Prior to 2001, the Arboretum site was largely covered in pine plantations (Pinus radiata). Following the devastating bushfires in 2003 which burnt a significant area of the A.C.T, including residential areas and the pine plantations, the Australian Capital Territory government (in consultation with the community and experts), determined the establishment of a national arboretum as the best future use of the land on this site.
The new Arboretum would honour Walter Burley Griffin’s original plan for Canberra (which included an arboretum located on the west side of the lake), and also symbolise the local community's process of healing and recovery from the upheaval and grief of the catastrophic fires.
A national design ideas competition for the new arboretum was launched, with the winning entry '100 Forests and 100 Gardens' being a joint proposal by Taylor Cullity Lethlean Landscape Architects and Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects.
The winning design presented 100 monoculture forests of rare, threatened and symbolic trees from Australia and around the world, providing the foundation for a master plan for the National Arboretum Canberra, which has been progressively implemented since 2005.
Work began in 2005 and major civil works commenced in 2010 for a visitors centre, cafe, gift shop, bonsai and penjing centre, children's playground, picnic and barbeque areas, outdoor sculptures, amphitheatre, lookouts and a pavilion. Works included the development of a terraced Central Valley near the Village Centre, which was to be Australia's largest sculpted earthwork since the Sydney Olympics.
The National Arboretum Canberra officially opened to the public on 1 February 2013, with over 15,000 people attending the Opening Day Festival.
Since then, over 4 million visitors have been welcomed through the gates, an achievement that far exceeded the one million visitors expected within the first five years.
Today, the National Arboretum Canberra is an award-winning, iconic attraction, and a favourite amongst locals and tourists.