16 July, 2011

Wilderness wolf dons woodchipper's clothing

Andrew Darby, Hobart,
The Age, July 16, 2011

A CONTROVERSIAL former head of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society has been hired to run a strategic woodchip mill bought by two wealthy environmentalists.

Wotif founder Graeme Wood and Kathmandu creator Jan Cameron have hired green hard man Alec Marr to manage the Triabunna mill, which chipped millions of old growth trees he had tried to save.

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

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

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

Senior Tasmanian Liberal Senator Eric Abetz said: ''This is 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 reopen the mill,'' Mr Wood told The Saturday Age.

Green and industry groups have been in talks for more than a year in an effort to end 25 years of conflict.

In their latest deal they 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 to be 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.

But with Japanese export markets increasingly rejecting native forest chips, Triabunna, on the state's east coast, was shut by Gunns and its last 120,000 tonnes sold to China at a discount.

When it reopens under new ownership, contentious timber is 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. ''But there is no way of knowing that until we have detailed discussions.''

Now Mr Marr, a blunt and at times abrasive negotiator deeply experienced in dealing with government and industry, will be leading those talks.

Mr Wood tried to reassure local people that the new owners of the mill wanted to build a strong future beyond the woodchipping of native forests. ''There are not any simple problems in the world,'' he said. ''They are all complex, and they can all be resolved.

''Our longer-term goal is to look at regional development and fit in with that. We believe Triabunna will be good for tourism and wine, and it's an early starter with the [national broadband network] NBN. Plus it's a lovely part of the world.''

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