MTO Forestry: balance between forestry and conservation

February 28, 2010

With droughts, floods, fires, baboons, elephants and fynbos to contend with, MTO Forests has the challenging responsibility of managing extensive plantations in some of the most beautiful and biologically diverse regions of South Africa.

MTO forestry team MTO village

The MTO forestry team in S. Cape (left to right) Connie Jonker, Karl-Heinz Niemand, contractor Henry Scheepers and Nico van den Berg.

This is one of several villages located on MTO leased land. It has been handed over to the local municipality to take advantage of municipal services.

 

The MTO plantations in the Southern and Western Cape have been managed since 2005 in terms of a lease agreement signed with the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. These plantations were managed by Safcol prior to the privatisation initiative.

MTO Forestry is managed as two regions:

  • The Western Operations, comprising the Boland forests together with Cape Sawmills and Airton Timbers, cover 15 500 ha, with 11 000 ha plantable. In terms of MTO's lease agreement, most of these areas were not intended to be replanted, but were required to be rehabilitated and returned to the State. However, Government reversed its exit strategy in 2008 and allowed 50% to be replanted to commercial forestry again.
  • The Eastern Operations comprises 55 000 ha (32 000 ha planted) stretching from Riversdale in the west to Thornhill near PE in the east, and includes two sawmills, Boskor and George. The combined intake capacity of the two mills is approximately 245 000 m³ of which 100% is supplied from own resources. The total yearly timber production from the Eastern Operations is approximately 450 000 to 500 000 m³.

The Eastern Operations' plantations extend for 450 kms in a long, narrow strip running parallel to the coast with the southern portion situated mainly on steep slopes in the foothills of the Outeniqua Mountains, and the Tsitsikama plantations on the flatter coastal plains. The two main species planted are Pinus radiata and Pinus elliottii. There are still large areas under Pinus pinaster but these are slowly being phased out and replanted with P. radiata.

About 50% of MTO's forestry operations are outsourced to contractors. Harvesting is done mainly by motor-manual systems using skidders and cable yarders. Harvesting on the flatter areas around Tsitsikamma is, however, more mechanised.

All MTO plantations are FSC certified, and the mills are chain-of-custody certified.

"The trees are slow growing because we are in the mountains, but the quality of the timber is good," said Karl-Heinz Niemand, general manager of the Eastern Operations. "MAIs are in the 10-12 m3 per ha range, compared to some areas in Mpumalanga which get MAIs of 20 m³ and upwards."

Optimum rotations have been reduced from 35 to 30 years, still a long time to wait for trees to grow by South African standards.

Karl-Heinz says that Sirex is under control in the Southern Cape, but Fusarium and baboon damage is a growing problem.

The mythical Knysna elephants are definitely still around. Evidence of their presence is regularly found inside the pine plantations but very few foresters have actually seen them.

"I've seen the tracks so I know they're there," said Forest Manager Connie Jonker. "There's at least one adult and a smaller animal." To prove his point he showed me a metal sign that was recently mangled by one of the big pachyderms.

Fires are another cause of constant concern for the MTO team that had to contend with a particularly bad fire season in 2005.

"Fires are part of our lives, though we had very few losses last year despite the drought. I am, however, worried that if we don't get adequate rain before the start of the Berg wind season, we could be in for trouble during 2010," said Connie.

MTO is very active in the Southern Cape FPA which, says Connie, is doing excellent work and is one of the reasons why they've had fewer fires in past months. They have also implemented a new integrated fire management strategy creating strategic buffer zones with wider fire breaks and clean areas beneath the canopy to reduce runaway wildfires.

The Southern Cape seems to have born the brunt of extreme weather conditions in recent years. Rainfall records show that 2007 was the wettest in 50 years, causing flooding in the Tsitsikamma and Outeniqua regions that pushed up the harvesting and transport costs from R70 to R94 per m3. Now the area has been gripped by a severe drought, with 2009 the driest since 1906.

"This year we have only had about 50% of our annual average of 1 100 mm a year," said Karl-Heinz. "The rivers are drying up, young trees are dying and everything is slowing down."

Alien weed control is another focus area for MTO with black wattle (Acacia mearnsii), long-leaved wattle (A. longifolia), blackwood (A. melanoxylon) and various Eucalyptus species being a major threat to both plantation and conservation areas.

MTO Forestry has a huge responsibility to environmental conservation as their plantations are situated in areas predominantly supporting fynbos and indigenous forest vegetation. The fynbos vegetation is the smallest of six floral kingdoms worldwide, and is recognised for its high level of biodiversity. Unplanted areas comprise 63% of the MTO Forestry leases, and are managed as conservation areas with long-term planning. In addition, 18 indigenous forests are monitored and managed as part of the High Conservation Value Forest programme.

Utilisation and harvesting of non-timber products is a small but important part of MTO's operations. Local communities may obtain free permits to collect firewood in certain areas, and local companies are able to tender for the harvesting of plant products. One of the best-known products harvested off MTO plantations and sold in international cut-flower markets are forest ferns, another is honeybush tea which is harvested at Lottering in Tsitsikamma where it grows under young pine plantations.

In terms of the lease agreements, MTO is also required to provide recreational access to members of the public, and the company offers mountain biking trails, hiking trails and other eco-tourism activities.

The MTO Forestry Skills Training Centre at Concordia provides job-related training to MTO Forestry staff, contractors and outside organisations, training over 6 000 people a year.

MTO's Karatara nursery in Sedgefield produces approximately three million pine seedlings a year (mostly P. elliottii and P. radiata) and has contributed to improved productivity through the development of improved seedlings and seed stock.

Contractor empowerment at MTO

MTO has committed to encouraging the development of emerging entrepreneurs by providing opportunities and assistance to viable new contractor businesses.

One such entrepreneur is harvesting contractor Henry Scheepers who was busy doing thinnings at Ruitersbos, an MTO plantation situated on the slopes of the Outeniqua mountains overlooking Mossel Bay, when SA Forestry magazine visited. Henry has been contracting for MTO for about three years, and employs a team of 12-14 people.

Initially, he was working off short-term contracts, but as his business became more established and his productivity increased, his contract was extended to three years.

The tractor he uses was purchased by MTO and is leased back to the contractor who will own it after five years. This arrangement is a big help to the start-up contracting businesses who generally struggle to access finance for expensive equipment.

Henry has a hands-on approach and spends most days in the plantation keeping a close eye on his team to make sure the timber flows smoothly and everything is done properly. He is more than happy with the way the job is going as he needs to do around 11 m3 a day to break even, and he is currently averaging around 23 m3 a day.

The job involves row thinnings to reduce the number of trees from 600 to 400 per ha. This operation gives the remaining trees in the compartment room to grow and creates an extraction route at the same time. The contracting team has also been felling trees along the riparian zone to meet FSC requirements and make it easier to manage those areas.

The trees are felled and de-limbed in-field with chainsaws, and skidded out of the compartments using a tractor with a winch. They are cross-cut and stacked neatly at roadside for collection by the timber trucks.

Henry is well informed about pests and diseases and lets Nico van den Berg, the MTO forester in charge of the contractor teams in the field and the plantation roads, know if he notices anything unusual.

Published in February 2010

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