Prior to the 2001 and 2003 Canberra bushfires, the Arboretum site was mostly covered in pine plantations (Pinus radiata).
Following the devastating 2003 Canberra bushfires, the Australian Capital Territory Government consulted extensively with the community and experts about the best use of the large areas of land occupied by burnt-out pine plantations, some of which were very close to Canberra.
In 2003, the Non-Urban Study Steering Committee’s report ‘Shaping Our Territory: Final Report: Opportunities for Non-Urban ACT’ recommended the establishment of a new national arboretum close to the city, and later that year, the ACT Government dedicated this large area to the west of the city as the site for an innovative new national arboretum.
Part of the intent was to symbolise the local Canberra community’s process of healing and recovery from the upheaval and grief of the catastrophic fires.
The proposal for a national arboretum also connected with Walter Burley Griffin’s original plan for Canberra, which included a continental arboretum at the western end of the lake.
A national design competition for the new arboretum was launched in September 2004 and the winners were announced in 2005 - Taylor Cullity Lethlean Landscape Architects and Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects with their '100 Forests and 100 Gardens' joint proposal.
The '100 Forests and 100 Gardens' proposal focused on the establishment of 100 forests of rare, threatened and symbolic trees from Australia and around the world, and provided the foundation for a master plan for the National Arboretum Canberra, which has been progressively implemented since 2005.
The plan included a visitors centre, cafe, gift shop, bonsai and penjing pavilion, children’s playground, picnic and barbeque areas, outdoor sculptures, amphitheatre, lookouts and a pavilion, all of which have been built.
Also on the master plan, the Events Terrace, a multi-purpose outdoor events space, is in progress and the Gallery of Gardens, a mosaic of permanent gardens, is yet to be commenced.