Celebrating 70 years of forestry research

July 24, 2017

Recent ICFR Field day, KZN Midlands.

This year the Institute for Commercial Forestry Research (ICFR) is celebrating 70 years of research work that has contributed enormously to the sustainability and competitiveness of the South African forestry sector.

The ICFR’s origins date back to 1947 with the establishment of the Wattle Research Institute (WRI) by the members of the SA Wattle Growers Union (SAWGU). It was set up to lead and co-ordinate research into black wattle which was being grown extensively across the summer rainfall regions of South Africa. The crop was grown primarily for its bark used in the manufacture of tannin.

Government research capacity at the time was focused on the growing of pine for saw timber.

Under the leadership of its first Director, Dr H Shaw, the WRI undertook a range of research aimed at improving the productivity and quality of wattle crops, establishing strong links with growers, government, tree research institutes and universities along the way. This has been a hallmark of the Institute’s work throughout its history.

Dr H Shaw, the WRI's first Director, 1948 to 1967.

Black and white photos documenting WRI activities from this early period tell a story of pioneering work in tree improvement, soil and water research and studies to improve understanding of pests and diseases affecting wattle. There are also many photos of field days attended by forestry stakeholders at which research findings were shared and new technologies demonstrated.

A hallmark of those early days was the formal attire worn by researchers and foresters alike. Suits and ties were standard, whether posing for a staff photo in the board room or out in the field, and there was certainly no sign of any PPE.

This interaction of researchers with foresters and growers in order to share research knowledge was a focal point of the Institute’s work then, and still is today.

Another common thread running through the Institute’s history has been the need to regularly adapt the nature and focus of research work to meet the needs of an industry that is constantly evolving. Whether it’s the development of new markets, changing socio-political circumstances, shifting weather patterns or new pests and diseases, researchers have had to ‘adapt or die’ to remain relevant to the needs of funders and the industry.

Colonel Bates and MA Stewart cross-cutting wattle at Bloemendal Research Farm, early 1950s.

K Nixon with selected wattle trees in aluminium containers, 1950s.

D Boden presenting at a field day at Bloemendal, 1986.

With the decline of the wattle bark market in the 50s and early 60s and the commencement of planting short rotation eucalypts and pine by private farmers and corporates, the scope of research undertaken by the Institute was broadened to include eucalyptus and pine.

Private and corporate grower associations were also changing to reflect the new forestry profile with the establishment of the SA Timber Growers Association and the Forest Owners’ Association.

Peter Shaw succeeded SP Sherry as Director of WRI in 1967, with Tony Stubbings taking the reins in 1974.

Birth of ICFR
On 13 September 1984 the WRI was reconstituted and re-named the Institute for Commercial Forestry Research (ICFR) to more accurately reflect its broader research focus covering wattle, eucalyptus and pine.

Through the 1980s silviculture research was rolled out across all three tree genera, the outcomes of which are reflected in most of the best operating practices used by companies across the industry today.

The Karkloof experiment explored the effects of intensive silviculture on nutrient dynamics and site productivity.

In 1990, government funding for the ICFR ceased abruptly, and the Institute became increasingly reliant on private sector funding. John Tew, who had succeeded Tony Stubbings as Director for a short period, passed the reins on to Peter Roberts who continued in the position until 1998 when Colin Dyer became Director.

Those were turbulent times as political changes were sweeping through South Africa and the forestry department was re-evaluating its traditional role in the forestry sector.

In 1997 the Board decided to cut the ICFR’s formal ties with the (then) University of Natal as it was felt that the Institute needed its autonomy in order for it to continue to serve the needs of funders and the industry.

However the ICFR has retained a strong association with the (now) University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), as well as other universities engaged in related research including NMMU, Stellenbosch, Pretoria and Free State Universities.

The development of a timber winch for small-scale growers is a collaboration between ICFR and students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and is funded through the DST Forest Sector Innovation Fund.

In 2002 Forestry South Africa (FSA) was born as a single association representing growers, including small scale growers, with a mandate to support research. FSA currently provides core (baseline) funding to the ICFR to support collaborative research and infrastructure.

ICFR’s work became increasingly project based as it was reliant on private sector funding. Research programmes covered tree improvement, re-establishment and sustainable forest productivity.

Forest protection soon became a new priority area of focus with the arrival of new pests and diseases impacting on tree crops. This came with a need for closer collaboration between research institutes, government and the private sector.

In 2002 a national Sirex control programme was launched to counter the impact of this destructive pest on pines. Fabi, part of the TPCP programme at the University of Pretoria, spearheaded the introduction of a bio-control agent for Sirex, while the introduction and monitoring of the biocontrol throughout the timber growing regions of South Africa was undertaken by the ICFR. Government later came on board with funding support.

ICFR team innoculating pines, part of the Sirex control programme.

Forest protection model
This highly successful programme has served as a model for subsequent forest protection work as well as for the development of national forest protection policy.

The Pitch canker control programme which began in 2010 was funded by the private sector through FSA and a successful strategy was developed involving improved hygiene in nurseries and the replacement of Pinus patula with more resistant species and hybrids.

Research work continues in an effort to curb the impact of Leptocybe invasa and wattle rust, as well as the development of risk maps to monitor the impact of baboon damage on pines in Mpumalanga.

The DST Forest Sector Innovation Fund was introduced in 2015 with the ICFR spearheading a proposal which secured R25 million to support 11 research projects, five of which are run by ICFR.

The Fund has enabled ICFR to deepen and broaden current research as well as support more post-graduate students involved in research. There are currently 18 post-grad students working with the ICFR team on various projects.

Forest Engineering SA (FESA) initially housed at the University of Stellenbosch, was later administered by ICFR, and has now become part of forest operations research. During its lifetime, FESA played a key role in the development of the RTMS programme and the introduction of PBS timber trucks that have improved safety and productivity in timber transport. This was a collaboration between CSIR, ICFR and FESA, and is now benefitting several other industries as well.

Forestry handbooks
The development of Forestry Handbooks by FESA and the ICFR has captured the best operating practices in chainsaw operation, cable yarding, road building and maintenance and other aspects of forestry operations. These BOPs, based on sound research, have been adopted widely in the industry.

The ICFR team shares its knowledge with stakeholders at field days held regularly in forest growing areas, as well as forest research meetings and symposia, and also through the publishing of papers and articles in science journals. Since the early 1990s ICFR work has also been available to members – and forestry students across the country – through the website.

As the ICFR contemplates a change of leadership in mid-2017, the environment within which forestry operates is also on the move. New markets for wood and biomass are emerging, land reform is changing the profile of growers, mechanization accelerates, the impacts of climate change and new pests and diseases gather momentum.

So a new era of research that must meet the needs of a dynamic industry begins.

*First published in SA Forestry magazine, June 2017

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