Russian logs… Canada, Germany and Russia may be the best bets for additional structural softwood supplies in Australia.

THE anecdotal evidence suggests that, at least over the past few weeks and despite the coronavirus, the timber industry and construction and building sectors have been busy.

The general manager of the Australian Timber Importers Federation John Halkett says that in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic it is easy to forget that timber and forestry industries are still coming to terms with supply realities in the aftermath of the devastating summer bushfires.

“While construction and building activity did take an appreciable dip towards the end of 2019 and into 2020, current reports suggest that activity has picked up, with some timber wholesalers and resellers telling us they are busy handling significant orders,” he said.

Mr Halkett said ATIF continued to operate during the angst over COVID-19, notwithstanding the requirements for social distancing and isolation.

Discussions with federal government officials were ongoing in relation to various matters, he said. However, a meeting scheduled with the Assistant Minister for Forestry Senator Jonathan Duniam to discuss some key issues had been postponed. The ATIF board meeting scheduled for May had also been deferred.

“Routine construction and building activity, and the need for rebuilding of the more than 5000 structures destroyed during the bushfires, indicates that the demand for timber products in the second half of the year, assuming the coronavirus is brought under control, should be buoyant,” Mr Halkett said.

“Even before the bushfires, demand for imported timber products was strong, as domestic production continues to be constrained by resource availability,” he said.

It is acknowledged that with log salvage harvesting and sawmilling activities across the estimated 94,000 ha of softwood plantations impacted by the bushfires ramping up, the supply of domestically produced softwood products is expected to be boosted in the short to medium term.

“However, in the medium to longer term, Canada, Germany and Russia may be the best bets for additional structural softwood supplies that can meet Australia’s construction and building demands,” Mr Halkett said.

The situation in relation to hardwoods will also be challenging, with past pressure on forest resources in Indonesia and Malaysia possibly limiting the capacity of these countries to expand on current supply levels.”

More broadly, Mr Halkett said some confusion continued to exist regarding the status of forest-based industries as parts of the economy shut shop in an endeavour to deal with the coronavirus threat. Recently, Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Minister David Littleproud said that forestry activity was regarded as part of the agriculture and primary industry.

“There hasn’t been anything singling us [forestry] out as separate from others in terms of ‘essential’ as yet, but also nothing saying we’re not. Ambiguous I know but that’s what we have,” Mr Halkett said.

“So, by default, the timber industry is considered ‘essential’ simply because no one has said otherwise. Clearly, forestry is not on the list of non-essential businesses and is reasonably considered essential – at least until further notice.