryland Forests Initiative which is selecting and breeding eucalypt species suitable for growing on drought- and erosion-prone farmland in Marlborough, Gisborne, Hawke's Bay, the Wairarapa and Canterbury.
In 2003 the group imported seed from 25 species of eucalypt grown in trial plots around New Zealand. The best species had been identified and the first selection of improved seedlings could be ready for planting in two or three years, Mr Millen said.
Like pine trees, eucalypts would take 25 to 30 years to mature.
"Our plan is to see 120,000 hectares [of eucalypt] planted by 2050," Mr Millen said.
The group has applied for $3.8 million of Science and Innovation Ministry funding towards a six-year research and development programme and expects a decision at the end of this month.
Radio NZ yesterday reported that KiwiRail had admitted a fungus rotting hardwood sleepers on its network seemed to have contributed to two derailments. About 7000 of 100,000 sleepers imported from Peru during the past decade had decayed, many on bridges or in tunnels.
KiwiRail chief executive Jim Quinn said all sleepers showing advanced decay were being replaced at $250 to $1000 each in a programme he expected to be completed early next year.
Mr Millen said the tropical hardwood used in railway sleepers and also power-pole cross-arms replaced eucalypt from Australia. This ground-durable timber started disappearing about 15 years ago as Australian forests were protected without new plantations being planted.
Poor performance of tropical hardwood was an international problem so an international as well as domestic opportunity for New Zealand, Mr Millen said.
"It's the wood that's non durable, not the fungus that's the problem," he said.
Ironbark-type eucalypts like those used in original railway sleepers were growing successfully in the Wither Hills, he said. The timber also had potential as vineyard posts, providing an alternative to pine treated with toxic copper chromium arsenate preservative.
The project had been in its development stage for about 10 years, identifying suitable eucalypt species and techniques for growing them, Mr Millen said.
The project had support from businesses including Proseed, wooden products manufacturer Juken New Zealand, Vineyard Timbers Ltd and Marlborough Lines as well as the Farm Forestry New Zealand, district and regional councils, the University of Canterbury School of Forestry and the Marlborough Research Centre.
- The Marlborough Express