While the politics surrounding Gunns’ proposed new pulp mill in Tasmania are getting uglier by the day, questions are now being asked about where the $1.4 billion factory will get its timber.

Greens senator Christine Milne told Crikey that, alongside plantation timber, Gunns has an agreement to access Tasmania’s native forests for 30 years, but the “Tasmanian community is not allowed to see the terms of the wood supply agreement.”

Unfortunately for Gunns, it’s getting harder to sell woodchips from old growth and native forests. That, paradoxically, is the driving force behind Gunns’ burgeoning appetite for native forests, forests which need to be cleared to make space for the more profitable plantation timber.

“In order to get access to the land to put in their plantations for their future wood supply they have to first knock down the native forests, which once cleared will become plantations. And the best way of doing that is building a pulp mill to chomp up and burn those native forests,” Milne said.

In the short term, native forests will provide the bulk of the raw timber to the new mill. According to The Age, at start up about “80% of its 3.2 million tonne annual feedstock would come from native forests.” When the mill is at full capacity, it will consume around 4.5 million tonnes of timber a year. According to Geoff Law, Tasmanian campaign coordinator with the Wilderness Society, that’s a “mind-bogglingly huge” number.

“We’ve done a very conservative calculation and come up with a total area of around 200,000 hectares of native forests being fed to Gunns under this deal, which is over 2,000 square kilometres. That constitutes 15-20% of the total area of Tasmania’s tall eucalypt forests,” Law told Crikey. That will be “devastating” for endangered species like the wedge-tailed eagle.

According to Gunns’ own documentation, over the course of 25 years, 36% of the timber will come from native forests, the remaining 64% from plantations. But Law claims those figures assume the growth of plantation timber follows Gunns’ projections. If it doesn’t, Gunns will access native forests to make up the shortfall.

Forestry expert Tim Cadman, a PhD candidate at the University of Tasmania, claims that the location of the mill also suggests the company plans to make good use of native forests.

“They said they were going to be plantation based, but the mill is not where the plantation resource is. It’s very hard to reconcile statements that the mill will not use native forests when the area it is built in doesn’t have plantations and contains old growth forests,” Cadman told Crikey.

For Cadman, the current turmoil goes beyond the logging coups. It points to a crisis in the governance processes in Tasmania. He says the Resource Planning and Development Commission is supposed to be at arm’s length from government and more transparent. Yet the government isn’t enjoying that independence and is “now trying to take authority away from the RPDC, and that’s what we academics refer to as governance failure.”

Christine Milne agrees. “You could pick [the top 20 most influential business people and politicians] in Tasmania and they have been in all the positions of power in politics and the forest industry in Tasmania.

“I saw the legislation they’ve brought in. As part of it, they are limiting the rights of appeal in the Tasmanian assessment process. It says, ‘A person is not entitled to appeal to a body or other person, court or tribunal.’ So now they’ve banned people from even going to the courts on this issue. That shows you the contempt they have for the public.”

Peter Fray

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