10 September, 2010

Timber giant concedes defeat in decades-old logging war

Paddy Manning and Andrew Darby
The Age (article), September 10, 2010

TIMBER giant Gunns has broken ranks with Tasmania's forest industry and confirmed it will pull out of native forest logging altogether.

In a massive win for the environmental movement, Gunns revealed it would quit the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania, which was arguing for a continuation of native forest logging in the state.

Gunns chief executive Greg L'Estrange told The Age the company's future lay in plantation hardwoods and softwoods and processing of forest products.

"Native forest is not part of our future," he said. "We see that the conflict largely has to end. Our employees and the communities we operate in have been collateral damage to this process. We want to move our business to a plantation-based business."

Mr L'Estrange said Gunns wanted a constructive outcome to the forestry negotiations and the company would take in ideas from "all parties". "A lot of good ideas can come from the people we used to throw rocks and brickbats at," he said.

The announcement was made at a conference in Melbourne yesterday, where Mr L'Estrange effectively conceded defeat in the decades-old war over Tasmania's native forests.

"The vast support of the Australian population is with the environmental non-government organisations," he said.

Gunns and Tasmania's environment movement have been long-time foes, culminating in a bitter five-year lawsuit brought by the company against 20 conservationists, including Greens leader Bob Brown. The case was finally settled early this year.

Mr L'Estrange has been repositioning Gunns since taking over from predecessor John Gay. Mr Gay was ousted earlier this year after he lost investor confidence when he sold $2 million worth of Gunns shares just weeks before unveiling a 98 per cent drop in profit in the six months to December 2009. Mr Gay has since resigned from the company's board and has also ceased his involvement with Gunns's controversial $2 billion Bell Bay pulp mill.

To finance the proposed mill, Gunns needs to attract foreign investment and has partnered with Swedish forest company Sodra, which is insisting the mill meet world's best practice environmental standards and rely on plantation timber. The mill, which requires federal approval, is still opposed in Tasmania on environmental grounds.

Australian Greens deputy leader Christine Milne said Gunns should receive compensation if it pulled out of wood supply deals with state agency Forestry Tasmania. "If Gunns pulls out there is potential to save a huge amount of forest," she said. "We want that forest protected, not on-sold."

Senator Milne said Gunns's move left Forestry Tasmania and the rest of the native forest logging industry "far behind".


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