Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Disclaimer: The Parliamentary Library does not warrant or accept liability for the accuracy or usefulness of the transcripts.These are copied directly from the broadcaster's website.
Rear Vision -

View in ParlView

Keri Phillips: Hello, Keri Phillips here with Rear Vision, available on your radio and your computer, online whenever you want to listen or by regular podcast.

Eleanor Hall, The World Today (archival): It’s been one of the most divisive development projects in Tasmania in decades. Now the Gunns pulp mill has hit its biggest problem yet, with the company behind it going into voluntary administration.

Martin Cuddihy, The World Today (archival): From nineteenth-century beginnings to ASX darling to broke. The timber company Gunns started as a family building business in 1875. It moved into sawmilling at the turn of the century and then went public in the 1980s. But more recently the timber business has struggled. With a high Australian dollar and collapsing markets, Gunns has been in a trading halt for six months.

Keri Phillips: Tasmania is Australia’s smallest state, with a population of about half a million. Since the 1930s, much of Tasmania’s economic development has been based on its forests and the timber industry that took root after European settlement in 1803. Today on Rear Vision, we’ll look at the history of the timber industry and the role of Tasmania’s trees in a bitter dispute that’s divided the community in the island state.

Dr John Young is an honorary research associate of the School of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Tasmania.

John Young: It got going in the 1820s, very much as a government enterprise using convict labour. The first sawmills and places like that were just south of Hobart—Birchs Bay was one of them—and later on they moved down to Southport, using labour from the probation stations in the 1840s.

And I think that has had a sort of a long-term influence on the role of the forest industry in Tasmanian society. It started off as a government initiative, but licences were only available to people in return for a promise of a certain amount of investment. So it sort of cut out the emancipists.

And in the 1890s there was an amendment to the Crown Land Act which provided investors with 21-year leases of timbered land on condition that a sawmill of specific horsepower was installed in the next 12 months. And so that had the same kind of effect of excluding people from the timber industry who didn’t have a lot of money. So control of the industry was never really in the hands of the small saw millers and the people who acted on a sort of a local scale.

Jacki Schirmer: Well, certainly the history of the process of having control over forests is a really interesting one and has definitely led to some of the issues today.

Keri Phillips: Dr Jacki Schirmer is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Research and Action in Public Health at the University of Canberra.

Jacki Schirmer: So if you go right back over time, back in the late 1800s—I don’t know if you want to go back that far—but back in the late 1800s what you had was a situation where farmers were wanting to clear trees and actually the loggers were the ones saying, ‘Please don’t let them. We want to have this timber for harvest.’ And they were worried because people were burning trees, they were getting rid of the timber any way they could, and saw millers wanted it for a forest industry.

And that’s actually how this system of government concessions started to be set up, where the government said, ‘All right, we’ll actually give you a right, a concession, to this particular area of forest and it’s your right to log in that forest.’ And at first there was almost no controls over the nature of that logging and it was done by multiple small sawmills. And they each had their own bit of forest that they were allowed to log and those concessions or leases got renewed on a reasonably regular basis.

Keri Phillips: Over a long career, Dr John Dargavel has worked in forest management planning, taught forest economics and management, and has research interests in forest policy and forest history. He says that after 1900, bigger players got into the Tasmanian timber industry.

John Dargavel: Yes, you start to see the import of much larger firms, particularly of international firms, British capital, coming in. And they were able to have a much better deal with the state, they could promise more money for investment, build much bigger sawmills. So they built a couple of whoppers—well, you know, whoppers by the standard of the time—in southern Tasmania. The Huon Timber Company was the most notable one, at Geeveston. And of course they were able to do much better with the state. So they could get 10,000 hectares—so instead of 200 to 2000 they could get 10,000 and instead of three to five years they got it for 42 years. So we start to see the origins of the sort of domination of the local industry by these much larger external-to-Tasmania capitalists.

Keri Phillips: During the 1920s and ‘30s, as the pulp and paper industry developed, three large companies essentially divided up the Australian market. A company in Victoria made cardboard and wrapping paper, while two mills for newsprint and printing paper were established in Tasmania. One got almost 130,000 hectares of arguably the best hardwood forest in the world. Most of it would be ground into pulp.

So began what would become one of the most controversial uses of Tasmania’s native timbers.

John Dargavel: One did the newsprint; it built a mill at Boyer and got the Florentine Valley concession with 128,000 hectares for 88 years. And then a printing paper mill at Burney, that got a concession which was for absolutely unlimited time at extraordinarily low royalty rates—they only had to pay between 3 and 5 cents a cubic metre. So we start to see really big companies coming in.

Keri Phillips: Was there much trouble over the arrival of these much bigger companies with much more generous operating circumstances? What did the locals think about that?

John Dargavel: Well, there were complaints. And various small amendments to the legislation had to be made for the mill at Boyer, so that they had to make a few saw logs available to local mills, and there was a similar sort of arrangement for the one at Burney. But by and large, the large companies were always more successful in relation to the local ones, the smaller local ones.

And then you see that sort of situation continuing during the Second World War and afterwards. So there’s a hilarious case in the late 1940s when a group of mainland timber merchants wanted to build a ply mill to make plywood. So they were able to get a very good concession against quite a lot of opposition from the local people. And a Mr Nosworthy from Adelaide was caught arriving on the ferry and actually caught giving a bag of money to the minister of forests at the time, Tommy D’Alton. So… but really that little situation just highlights an issue that governance is always the big issue and we can sort of note the close involvement of Tasmanian politicians with the big forest industry firms.

Keri Phillips: You’re listening to Rear Vision on RN, with Keri Phillips. Don’t forget there are transcripts of all our programs on the Rear Vision website at Today, in the wake of the timber giant Gunns entry into voluntary administration, we’re looking at the history of the troubled forestry industry in Tasmania.

Unlike a mine, whose resources cannot be replenished, forests can be regenerated. In the late 1950s, Max Gilbert, a man who worked for Forestry Tasmania, the government department responsible for managing Tasmania’s trees, began some research into regeneration of eucalypts. His findings would underpin the establishment of a woodchip export industry in Tasmania, based on a process of clear fell, burn and sow.

John Young: The woodchip industry was promoted originally as a new way of dealing with what was regarded as the waste products. The industry, to begin with the rhetoric was all about sawmill waste and things like that. But when the clear felling process was introduced, generally speaking around 1958, Max Gilbert wrote a thesis which advocated clear felling and then burning and then regenerating the forest by sowing it from the air as the best means of ensuring that new growth replaced the mixed old growth.

He was a member of the Forestry Department and was seconded as a research fellow to the University of Tasmania and wrote really the foundation document of the clear fell, burn and sow regime which has dominated the Tasmanian Forestry Industry ever since. He discovered that if you burnt after you clear felled all the residue—you know, the branches and the bits that weren’t any good for commercial timber—you were left with a bed of ash and that proved to be an extremely efficient way of regenerating eucalypts.

It’s true to say it’s imitated the natural process and it’s also true that eucalypts have dominated the Tasmanian landscape very largely as a result of Aboriginal fire-making as well. But there’s a bit of a difference, I guess, between wildfires, which always leave a good bit behind—they don’t burn everything—and burning a forest coupe the way it was done in an industrial fashion.

I think the research he did answered the question he was given, which is how do you make eucalypts grow effectively and quickly. If he’d been asked another question—how do you manage a forest in the best long term interests of the whole community?—his answer probably would have been different. He did say in one part of his thesis that a choice has got to be made here, because we are going to destroy the commercial value of a number of species which may become very valuable in the future. ‘But,’ he went on to say, ‘we’ve got housing shortage now, we have strong needs in post-war Australia to have access to a lot more structural material than we can get at the moment. So let’s do this and we’ll solve our economic problems for the moment.’

And of course there were… in southern Tasmania and in northwestern Tasmania they tended to be wet mixed forests with a eucalypt canopy and a rainforest understorey, and so timbers like myrtle, celery top pine, leatherwood—all these extremely valuable timbers—were in the understorey. But it’s the legacy of that, I think, which has led to this kind of incredibly divisive situation that we’ve got in Tasmania, which has been the strongest influence in our political life and in many ways one of the most destructive.

Keri Phillips: During the 1960s and ‘70s, Australia became swept up in a worldwide environmental movement. The use of Australia’s forests became contested, especially in Tasmania, where three woodchip export mills were established.

Jacki Schirmer: Wood chipping became really controversial because it changed completely the way that logging occurred. So prior to that time, what had been happening was that forests were often what we call ‘selectively logged’, so only some of the trees in a stand were taken out and they were then processed by a saw miller or in some cases by a pulp and paper mill. And one of the concerns that it actually led to was that forests were being high-graded, and that means that people have been taking out the best trees again and again and again and leaving the poor trees, which over time changes the character of the forest quite substantially.

Now, when wood chipping was introduced people who’d been concerned about that high-grading and who had a very strong focus on timber production thought, ‘Great. Here’s an opportunity for us to actually clear fell forests and regenerate them from scratch to a much higher quality forest in terms of wood production.’ And I emphasise the wood production there. So focussing on that, they shifted to clear felling forests, so actually logging everything that was there, because you could finally sell those smaller, poorer trees for wood chips which couldn’t have been for saw logs and weren’t good enough for some of these other purposes.

So it gave a market for these poorer quality trees; it enabled that clear felling to happen. And some people in the industry were very happy because they thought, ‘Great. We can regenerate better growing trees with better wood in them.’ But of course that on the flipside raised a lot of concerns for the environmental movement about, ‘Well, what’s the ecological implications of this for the biodiversity of the area, for the wildlife living in the area? What are some of the ramifications we need to consider this?’ And that drove a lot of those protests.

John Young: If you want to make good use of your investment in large machinery, whether it be a mighty steam bandsaw such as was built at Geeveston in 1900 or a large excavator, you’re trapped into a sort of mindset that means that you’ve got to remove as much timber as you can as quickly as possible. And overseas markets are the right place to be looking at to make a profit that way, which means that the great value of the understorey timbers, as they were called, the special species, hasn’t been recognised as fully as it might have been. And that means that we sort of succeeded really in transferring a very complex ecosystem into a eucalypt monoculture through the practice of clear felling, burning, re-sowing with a selection of seeds from that place, but nevertheless all of them eucalypts.

The profitability of the woodchip industry for a short time in history became the dominant feature and the regrowth, the 80-year cycle that was originally planned, has been gradually reduced. It was discovered that if you fertilised eucalypts they would grow much more quickly—in fact, three times as quickly as they would have grown if they were left alone—and that had two consequences. It did make them grow very quickly, but it also reduced the quality of the timber for anything else.

Helene Chung, 7.30 Report (archival): Here at Triabunna on the east coast, a new truckload pulls ups every four minutes during daylight, five days a week, with clearings from crown land that stretches all the way from Hobart to Launceston and beyond. Now, Japan has provided the economic raison d’être to denude the landscape. Tasmanian Pulp and Forest Holdings Limited devours 3000 tonnes of timber a day. The company churns out more than half a million tonnes of woodchips a year. To some this is an essential part of progress, a means of employment and income. To others it’s exploiting natural resources that may never recover.

What do you, though, as forestry manager, know about the long-term effects of this wood chipping industry?

Man (archival): I personally don’t know much about long-term effects of the wood chipping industry. I have my own feelings, but I’m prepared to listen to the experts who tell me that we have no worries at all.

(Sound of wood saw)

John Dargavel: There were two really great objections to it. First, it went too large too fast, so it made a hideous appearance, particularly on the east coast of Tasmania. Now, I’ll give you an example. They cut blocks of trees, cut all the trees down, on blocks of 300 hectares—we call those blocks ‘coupes’ in forestry—and they would put one next to the other. So it just went across the landscape in a great clear felling. It looked hideous. Now, they’ve reduced it now, but now they’ll only do a hundred hectares. But I think you’ve got to set this in international comparison; so, for example, in Austria you’d only be allowed to cut half a hectare in a block or two… you’d need special permission to cut two hectares. So you’ve got that sort of visual appearance.

But the environmental impact, of course, was really severe. So this was at the time when you’re getting a rising environmental movement complaining about everything that they could see—and quite rightly so—about it. So the belief was that we shouldn’t be cutting any Australian trees down at one stage. You know, the extreme environmental movement believes that you shouldn’t cut any of the Australian native forests.

Keri Phillips: The environmental movement in Tasmania really captured the attention of the rest of Australia with the fight to stop the damming of the Franklin River for hydroelectricity. It was a significant issue in the 1983 federal election campaign and although the matter was finally settled in the High Court, the dispute marked a new level of commonwealth interest in the bitter environmental battles being waged in Tasmania. In the 1990s, the federal government attempted to settle the disputes over Australia’s contested forests through a series of ambitious regional forest agreements. Tasmania was the first to go through the process.

John Dargavel: I mean, these conflicts over the forests were reaching huge proportions and, you know, not even the federal government could resolve them in cabinet. So in a sense we’d got to a ridiculous situation. So it was a good idea to get the commonwealth and the states to agree that they’d do a really comprehensive assessment of all the environmental values and the social values, heritage values, indigenous values, all the biodiversity, and then come to an agreement about how much land needed to be put into special reserves as national parks or wilderness areas and how much could be kept in state forests and managed for continuous timber production for the future.

So it was a very good idea, but it didn’t work out too well in many ways. The real problem was particularly severe in Tasmania, but also in Victoria and Western Australia. Good faith and sort of trust was lacking, so that very extremist positions were taken.

Journalist (archival): The Regional Forest Agreement was meant to bring peace and security to Tasmania’s forest battlegrounds. But today, Prime Minister John Howard was the first target of an angry campaign to be waged around the country.

(Crowd noise)

As a pensive prime minister edged his way towards signing the deal, which will abolish woodchip export licence controls and protect 400,000 hectares of forest from logging, protesters showed forest peace is still a long way off.

Jacki Schirmer: The Tasmanian Regional Forest Agreement was actually negotiated and agreed while they were still settling what were called the JANIS criteria, these criteria about what should actually be reserved, what constituted something like an old-growth forest, and that led to a lot of debate. So as soon as the Tasmanian Regional Forest Agreement was signed, there was already debate.

The Wilderness Society, the Tasmanian Conservation Trust, the Worldwide Fund for Nature all criticised the Tasmanian RFA, saying it did not meet these criteria. They said not enough old-growth forest had been reserved. And just to give some context to that, it was about 400,000 hectares of forests were put in reserves as part of the Tasmanian Regional Forest Agreement process, but the environmental groups felt that those reserves were not adequate and didn’t actually reserve enough of each forest type. And they were also concerned because one of the trade-offs in that Regional Forest Agreement was that the actual clearing of forests would continue in other areas. And Tasmania was unusual in that until quite recently it was still possible to fully clear a forest and convert it to other purposes such as agriculture. That’s now stopped, but that continued into the 2000s. So that was another concern raised about the RFA, that it didn’t stop that process.

So the Tasmanian RFA was hailed at first as being the first in a series of agreements to be signed around the country, but it was fairly rapidly criticised as well.

Keri Phillips: Within the context of this extremely polarised community with a highly politicised issue, it’s now time to look at the story of the Gunns pulp mill. Founded in Tasmania in 1875, Gunns is one of Australia’s oldest companies and it had remained in family hands until it went public in the 1980s. The largest forestry company in Tasmania, ten years ago it was Australia’s biggest exporter of woodchips. In 2004, Gunns announced plans to build a pulp mill at Bell Bay in the Tamar Valley.

Paul Lennon, Tasmanian Premier (archival): I table a copy of Gunns’ project overview.

Journalist (archival): It’s the final piece in the jigsaw, a formal proposal that allows planning for a pulp mill to start in earnest. Gunns Limited can now proceed with a 12-month integrated impact statement looking at environmental, social, economic and community issues.

John Gay, Gunns Limited (archival): It’ll be other issues other than Gunns that will pull the project down if the project doesn’t succeed. The financials have been done, the wood supply is good, everything that we wanted has happened.

Journalist (archival): Parliament is expected to endorse the formal proposal as a project of state significance.

Jacki Schirmer: I guess the background to the Gunns pulp mill proposal was that Gunns wanted to have a way of trying to add value domestically. One of the big criticisms of the woodchip industry has—in addition to concerns about environmental impacts—has been that woodchips have been exported and then turned into pulp and paper which we then reimport into Australia. And there’s been a lot of people saying we should do that value adding onshore. So one of the motivations behind this pulp mill was to do that value adding onshore—you know, generate more jobs in Tasmania, all that kind of thing. And some of the debate about it was will it really generate the types of jobs that people have been promising.

But one of the critical things that came up almost immediately was that there was very strong protest from residents of the Tamar Valley about the siting of the pulp mill and about the approval process, because the original approval process was actually effectively removed and replaced by a different approval process through an act of the Tasmanian parliament. And it was felt that the new approval process really diminished the safeguards around it, really didn’t allow enough public input and consultation and was just trying to intervene to give an approval to Gunns. And that actually intensified conflict over the pulp mill instead of addressing it. So an act of government intended to speed things up actually probably slowed it down, because it just intensified public concern about that pulp mill proposal.

Keri Phillips: During the years of debate over the pulp mill, Gunns attempted to sue 20 prominent conservationists, including Australian Greens leader Bob Brown, claiming millions of dollars in damages. The controversy over the approval process for the pulp mill ultimately contributed to the resignation of the Labor premier Paul Lennon in May 2008.

Paul Lennon, Tasmanian Premier (archival): I was faced with I’m damned if you do, I’m damned if I don’t decision. I believe I made the right decision. Parliament supported me. Parliament ultimately made the decision. I hope the mill proceeds, because if Tasmania wants to have that long-term economic security then we have to value-add here.

Felicity Ogilvie, PM (archival): Mr Lennon’s resignation has also been welcomed by the Greens leader, Peg Putt.

Peg Putt (archival): Now Paul Lennon has gone, we need the new premier to make substantial changes, unshackling his government from the pulp mill, the forest industry and corporate mates.

Keri Phillips: This is Rear Vision, with Keri Phillips on RN. On the program today, the story of the forestry industry in Tasmania. Just how big a role does timber play in the Tasmanian economy?

Jacki Schirmer: Well, to give an idea of what it means in terms of jobs on the ground, as recently as 2008 almost 7000 people were directly employed in that industry and probably another 7-10,000 indirectly. And in a small state like Tasmania, that’s a pretty large proportion of the workforce. And it’s particularly important in Tasmania, where there’s quite a high reliance on welfare payments and commonwealth government funds, to have these types of industries where it’s actually generating income based on something happening in the state.

Keri Phillips: Yes, I seem to recall in an ABC television story the figure of 60 per cent of Tasmania’s income coming directly from the commonwealth government. Is that true?

Jacki Schirmer: It’s certainly a high proportion. I’m not sure if that exact figure is right, but Tasmania has one of the highest dependencies on commonwealth welfare payments of any area in Australia. And that’s a really critical issue for the state, because it means they really do need to, wherever possible, encourage industry in the state to try and really bolster some of those locally generated economic activities.

The forest industry’s actually been a very stable employer over time. Like most industries that rely a lot on manufacturing—like saw milling and things like that—they’d seen some decrease in employment over time because they had more machinery, they’d got more efficient over time. But balancing that they’d actually been expanding a lot of the plantation industry and that had been contributing to jobs growth. So, for example, between 2006 and 2008, there were actually an additional 500 jobs added in the forest industries in Tasmania.

After that it fell really precipitously, because since 2008 a combination of factors have come together to really create absolute crisis in the industry in terms of global financial crisis, which reduced demand for some of the critical products, and at the same time the appreciation of the Australian dollar meant that an industry that relied a lot on woodchip exports suddenly didn’t have a market for a lot of those woodchips. And in addition, campaigns by environmental groups to Japanese buyers of those woodchips, saying ‘We don’t think you should buy these,’ have been very effective in reducing demand for woodchips as well.

So those sorts of things, as well as a collapse of managed investment schemes in the plantation sector, mean that jobs have actually fallen by over 50 per cent since 2008. So over 3000 people, and probably closer to 4000 people by now, have lost their jobs in the forest industry.

John Dargavel: Really, the point about the pulp mill can be seen in a little broader context in a way. The development hope for Gunns as building a great big pulp mill had failed not only because of the government governance issues within Tasmania, but also perhaps as well on the broader international economic sphere. I mean, it had to compete with Brazil and Indonesia and other countries now on the world pulp market, because it was aiming to export. So there are a lot of questions about how viable it might have really been. Now, that is obviously a matter that will get worked out over the next year or two as we see whether other investors seek to buy the rights to build the pulp mill from the liquidator of Gunns.

Gunns had developed into a monopoly, almost, of much of the Tasmanian forest industry. So it had got a dominant hold. And how that changes and how its resources shake out is going to be sort of interesting to see. It’s too soon to forecast, but they built up large areas of eucalypt plantations, pretty productive, so it’ll be interesting to see what the hope for them is. I mean, that’s a real hope for the future. There are very large areas of young forests that have been regenerated from the woodchip operations since the 1970s, so they can be managed skilfully so there’s a big long-term hope for Tasmania.

But I think again always within Tasmania the real question is whether the identity politics of Tasmania can really be overcome. Will there be just continual brawling over environmental issues? Are compromises at all possible? And I suppose overall in these sort of issues, will the rest of Australia really want to continue to prop up Tasmania financially?

Keri Phillips: The guests on Rear Vision today were Dr John Dargavel from the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the ANU, Dr Jacki Schirmer from the University of Canberra and Dr John Young from the University of Tasmania. If you want to listen to the program again, you’ll find the audio on our website at, and there’ll be a transcript there soon as well.

Judy Rapley is the sound engineer for Rear Vision today. Thanks for listening. Goodbye from Keri Phillips.