Department of Woods & Forests

In 1875, South Australia established the first Government forest management organisation in the, then, British Empire.

When first settled by Europeans, South Australia had only limited native forest of commercial interest; so it was imperative that the young community be provided with quality building and timber products. Early farming practices, and the demand for timber, quickly caused the depletion of a large proportion of the higher rainfall vegetation.

An Act passed in 1873 to encourage people to grow trees had not shifted the public’s attitude, so Parliament took up the responsibility by establishing a Board to protect and regenerate natural vegetation, and to establish commercial forests.

Founded in 1875, the Department’s predecessor - the Forest Board - was instrumental in establishing the first broad-scale plantings in 1876. Following renaming to the Woods & Forests Department in 1882, this body continued to pioneer most of the establishment and utilisation practices now in use for Radiata pine softwood plantations.

As the State’s forest authority, it adopted a continuing policy of research in all aspects of softwood forestry and forest products. In its three sawmill’s [sic] in the State’s South East, it also led the way in the timber milling industry, by introducing kiln seasoning in 1926 and, in 1930, the grading and branding of seasoned timber became standard practice; this was before it became a minimum requirement of Standards Association of Australia specifications for Radiata pine timber and products.

In July 1992, Cabinet approved the first stage of an amalgamation between Woods & Forests and the South Australian Timber Corporation. This involved bringing together the timber processing and marketing activities of both organisations into a fully owned Government company called Forwood Products Pty Ltd. This occurred progressively during the financial year and culminated in the amalgamation being fully operational as from 1 July 1993.

Over the same period of time, the forestry aspect of Woods & Forests was merged into the newly formed department of Primary Industries SA. Under PISA, it will continue its pioneering work for the benefit of the people of this State.

(Source: PISA Annual Report, 1992-93)


Rob Robinson, PIRSA Forestry

(This article was published in History SA, the newsletter of the Historical Society of South Australia, in May 2005 and was edited lightly in July 2005 for the website.) 

Because it has few areas with high rainfall, South Australia lacks abundant native forests. Thus, the small area able to provide timber has been in high demand from the time of European settlement. Given these circumstances, South Australia’s successful plantation-based forest industry has been a pioneering development of world forestry significance.

The South Australian government took a leading role in establishing a sustainable forest industry. In 1870 Surveyor-General George Goyder’s concerns about over-exploitation of native forests were raised in Parliament. He recommended the establishment of forest reserves. A Forestry Board, appointed in 1875, was given responsibility for the management and protection of 195 000 acres (79 000 ha) of natural forest and cleared land, and began to develop plantations and encourage reafforestation of farmlands.

In 1876 tree nurseries and planting trials were initiated in the Mid North and Mount Gambier in the South East to find suitable tree species and locations for plantations. Bundaleer Forest Reserve near Jamestown became Australia’s first commercial plantation forest.

The Woods and Forests Department (now ForestrySA) was established in 1882 and is one of the oldest plantation-based forestry authorities in the world.

The Department was charged with:

  • overseeing and controlling the cutting in native forests;
  • demonstrating the practicability of plantation forestry; and
  •  providing trees to landholders and farmers around the colony.

By the early 20th century, Radiata pine had proven to be the most promising species and extensive planting of pine were being undertaken in the Mid North and the Adelaide Hills. Large-scale plantings commenced in the South East in 1907. Rates fluctuated until growth problems due to trace element deficiencies were solved by research in 1939. Radiata pine is now the mainstay of commercial forestry for both government and private companies in South Australia.

The establishment of plantations was assisted in several ways. Significant funds were provided by an Australian–British government migration scheme from 1926 to 1933; federally-sponsored ‘Boys Camps’, established during the depression to alleviate youth unemployment, provided labour; and Italian and German internees and prisoners-of-war were used as a labour force from 1941 to 1945.

Radiata pine was first milled successfully in the Mid North at Wirrabara Forest in 1903, but not until 1930 was there sufficient timber to construct a large-scale sawmill in the South East. Because private industry was not interested in purchasing or milling the wood, the State government established sawmills and the associated towns of Mount Burr in 1931 and Nangwarry in 1941.

Private sector forestry enterprises slowly became established in the South East. By 1935 SAPFOR (now Auspine) had established 6200 acres (2500 ha) of plantations and formed a small sawmilling company. Softwood Holdings (now Green Triangle Forest Products) commenced in 1937 and gradually expanded to become a major grower, sawmiller and particle board manufacturer. Cellulose Australia commenced in 1941 as large amounts of pulpwood became available. As this did not absorb all the timber available, in 1958 the State government built and operated the Mount Gambier State Sawmill, then the largest in the southern hemisphere. In 1960 the large Apcel pulp mill opened near Millicent in the South East and began large-scale production of tissue paper. These operations, plus recent developments in plywood manufacture and laminating technologies, have ensured a high utilisation of forest resources.

Potentially significant timber supply problems arose in the 1950s and 1960s when a drop in productivity in many second rotation pine sites was detected. Research led to improved management of soil organic matter, appropriate weed control and fertiliser use. With genetic improvement through tree breeding, this has resulted in steady productivity gains.

South Australian forestry ‘firsts’ include sawn pine-seasoning techniques, timber-grading, preservative treatment of timber for outdoor and rural use, and cooperative tree breeding programs, all of which led to the successful establishment of the home-grown plantation timber resource. Radiata pine, once spurned by the building and construction industries in favour of imported timbers, has gained nationwide acceptance.

Fire protection has always been a major factor in managing plantations. Serious bushfires occurred in 1939, 1944, 1950 and 1959. The worst losses were on Ash Wednesday 1983 when some 25% of the Woods and Forests Department’s plantations in the State were destroyed.

During the 1990s the government recognised an increasingly competitive market for forest products. This was compounded in times of market downturn when the milling and marketing functions of the Woods and Forests Department had limited opportunity to reduce operations and costs compared with the private sector. Consequently the commercial timber processing and marketing operations were sold to the private sector during 1997. In 2001 ForestrySA became a government-owned corporation.

During the 1990s the government’s native plant nurseries were also transferred from ForestrySA pending sale or closure. The Cavan site was eventually sold and the Berri and Bundaleer sites were closed. Murray Bridge and Belair continue to trade as State Flora – a business unit of the Department of Water, Land and Biodiversity Conservation. The Belair Nursery celebrated 120 years of operation in 2006.


Boardman, R., 'Living on the Edge – the Development of Silviculture in South Australian Pine Plantations’, Australian Forestry, 51(3), 1987.

Lewis, N.B., A Hundred Years of State Forestry, Woods & Forests Department, Adeladie, 1975.

Robinson, R. & Johnston, P., ‘Forestry in South Australia’ in The Wakefield Companion to South Australian History, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2001.

Woods and Forests Department, Annual Reports (1882–1992).

Page Last Reviewed: 20 Nov 2017
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