Anna Krien, a published poet and journalist, spent 18 months researching and writing Into The Woods. The result is a compelling exploration of the Tasmanian forestry debate.

As she told me this week, in a break between appearances at various writers festivals, “it was meant to be an essay, but it bullied its way into my heart as a book, because the subject was so big”.

In Into The Woods, Krien takes us to clear-felled coupes, to forestry blockades and tree-sits by idealistic ferals, to swanky cafes in Hobart, and into the heart of one of the most contentious and bitterly-contested public policy debates  in Australia. She stays in activist share-houses, rural guest-houses and pubs patronised by loggers. She interviews former premiers Michael Field and Paul Lennon, as well as many of the small contractors, loggers, mill workers, farmers and environmentalists at the front-lines of the controversy.

Written in lean and handsome prose, I reckon Into The Woods might just qualify for that most hackneyed of critical adjectives in the book trade: ‘important’.

“Next time I’m just going to focus on a murder,” Krien jokes, observing that: “I’ve read a lot of things but they’re always really one sided, that’s not to say they haven’t been good, but they’ve been preaching to the converted.”

One of the things that struck me about the book was the sheer intransigence of the opponents on each side of the debate. Is Tasmania a divided society?

“[The divisions] are kept up to certain people’s advantage,” she responds. “The wound could have been healed many times before now. I think people have a lot of ulterior motives in keeping that wound fresh, and constantly poking it.”

“If I wasn’t down there focusing on this issue and cruising around on a road trip, you’d have some redneck moments and you might pass a blockade, but you wouldn’t get a sense of a divided society. And also there’s that weird realisation I kept having is that there’s only 500,000 people here … there are a lot of people floating to the top that probably wouldn’t be able to float to the top in the mainland.”

And yet Tasmania is also a test-tube and microcosm of the changes going on in the rest of Australia, she notes: “For all of its bizarre decision and cutting of red tape there’s an amazing progressiveness, the first Green party in the world — did you know that?”

The book ends in mid 2010, with controversial Gunns executives Robin Gray and John Gay leaving the woodchipping corporation under sustained pressure from shareholders. I ask Krien what’s happened since.

“There’s been a forestry roundtable going on since the state election, and unlike most other forestry discussions, Gunns has not been invited to the table, which is pretty important. They’ve been trying to find a resolution; so far there’s been a few leaked reports, the word is that even some entrenched forestry union people have been desperate to see a resolution, but the pulp mill could collapse the whole discussion.”

Ah yes, the pulp mill. “I can’t believe the pulp mill as it went through parliament is still on the table,” she says. There’s definitely an opportunity for a pulp mill in Tasmania, but not via the process that it went by. I can’t believe it is still an option.”

“I’d like to say it’s dead in the water but what I’ve seen it could just come out and be bigger and badder than ever.”

With fitting irony, Gunns announced this week that it is pulling out native hardwood forest altogether. Gunns’ new CEO, Greg L’Estrange, told Fairfax’s Paddy Manning and Andrew Darby that “native forest is not part of our future,” finally conceding that the ongoing opprobrium attaching to the company was damaging Gunns’ prospects of securing finance for the Bell Bay pulp mill. “The vast support of the Australian population is with the environmental non-government organisations,” L’Estrange said.

One of things that will interest Crikey readers is Krien’s long exploration of the public policy minefield that Tasmanian forestry has become. The industry is increasingly uncompetitive globally, and employs surprisingly few Tasmanians — perhaps under 3% of the islands population. Yet it’s propped up by huge subsidies from the taxpayer.

“The amount of money that keeps going down there into the restructure of the forestry industry and just disappears, it does seem endless,” she comments. “A large proportion of the pulp mill has been funded by the taxpayer.”

“I really wanted to find some rational decisions behind some of the deals made, but they’re really short-term, band-aid fixes.” In the book, Krien discusses one particular coupe allegedly logged by Forestry Tasmania after an activist who was known to be a member of a group tree-sitting it D-locked himself to Liberal Senator Eric Abetz.

“It’s really interesting, and its particularly interesting because a lot of the comments on the issue focus on ‘those hysterical greenies’, but a lot of the decisions made on behalf of the forestry industry are really emotional and very personal.”

*Anna Krien’s Into the Woods is published by Black Inc. Ben Eltham writes on the arts and culture each Friday for Crikey.

Peter Fray

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