16th May - Gum Trees

When Warrawong was purchased in 1969, it was an intensive dairy. There were no habitats for wildlife. These had to be developed. It is relatively easy to develop a creek or a pool. One simply digs a hole and waits till it rains. It is relatively easy to develop scrubland. One simply plants many, many trees and shrubs. However, it is not as easy to develop forests. Of course one can plant the trees and wait thirty or forty years. I did not have 30 years.

Probably the first breakthrough came when I meant Brenton Tucker who was battling to develop a native plant nursery near Warrawong. One only needed to look at his seedlings to know that he knew what he was doing. In fact nearly all the trees and shrubs at Warrawong Sanctuary were grown by Brenton Tucker.

I had purchased some native tree seedlings from an Adelaide nursery. They were in tiny tubes. Although they survived, they simply did not achieve the growth rates necessary to establish a forest, say, in ten years. Brenton’s seedlings were much better. He used small plastic bags instead of tubes. The seedlings looked much more vigorous. However, they still did not achieve what I needed. A seedling, a few inches high, planted in Autumn would grow about a metre a year. Just not good enough.

Then one day Brenton mentioned to me that because of an extraordinary early spring, he had some eucalypt seedlings ready for planting in December. Normally his seeds planted in October would not be ready until the following Autumn. He had some eucalyptus dalrympleana, grandis and saligna ready. I had a spot picked out where I wanted a tall forest. It was covered with blackberries, so I thoroughly ploughed it all up with the tractor and planted the seedlings. Since it was our dry period I flooded the area with water immediately after planting and then left them to their own resources.

The results, from this summer planting, were absolutely astounding. By Autumn, when I would normally have seedlings just 20 cms high, I had saplings over two metres. They just kept growing. The next year I went to special efforts to plant thousands and thousands of eucalypt seedlings in Summer. After ten years I had some amazing results. I cut some trees down, measured them, dried them and weighed them so my figures would be accurate. I list below my results:

Eucalypt species                                tonnes of dry wood per hectare

dalrympleana                                                  375
viminalis                                                         400
globulus                                                          600
grandis                                                                        625
nitens                                                              700
saligna                                                            750

To properly explain what all this means, other than allowing me to develop the Warrawong forests in a reasonable time, I need to point out a few facts.

First of all, a tree grows using photosynthesis. This is where it converts the energy from sunlight into glucose. The chemical formula is fairly simple:

sunlight + 6H2O + 6CO2 ----> C6H12O6 + 6O2

This just says that the energy in sunlight plus water, from the ground, and carbon dioxide, from the air is converted to glucose and oxygen. The glucose is then converted to wood using a formula like:

C6H12O6  ---> C6H10O5 + H2O

Normally, in Australia today, a fire then comes along and burns it all. The formula is:


2C6H10O5 + 12O2  --->   12CO2 + 10H2O + energy

Of course there are other minerals and things involved which return to the soil or the air when the wood is burned. However, the point is that in Australia today, we have a continuous cycle of trees growing and taking carbon dioxide out of the air and then burning and returning that carbon dioxide to the air. As well they absorb huge amounts of solar energy when they grow and give up that energy when they burn. Why not harness that energy?

In December 1988, Malcolm Newell published my results in the Adelaide Advertiser.

This was Newell’s article:

Read very, very carefully because you are about to confront the burning conviction of a man wise before his time. Dr John Wamsley, of Warrawong Sanc­tuary, nurtures a simple but powerful idea that few have bothered to consider - yet. And while I've no means of proving his scheme is technically and economically viable, we should attempt to find out urgently.
Influential denigrators will inevitably attempt to stifle Wamsley's brainchild. His fear of this, I believe, is real and not paranoid. The big energy combines have too much to lose were Wamsley's scheme adopted by governments.
But let's start at the beginning. Fossil and nuclear fuels are finite, particularly in a world facing rapid population growth. So a new form of energy production is overdue - a method that is self-regenerating and does not destroy the environment. A method that stays for all time in ecological balance.
Dr Wamsley has devised, tested and -he claims - proved such a method. You can see it for yourself at Warrawong. He calls it the "fuelwood energy model" and the basic research has taken 20 years.
Today, South Australia consumes about 30 petajoules of electricity a year, roughly the output of a one-gigawatt power station Were this power station to run on fuelwood, it would use 2.5 million tonnes a year. Warrawong has proved it possible to produce 50 tonnes of fuelwood a hectare a year.
Don’t drift away in the face of all these numbers. They are vital to the argument, the basis of the whole brilliant idea.
At the moment we have roughly 87,700 hectares of South Australian land planted
in pine trees. A meagre 50,000 hectares would provide fuelwood for that power station However, more would be needed because any viable scheme must be sus­tainable for all time. Trees must grow.
So Dr Wamsley's model needs 1 million hectares to be viable over time. Only 5 per cent of the standing timber would be used at 'any one time for harvesting. Using an Indian model, this would allow a 600-year cycle. Don't sniff, that's the way we should think. Short-term expediency has done too much violence to the environment as it is.
This 1 million hectares would act as the lungs of the power station. Tree leaves would absorb the carbon dioxide as it pours from the power station's smoke stacks. Ashes would go back to the forests to fertilise the trees. A sprinkling of acacias in the woodlot would fix the atmospheric nitrogen.
While the power station could go on for ever, Aborigines wishing to do so could also live in the forests with the native flora and fauna.
Dr Wamsley can extend this model to Australia and the world. Imagine transport running on electricity derived from this new form of energy instead of fossil
fuels. The concept is mind blowing yet never loses an arrogant simplicity.
Australia would consume about 500,000 hectares of fuelwood a year to meet current needs - a mere 1 per cent of land presently used for logging. The total energy needs of this country could be supplied from 4 million hectares or 10 per cent are the area now used for logging
Pause for breath. And as you do so, consider there is no pollution from the hot burning of wood.
When Dr Wamsley started his research, five to 10 tonnes of fuelwood a hectare a year were produced. This has climbed to 50 to 100 tonnes - and Dr Wamsley believes he can lift this to a huge 200 tonnes in a decade.
He takes the argument one massive step forward. If the world population reached 10 billion by the year 2000 - the point at which fossil fuels may well be exhausted - and all these people were able to enjoy a standard of living equal to ours, the fuelwood model could meet all energy needs.
The viable but dangerous alternative is nuclear power and the wide economic and political implications (some nations have uranium, others do not). So which, asks, Dr Wamsley, would you prefer to live with? At least 18,800 nuclear power stations built in the clouds of Chernobyl? Or 5 per cent of the world's land surface planted with trees to produce woodfuel?
And this Is 10 times the present annual consumption of energy. Today's demand could be met with just one half of 1 per cent of the total land surface. And this is to produce total energy needs, not just electricity.
But then, they didn’t listen to Galileo either.

 It was the letters to the editor that the article caused which were interesting. It was the first time that I realised that people were not interested in what was best, they just lived in their own little worlds with their own little agendas. I will however state here my reply to those letters since the Adelaide Advertiser would not.


Thankyou for allowing me the space to respond to comments on my fuelwood energy model. Here at Warrawong Sanctuary we are interested in positive conservation. We do not wish to go around telling people what they can and cannot do. We are involved in the saving of rare and endangered animals from extinction. We are involved in educating people about how they can live in balance with the environment in this world. We talk of sustainable agriculture. We talk of the rights of the diversity of life to exist. We are the biggest privately funded conservation programme in Australia. When I put forward the fuelwood energy model, I did so after twenty years of research into fuelwood production. We do have the oldest fuelwood trial lots in SA at Warrawong Sanctuary. It is impossible to answer all the questions likely to be raised in one short letter to the editor. I can only answer questions as they are presented. I can assure you that there is no flaw in the logic. I can assure you that it is practical. In fact I would go so far as to say that it is the only hope that mankind has for survival. However firstly let me elaborate slightly on the model I proposed.

The present electricity consumption in SA is 3OPJ (30,000,000,000,000,000 joules) per annum. This is the amount of electricity produced by a one GW (1,000,000,000 watt) power station. That is why I chose that size. Since one tonne of wood is equivalent to 16GJ (16,000,000,000 joules) and allowing for a 75% conversion rate, it would take 2.5 million tonnes of fuelwood per annum to fuel such a power station. We, here at Warrawong Sanctuary, have demonstrated that we can produce 50 tonnes per hectare per year. Therefore it would take a 50,000 hectare woodlot to service the fuel requirements of such a power station. It should be pointed out that at present in SA we use 87,700 hectares for growing pine trees. However, as Mr Smith (Advertiser 23/11/88) very rightly points out, one cannot just continue taking without putting back. In fact Mr Smith’s argument can be used with any agricultural or mining enterprise. Why does he not argue against wheat or wool or beef or uranium? Of course one has to use sustainable technology or it will ultimately fail. I have never suggested otherwise. Examples can be found throughout SA where we have attempted to do this. This was one of the reasons that I allocated one million hectares for this model. Only 5% of the area would be used, at any one time, for harvesting. For example, if the woodlot was run on the Indian model for eucalypt forest, then this would allow a 600 year cycle. I can assure Mr Smith that I would not propose any model that could not go on forever. I believe very strongly in the adage, “we do not inherit this land from our parents, we borrow it from our children". Another reason I chose that size was to do with land rights. However I will leave that for the present since there were no objections on that point.

To describe the model in detail would take a book. I can only convey the idea here. However the general idea is the one million hectare forest acts as the lungs of the power station. The carbon dioxide is absorbed through the leaves as it pours from the stack.

The ashes from the power station go back into the forest to fertilise it. A sprinkling of acacia trees throughout the woodlot fixes the atmospheric nitrogen. THIS power station WOULD go on FOREVER. And of course the one million hectares gives an area for the rightful owners of this land to live.

Total electricity consumption in Australia in 1984/85 was 365PJ. This would need 500,000 hectares of woodlot to service the actual fuel requirements. This is a mere 1% of the land presently used for logging in Australia. In fact the total energy consumption in Australia in 1984/85 was 3367PJ. This could be supplied on four million hectares, or just 10% of the area used for logging. In just twenty years of research we have increased the yield of eucalypts from 5-10 tonnes per hectare year to 50-100 tonnes per hectare year. I am certain I will be able to produce 200 tonnes per hectare year in another 11 years. Can Mr Drysdale guarantee nuclear fusion in 11 years? Because that is precisely what he is saying (Advertiser 22/11/88).

He says that 10 billion people will need.. ..This conjures up the image of these people all as energy hungry as the average Austra­lian. He says of Australia's population, "only one three-hundredth of the world’s population”. The argument,  “10 billion people living at our standard of living...", can be used to win any argument since the world simply cannot support 10 billion people living our wasteful lifestyle. A good example is our energy resources. Let us look at them. 10 billion people using energy at the rate of the average Australian would use 2500EJ (2,500,000,000,000,000,000,000 joules) per year. Reasonably assured world reserves are:-

Coal         - 1,000,000,000,000 tonnes or    25000EJ             or         10 years supply,
Oil            -  250,000,000,000 barrels or     15OOEJ              or         30 weeks supply,
Uranium   - 1,600,000 tonnes              or     1OOOEJ             or         20 weeks supply.

If the world population grows to 10 billion people, as Mr Drysdale forecasts, and if they use energy resources at the rate we do, as Mr Drysdale suggests, then the world's energy reserves will be exhausted by the year 2000. Just 11 years away. What then Mr Drysdale? If we do exhaust our fossil fuels and do manage to get our fast breeders and our fusion reactors up and running, then the Drysdale world would see, not 200 nuclear power stations, but seventy thousand. That is how many it will take to satisfy the Drysdale demand. Can we afford a Chernobyl a day?

Of course Mr Drysdale did not actually say that. He did say nuclear power together with continued fossil fuel burning. He did mention 28 power stations for Australia with one three-hundredth of the world's population doubling. 28 times 300 times 2 is 16,800 not 70,000. So only one quarter of the energy will come from nuclear power stations. The other three quarters of the energy will come from yet to be discovered fossil fuels. The Drysdale world promises a Chernobyl a week and "roll on greenhouse".

However a Warrawong world becomes a reality. The fuelwood energy model does extremely well here. At 200 tonnes per hectare year we have 3240GJ per hectare year. To produce 2500EJ per year we need less than a billion hectares or 5% of the total land surface. What would you prefer to live with, 16,800 nuclear power stations or 5% of the land planted to trees? But of course this is 10 times the present actual world energy consumption. This demand could be met with only one half of one percent of the total land surface. Further, only 20% of the energy usage is electrical.

When I put forward that which Mr Drysdale said was impractical, I merely put forward a model for a power station. All the world’s present electricity consumption could be produced on one tenth of one percent of the land surface.

Where, Mr Drysdale asks, on our crowded earth do you find that sort of space to grow trees on. One tenth of one percent is too much land, in a Drysdale world, for trees. The Drysdale world is certainly one I have no wish to be part of.

Using my original model of 95% resting forest it would still only take 2% of the earth’s total land surface to grow trees to produce all of the worlds current electricity needs in an environmentally acceptable sustainable programme.

There are powerful arguments why we need a percentage of forests in the world anyway. Most enlightened farm advisers talk of 20% tree cover for short term agricultural pursuits. It is easy to find examples in SA where we are now suffering through denudation of our farmland. There is no flaw in the logic. You may quibble about the exact amount of resources to be discovered or argue about exactly how much of our fossil fuel we can burn before we freeze or cook. But the simple fact is that we cannot go on forever defying nature. A Warrawong world offers hope. A Drysdale world offers nothing.

Another argument thrown in by Mr Drysdale is a real red herring. He talks about sulphur in coal. He talks of the smoke from cold burning slow combustion stoves. Then he says he does not know about wood but....  I am sure you know about wood Mr Drysdale. Wood is not a new fuel. In fact there was more wood burned in one day on Ash Wednesday in 1983 than a power station would burn in years. There is no pollution from the hot burning of wood. It is a natural phenomenon. That is if you grow the wood before you burn it.

The point is that there are other directions the world can head. We do not need the absurdity and obscenity of the nuclear cycle. We do not need to risk the problems of burning all our fossil fuels. If we do decide to burn all our coal and oil then we must understand that our descendants are going to have to put it all back, or they will not survive. We could make the decision to leave, to our children, the paradise which we inherited. That is if we do not listen to the Drysdales of this world. But we have to remember that the nuclear and fossil fuel lobbies are very powerful. They can afford to employ people just to spend their time misleading the public, just as our own Woods and Forests Department does. However the final decision is ours.

Dr John Wamsley

Of course one should talk of returning the ashes to the forest and having scrubbers in the stacks and all these things but then, as I said, the Advertiser thought it would be wasting space to print it.