16 July, 2011

Tree saviour named as Tasmanian mill boss

Andrew Darby, Hobart
The Age, 16 July 2011

About turn … Alec Marr will run Triabunna woodchip mill. Photo: Jason South
TASMANIA'S forest industry, still reeling from the sale of a strategic woodchip mill to two environmentalists, has been shocked to learn who will run it - the green hard man Alec Marr.

The Wotif founder, Graeme Wood, and the Kathmandu creator, Jan Cameron, have hired Mr Marr, a former Wilderness Society boss, to manage the Triabunna mill that chipped millions of old-growth trees he tried to save.

As their general manager, Mr Marr will negotiate on behalf of the pair who, with their surprise $10 million buy, dealt themselves into historic peace talks on native forest logging.

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Once chief defendant in a civil prosecution launched by the seller of Triabunna, Gunns, and forced out of the Wilderness Society, Mr Marr's selection amazed industry observers.

''Alec Marr is going to be a woodchipper?'' the Timber Communities Australia state manager, Barry Chipman, said. ''It is probably a fitting way to end a bizarre week.''

The Liberal senator Eric Abetz said it was ''Green cronyism and triumphalism at its ugliest''.

Mr Marr declined to comment but Mr Wood said Mr Marr's personal views of the timber industry would not matter.

''His job is to implement the forest statement of principles and to work with all industry players to re-open the mill.''

Green and industry groups have been in talks for more than a year to craft the statement of principles and end 25 years of conflict. Their latest deal agreed to protect up to 430,000 hectares of Tasmania's public native forest but still operate some sawlog and veneer mills.

Woodchips are claimed as crucial secondary income for the surviving timber operations, and the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania wants Triabunna to keep chipping until at least 2027.

The association's chief executive, Terry Edwards, warned that if the mill was not kept open, the industry would not be able to back the deal.

With Japanese export markets increasingly rejecting native forest chips, Gunns shut Triabunna in April. When it re-opens under new ownership, contentious timber is increasingly unlikely to enter its gates.

Mr Wood said his original view was that the chip mill should operate for three to five years before the site was turned into a tourist development.

''Having spoken to government people, that may have to go out,'' he said.

Now Mr Marr, a blunt and at times abrasive negotiator, will be leading further talks.

Mr Wood tried to reassure residents about a future beyond woodchipping. ''We believe Triabunna will be good for tourism and wine,'' he said.

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