Australian politics, society & culture


The destruction of the Triabunna mill and the fall of Tasmania's woodchip industry

How the end of Gunns cleared a new path for Tasmania

July 2014Long read

Four years ago, Greg L’Estrange, the chief executive of the Tasmanian forestry behemoth Gunns Ltd, raised the white flag in the state’s so-called forest wars. Environmentalists had triumphed, and Gunns, he announced to the stunned audience at an industry conference in Melbourne, was finished with old-growth forests. The clearfelling of native forests was no longer economically sustainable, L’Estrange said. “The industry has been out-thought and out-played.”

L’Estrange painted a sharp picture. Yes, the combination of the global financial crisis and a high dollar had squeezed woodchip export profits. But the problem was deeper, much deeper, than that. Typically one in ten logs from old-growth forests was sawn into hardwood timber for the domestic market – for decking, furniture, housing and the like. The rest – the “waste wood” – went to woodchips. The bottom had long ago fallen out of hardwood sawlog consumption: in the past 30 years demand had plummeted by two thirds. As for woodchips, Japan had finally twigged that Australia’s were expensive as well as of contentious provenance. The rest of the world had caught up: vast eucalypt plantations in South Africa, South-East Asia and South America were not only producing cheaper woodchips but also growing them much more quickly. Any remaining demand for Tasmanian wood was being propped up by federal government subsidies. Logging native forests didn’t just mean bad publicity for Gunns. It was a shocking liability that had been costing the company as well as the country hundreds of millions of dollars, and it was high time for the propaganda that pretended otherwise to stop. From now on, L’Estrange concluded, Gunns would log only plantation timber.

L’Estrange’s intervention proved to be the strangest thing. No one wanted to hear it. It came too soon for the forest industry, which was livid in its denial. And it came too late for the environmental movement; after all, this was Gunns talking. Both sides were so intent on continuing the fight that it was almost as if L’Estrange hadn’t spoken at all.

L’Estrange, who’d been in the top job for four months, was not without an interest. Gunns at the time was struggling to secure finance for a proposed $2 billion pulp mill at Bell Bay in the north of Tasmania. To help its case, it needed a “social licence”, as L’Estrange put it, to ease environmentalist concerns.

It shouldn’t have been that hard. The world needed paper, and the collapsing woodchip export market meant Tasmania had almost a quarter of a million hectares of plantation eucalypts with nowhere to go. Even high-profile opponents of the pulp mill, like Sydney businessman Geoffrey Cousins, agreed it made sense for the industry to value-add by processing woodchips into cellulose pulp. And the then Greens leader Bob Brown thought L’Estrange “a thoroughly good fellow”.

But this was Gunns; its name was mud. The company’s appalling environmental record under L’Estrange’s predecessor, John Gay, meant it was in no position to win a PR battle. It didn’t matter that environmentalists could no longer disseminate images of clearfelled old-growth forest to sustain their anti-mill campaign. Although the Bell Bay site was just a few kilometres upstream from a heavy industrial zone that included an aluminium refinery and a metallurgical plant, the media tended to run with the pitch that it was “in the heart of the picturesque Tamar River Valley”. And although successive Commonwealth environment ministers, first Malcolm Turnbull and then Peter Garrett, had imposed strict conditions to minimise downstream environmental impact, and the company had upgraded the planned bleaching technology to world’s best practice, somehow the word “toxic” managed to stick.

“The problem with the pulp mill was not necessarily the mill itself but the company behind it,” concedes Sean Cadman, a veteran conservationist who as chair of the Forest Stewardship Council worked with L’Estrange to improve the company’s environmental credentials. In Cadman’s opinion, Gay, who ran Gunns for 20 years, “had walked the company off the plank”. Two actions in particular were counter-productive. The first was Gay’s “SLAPP-suiting” (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) of 20 environmentalists and environmental organisations, including the Wilderness Society, for $6.5 million in damages in late 2004. The second was his decision in 2007 to withdraw the company from the environmental approvals process for the pulp mill and instead have his friend, the then Tasmanian premier Paul Lennon, introduce special legislation to fast-track proceedings.

“Taking such a ‘fuck you’ approach did the most appalling brand damage imaginable,” says Cadman. “It was very hard to come back from there.”

Gunns’ number-one enemy at the time was Cadman’s friend and the then Wilderness Society boss, Alec Marr. The first-named defendant among the “Gunns 20”, Marr had long been warning financiers and Japanese woodchip customers against doing business with Gunns, and was in no mood to back off.

“We wanted to blow them up,” says Marr. By this stage, in the wake of the global financial crisis, the free market – to its conservative champions’ chagrin – was doing the environmentalists’ work for them. In early 2010, Gunns had recorded a record profits slump. The company wasn’t just getting out of native forests; it was selling its vineyards, its retail hardware chain, its sawmills and its farms to pay off debt. Most significantly, in June 2011 it put up for sale its woodchip mill at Triabunna, on Tasmania’s east coast. Although the mill had closed two months earlier for want of a buyer for its woodchips, the logging industry was desperate to retain it, because it provided the only deep-water port suitable for woodchip exports in the southern half of the state. Without Triabunna, southern Tasmania’s forest industry, which “harvested” the wet eucalypt forests of the Upper Florentine, the Styx, the Weld and a handful of other upper-river valleys whose names still resonate as battlegrounds, was stranded.

While various industry and government figures tried to stitch together the necessary funding to buy the woodchip mill, L’Estrange, exercising his fiduciary duty to get the highest possible return for shareholders, was negotiating with none other than Alec Marr. No longer with the Wilderness Society, Marr was doing the bidding of two wealthy environmentally minded types: the co-founder of the adventure-wear retailer Kathmandu, Jan Cameron, and the founder of the discount travel agency, Graeme Wood. Cash wasn’t a problem. Marr sealed the deal for $10 million and was promptly instated as mill manager.

The industry was shocked; it was like a vegan had taken over the abattoir. (Marr liked to rub it in by calling himself a “captain of industry”.) The following year, in September 2012, Gunns went into administration, having failed to secure the necessary loans to build the pulp mill. The year after that, the federal and state Labor governments signed a peace agreement that saw 500,000 hectares of state forest added to the reserve system, including 170,000 to the World Heritage area in the state’s south-west. The environmentalists hadn’t just won the war. They were rolling in the spoils. Or so it seemed.

Last September, almost three years to the day after L’Estrange had raised the white flag, the Coalition won the federal election. Tony Abbott, the new prime minister, appointed Tasmanian senator Eric Abetz as his employment minister. Abetz wields considerable power in Tasmania – one senior Liberal Party member described him to me as the state party’s “puppeteer”. A caustic critic of anything green-tinged, Abetz regarded L’Estrange as a traitor to the forest industry. He didn’t care for the peace deal, and he wanted 74,000 hectares of wet eucalypt forest removed from the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. In addition, he and the state Opposition leader (now the premier) Will Hodgman had been urging the Labor state government to compulsorily acquire the Triabunna woodchip mill, so that logging and chipping might resume as before.

Abetz and Alec Marr had been bitter opponents for two decades. To Abetz, the Canberra-based Marr’s absentee lordship over the Triabunna mill was a case of “triumphalism at its ugliest”. Marr, in turn, took the threat of compulsory acquisition seriously. The federal government had jumped in to save the industry before, most spectacularly during the 2004 election campaign, when the then prime minister John Howard and the CFMEU combined to destroy Mark Latham’s prospects in the state.

To pre-empt any such intervention, Marr longed to wreck the mill’s infrastructure. This would entail a breach of the forestry agreement, which stipulated that the mill remain operational, but Marr pointed out to his boss, Graeme Wood (Jan Cameron was effectively a silent partner), that Abetz and co. were about to trash the agreement regardless. Within days of the federal election, Marr recruited three ship welders (two from Launceston and one from interstate) and a seasoned electrician to do the job. The team needed to be tight because it would have to operate in secret. Wood stayed away, but invited Mike Bowers, the staff photographer of his online journalism venture, the Global Mail, to document proceedings. As an afterthought, with just two days’ notice, he approached the Monthly to send a journalist as well.

On Tuesday, 24 September, I flew to Hobart and drove an hour north-east to Triabunna. The woodchip mill straddles the eastern lip of Spring Bay, about 4 kilometres south of the town. An excellent road, built to bear hundreds of logging trucks a day, led to a large electronic gate. It was late evening, and the headland was in darkness. The Thursday before, Marr had alerted the state’s electricity provider, Aurora, to a supposed fault in the main substation, which supplied the plant (but not the office block) with power. To be safe, the company duly switched off the substation’s power supply. The next day, Marr sacked his site manager and sent his caretaker, who lived on site with his family, on leave. Then he chained the gates, stocked up on food and hardware, and holed himself up in the mill’s reception and office block to await the arrival of his wrecking crew.

Marr is a mercurial figure in the environmental movement. The bricklaying son of a Newcastle coal worker, he first rose to prominence in 1987, quite literally, when he occupied a 35-metre-high perch in a mountain ash as part of a logging blockade at Farmhouse Creek, north-west of Hobart. He stayed in place for two weeks as loggers threatened to take to his tree with a chainsaw. Marr went on to run Tasmania’s logging blockades for years and became known for his cunning, but also for political brinkmanship. (After the 1996 federal election that swept John Howard to power, the Labor senator John Faulkner singled out Marr for having given the nod to Howard’s environmental policy, an act Faulkner decried as “the greatest environmental sell-out in Australia’s history”.)

In 1997, Marr became the head of the Wilderness Society. He brought in donors, enlarged the organisation and refined a strategy he now calls “how to hunt an elephant”. He explained: “You find big, dominant, publicly listed companies, document their behaviour and environmental record, and convince a short seller they’re the next target. Then you run a campaign and watch their share price go down.”

Gunns was one such elephant. But Marr, a self-described “redneck liaison officer” who didn’t like “fucking hippies” and whose hobbies included pig shooting and fishing, was an awkward fit for the Wilderness Society. In late 2010, after a long and bitter power play, he was ejected from the directorship and many observers thought he’d run his race.

Yet here he was, ushering me into the boardroom of Gunns’ former complex at Triabunna, his smirk as alive as ever. Outside stood a bulldozer and an enormous front-end log-loader, both still in running order. Over a cup of tea, Marr admitted to feeling a fair measure of satisfaction with how things were panning out. “I’ve been waiting 27 fucking years for this,” he said, pointing out that the very trees he’d chained himself to in the ’80s had been shredded and spat out here at Triabunna. “Right now, anyone could walk in here and turn the key and load a ship with chips in two weeks. I’m going to make sure that day never comes.”

Although Wood and Cameron had initially said they “hoped” to re-open the mill, in keeping with the forestry agreement, Marr admitted this was never on the cards. Bids by various parties, including the government’s Forestry Tasmania, to lease the site were rebuffed. “We were buying the port more so than the mill itself,” said Marr. “It was a bullseye: we totally fucked them.”

The office complex looked to have been untouched since Gunns cleared out. The walls were covered with maps and crawling with silverfish, and large cardboard boxes full of shredded documents occupied a number of rooms. In the office where I was sleeping, just behind the reception lobby, a desk calendar’s last entry, for 29 June 2011, read “Delete emails”.

In the boardroom, Marr had laid out a trove of new hardware: sledgehammers, axes large and small, angle grinders, spanners, pliers, bolt cutters and gloves. “For me, the sound of those grinders tomorrow will be the singing of angels,” said Marr, grinning broadly.

Shortly, the electrician and the ship welders arrived, two of them in a rental truck stacked with industrial cutting gear and gas tanks. Marr foresaw the wrecking operation could take up to five days. In that time, he warned us, trips into Triabunna township should be kept to a minimum. “I’ve told anyone who asks that I’ve got a specialist team here fixing the electrics. No one knows how well I’m fixing them.”

The coming and going of vehicles the previous week had already attracted attention, and a nearby fish food processor was known to keep tabs on the place. “The lights didn’t go off here for 40 years,” explained Marr, adding that after Gunns closed the mill, a local outfit negotiating to buy it had promised workers their jobs back. “But that deal went tits up and then we bought it. Every night I’m here, I half expect an armed posse to come over the rise.”

He told us that the operation’s climax would be the toppling of the gigantic gantry that craned over the stockpile. Although it no longer spewed woodchips, it was readily visible from afar, including from the main highway traversing the east coast, soaring and bobbing like a long-necked dinosaur above the landscape. Its fall would doubtless be a local event. It would also be Marr’s moment, the equivalent of downing the dictator’s statue. The plan was to cut through the immense supports on the last day, hook chains to its neck, pull it down with the dozer, and scram. “There’s only one road out,” said Marr, who at one stage had considered a getaway by boat. “So the idea is to get out fast.”

I doubt I was the only one who slept badly that night. There was something wild-eyed about Marr, as if he were living a monkey-wrencher’s dream. A few days earlier, when it was unclear whether I could spare the time to go, I’d sounded out the author Richard Flanagan for his thoughts. Flanagan had previously detailed in these pages how Gunns cajoled, plundered, litigated and even tried to bribe its way to the sort of corporate power that poisons democracy. But he was alarmed to hear of Marr’s plan. In his view, wrecking the mill increased the likelihood of compulsory acquisition, because it could well be used to incite a political backlash. Shouldn’t the priority for the site be a constructive idea that offered the local community something in the way of jobs? “I just don’t like the sound of this,” Flanagan told me. “I don’t think it’s going to end well.”

At first light the next morning, we gathered in the boardroom for a briefing. Marr was dressed in white overalls, boots and a headlamp, as if he were about to go down a mineshaft. The get-up was evidently a nod to his late father, a “sparky” at a coal-fuelled thermal power station near Newcastle. “Dad wore white overalls most of his working life,” said Marr.

He warned the day’s work could be dangerous. This being an industrial site, various elements were liable to buckle, recoil, electrocute, explode or disintegrate. There were two high-voltage substations. Though the one that supplied the mill was “dead”, the other, which supplied the wharf, was still live. In places there was likely to be gas under pressure, even oil. The 12 long conveyor belts that transported chips from the mill to the stockpile and the wharf were under high tension. Some iron platforms and supports were rusted to the point of collapse. “I’m the first mill manager to have an unblemished workplace health and safety record here,” Marr told us dryly. “I’d like to keep it that way.”

Outside, a couple of sheets of corrugated iron were clanging against the mill frame. The strong wind would add danger, Marr cautioned, but it would also lend cover. Sounds would be lost. Passing boats would be few. After all, the greatest risk remained detection. Marr had no permits, and the state government could seize the property within hours of being notified.

“We’ll start with some neurosurgery,” said Marr, leading us to the mill’s high-voltage switchroom, which was the size of a suburban garage. “We need to turn the monster into a brain-dead quadriplegic.” The electrician estimated the switchboxes would cost $400,000 to replace. The team systematically pulled them apart, snipped all the wiring and crushed key components. The parts too tough to smash with sledgehammers were dragged to the truck parking bay and run over with a bulldozer.

“That’s taken care of the brains,” Marr said after two hours, surrounded by shards and twisted metal. We moved on to the control tower overlooking the log loading deck. It resembled a cockpit. A panel of 50-odd knobs and levers controlled all the machinery: the metal tracks dragging the logs into the maw of the mill, the “chipper” itself, the sorting screens, a secondary chipper and the dozen conveyor belts. Within half an hour, the control box had been stripped of all electrics, drawings, instructions, hard drives and TV monitors. Meanwhile, the ship-repairing men set up their oxyacetylene cutters, or “gas axes” as Marr called them, to cut up the log tracks. On the other side was the chipper: an enormous steel wheel almost 4 metres in diameter, with blades as big as anvils. It was driven by a 2500-horsepower engine, capable of shredding a forest giant in minutes.

The weather was miserable, but Marr was chirpy: “This is about as much fun as I’ve had before lunch in my life.” Marr’s hired hands looked nervous – the work felt illegal. “All we’re doing here is what the owners want,” Marr reassured them. “But because of Eric Abetz we have to run a clandestine operation. It’s like mowing your lawn in secret.”

After lunch, the team split. The shipping crew returned to the chipper shed; Marr and the electrician headed down to the waterfront to gut the control room of the ship-loading tower, which stood eight storeys tall. Shags and gulls studded the wharf, and a seal dived among the pylons. Long-gone ship crews had daubed their vessels’ names on the concrete in fading colours: the Dumai Express, the Forest Trader No 3, the Silviculture, the Jujo Maru.

I walked back to climb the woodchip stockpile. At its apex, the conveyor belt from the mill rose to supply the gantry. Pivoting on an enormous concrete cuff, the gantry’s 50-metre neck could swivel 270 degrees – enough to pour woodchips over an area the size of four football ovals. Bracing myself against the wind, I ascended the narrow metal walkway running alongside the rubber belt.

Across the bay glinted a mini-suburb of homes. In the other direction, to the south-east, lay the blue ridge of Maria Island. Stretched out beneath me, about a kilometre in circumference and slowly composting, was the country’s biggest playground carpet of bleached-grey woodchips. How many trees had been spat out here before being siphoned off to sea? I tried to do the maths. From 1972 to 2011 the mill produced an annual average of 800,000 tonnes of dry woodchips, which equated to 50,000 truckloads of logs. But how many logs to a load? Fifteen? Twenty? It depended: the older the forest, the bigger the logs. Almost all of Triabunna’s “foodstock” came from clearfelled old-growth forest from the other side of Hobart. At the mill’s peak, just six years ago, a truck would emerge every five or ten minutes from those valleys, laden with messmate and mountain ash. At a rough guess, over the course of the mill’s life some 30 million trees, give or take 10 million, had been chewed into chips and poured into ships.

I pulled a hacksaw out of my backpack and leant across the rubber belt. It was as wide and thick as a tabletop but its sheer weight instantly made the cut gape. I sawed away in the drizzle until the last remaining centimetres began to tear. With an almighty clatter the rubber flew down the rollers, top and bottom, the violence of it shaking the scaffolding like a truck had hit it. I clung to the railing and watched the belt bunch heavily down below, folding over and over on itself like toilet paper until the shuddering stopped. One down, 11 to go.

Come sundown, we gathered in the chipper shed, niggled by shame. Marr was inspecting the damage. Every significant engine component had been gouged beyond repair. The shaft driving the main chipper had a smiley face blowtorched into it.

“You boys on the gas are masters at work,” Marr noted approvingly. “It’s truly been a great day: the control’s fucked, the chipper’s fucked, the sorting room is fucked, the shiploader’s fucked, the high-voltage switchboard is fucked. The Cat[erpillar] tracks are fucked so they can’t even load the logs. And some fucker” – he squinted in my direction – “has fucked up all the conveyor belts. I reckon to fix it all would cost $2 million and take six months. One or two more days like this, and we’ll no longer have a mill.”

I returned home the next day. Two evenings later, on the Saturday of the AFL Grand Final, I got a call from Marr: the dinosaur was down. The gantry had toppled during the second quarter of the match, when most of Triabunna would have been glued to the box, after which the crew had “got the fuck out of there”. Expecting the news to break any moment, I monitored social media. But all was quiet. Graeme Wood rang me that night, no less puzzled that the altered skyline seemed to have gone unnoticed. He had been fretting about the potential fallout. He had once told the Launceston Examiner that “Eric Abetz grinding his teeth is a very pleasant sound for me”, but that was before the senator came to power.

“This was Alec’s thing,” said Wood. “He just wanted to fuck the industry over; he didn’t give a toss about what would happen to the site afterwards. He’s a campaigner, and will always be a campaigner.”

To be safe, Wood had a PR team on the case. A press release announcing the commencement of “rehabilitation work” went out the next day, in time for the Monday papers. The mill was to be decommissioned and plans would be drawn up for an eco-tourism venture. Both the Australian and the Hobart Mercury ran the story. In an editorial, the latter hailed the shift to tourism.

Just two months later, in early December, I was back in Triabunna, staying at the pub by the little harbour. The town had the air of a retirement village. Plovers and oystercatchers bred on the vacant blocks. The supermarket was carpeted. Park benches glowed in the evening sun.

Inside the bar, the publican switched the TV over to the ABC’s 7.30, which was running a story on Graeme Wood’s new plans for the site, ahead of an official launch the next morning. A few stools up from me sat the pub’s caretaker, whose name was Shaun, and next to him sat the cook, who’d left me with a plate of fish, chips and a salad involving canned pineapple. Together we watched Wood outline his proposal, which included gardens, concert venues, a marina and a culinary school.

“Fucking arsehole,” said the cook, dismissing Wood with her hand. “A cooking school!”

“And a marina?” exclaimed Shaun. “They might want to think about the wind. She really blows out there.”

On screen, Wood said the plans were only preliminary. “We don’t have a really solid business plan …”

“Well, come back when you do,” said the cook.

Shaun was watching the footage intently.

“Hello. Someone’s done a clean-up,” he said. “That shed was full of spare parts when I was last there.”

And when was that?

“Twentieth of September,” he said. “The day I was sacked.”

Shaun, it turned out, had been Alec Marr’s site manager. “I mowed the grass, kept things running, made sure nothing fell over. But soon as I left, down she went.”

He told me how he got a text message from a mate during half-time in the Grand Final. “He saw the gantry had gone down, but it was a blustery day so no one knew if it had just blown over. But the timing made us suspicious.”

I asked the publican, Geoff Gadd, what he thought of the plans. He shrugged. “We’ve just been waiting for something to happen. Most of us knew the mill was gone the day the gate closed.” Gadd knew of a dozen former mill workers and truck drivers who were now flying in and out of the mines in Western Australia. His own father had taken off to drive a truck on the mainland. “I don’t see them coming back for this,” he said.

The next day, the Mercury’s front page declared: ‘NEW ERA for TRIABUNNA’. Wood’s PR team was clearly earning its keep. Some 60 people turned up for the launch at the mill, including many locals. I recognised the men directing traffic: they were the ship-repairing men from Launceston. Wood had kept them on after Marr’s departure to clean up the mess and look after the place. A few trussed-up sections of conveyor belt sat next to a shed, waiting to be picked up by a farmer who planned to use them as padding for his cattle yard.

It was a beautiful summer’s day, and the sea glimmered at its bluest. Among the invited guests were publican Gadd and his wife, the state media, and a small deputation from Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) that included the partner of founder David Walsh, Kirsha Kaechele, and the director of Walsh’s music festivals, former Violent Femme Brian Ritchie. Ritchie had urged Wood to retain the site’s “industrial edginess” and had agreed to stage a concert there in January. Wood said he hoped the MONA team, whose museum had already revitalised Hobart, would have further input. “David Walsh loves doing weird shit and this is weird shit,” said Wood. “He has the museum of life and death … well, that is what this is, too. My intention is to leave the old stuff and build new stuff.”

The mill’s sheds would become galleries and performance spaces. The gantry’s circular concrete base would be transformed into a horticultural hub surrounded by productive gardens. The beltways would become walkways, linking the green hill to the arts precinct and the marina.

A promotional video promised “more vision and creative ideas than you can poke a log at”. One or two locals grimaced. Was this plan for real? Had the architects actually visited the site when the sun wasn’t shining and the wind was howling, which was much of the time? Some felt the town had been bypassed. Why hadn’t they been consulted?

One of the more enthusiastic – and striking – figures at the launch was the local mayor of seven years, Bertrand Cadart, who arrived by motorbike. Cadart played a small role in Mad Max (as Clunk, the crowbar-wielding bikie) and has won the popular vote three times running. Sporting a cravat, round spectacles, a waxed moustache and a thick French accent, he told me Wood’s plans matched his own vision for the east coast, which was for it to become “an almost epicurean stretch of hedonism, pleasure and relaxation”.

“This coast is arid but for wine and sheep. It’s not fertile. We’ve got the weather for leisure, the climate for wine, extraordinary scenery that we are wasting … It can be the Riviera of Tasmania.”

A Liberal Party member who went on to stand unsuccessfully for a state seat in the March election, Cadart breezily dismissed his party’s rhetoric about compulsorily acquiring the site for the forest industry. “At heart I am an advocate of liberalism à la Rousseau, Voltaire and Montesquieu. Freedom of thought, free markets, individual freedom: enlightened liberalism.”

Asked if this was akin to liberalism à la Abetz, he theatrically clutched his head. “No! Re-opening the chip mill would be the worst thing that could happen to the coast, because we have to turn the corner.” Tasmania, he pointed out, had by far the lowest literacy and numeracy rates of any state, and while joblessness was a factor, so was the predominance of industries like forestry and fishing. Jobs were all well and good, he said, but what incentive was there to learn if the going opportunities were in logging, trucking, shooting and milling?

Cadart told me Tasmania was a state at odds with itself.

“The people here, they are too disparate, you know, from the most bogan of bogans … to the greenest pains in the arse. There is no sense of unity, no spirit of Tasmania, no matter what it says on the side of the boat.

“Take Triabunna. It is an ugly spot. Not because it’s ugly intrinsically, but because it’s populated by people who have no concept of aesthetics, no concept of bon goût. I don’t really give a shit about these people. But this man, Graeme Wood, he does. He is a socialist who seems to have a very good sense of business. I have no comprehension of this. To me his plan looks mad, like a poker game big time, but he’s smart and he has got the dough and he wants to play with it. Fucked if I know if he can make it work.”

Five months later, in early May, I visited Hobart’s Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens to see Mark Fountain. The gardens’ acting director had been working closely with Wood on the redesign of Spring Bay Mill, as the project was now called. The plans had evolved, and Wood had asked Fountain to take me through them. There would no longer be a marina – the locals had been right about that. Nor would there be any “MONA-fication” – David Walsh had enough on his hands. If anything, though, the plans had become more ambitious.

“What we’re looking at creating now,” said Fountain, “is a landscape garden that rates in the world’s top 20, capable of attracting 400,000 visitors a year.” The 40-hectare site was to become a vast spread of botanic wonders – a cork oak forest, a food garden, an indoor rainforest – intricately designed to reveal sea and bay vistas to maximum effect, while also accommodating precincts for sculpture, marine research, horticulture, a cooking school, concert performances and perhaps a whiskey still. The model was Cornwall’s Eden Project, or even Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay.

Wood, who keeps a house in Hobart’s Battery Point but lives in Brisbane, picked me up from the botanic gardens in a white Falcon ute. Tall and lean, he was dressed in jeans, thick hiking socks and a leather jacket. When I pointed out that the new plans kept less of the “old stuff”, he said he was no longer so sure the site should make much of its tree-shredding history – to be the Garden of Good and Evil, as it were. He doubted future visitors would care, for one thing, but he was also sounding a reconciliatory note: “We have to show respect. There are a lot of horny-handed old blokes who made their living out of timber and who think I’m a prick. You don’t want to rub their noses in it. There was a bit of – what was the word the good senator used? – triumphalism from the Greens when Jan and I bought the place. That sort of crowing can feel good at the time but come back to bite you. We need the community’s support if we are to open their minds about new ways of making a living here.”

When it comes to green causes, Wood has very deep pockets. A year before buying the Triabunna mill, he teamed up with Jan Cameron to help bankroll the Tasmanian Land Conservancy’s purchase of 27,000 hectares of Gunns property, including Skullbone Plains. He helped fund the anti–Bell Bay pulp mill campaign. He donated $1.6 million to the Greens’ 2010 federal election campaign. Wood has committed further millions to university research into climate change, food security, renewable energy and population growth, and helped underwrite Alec Marr’s Paris-based campaign against the Abbott government’s attempt to return protected forest to loggers. (A decision by the World Heritage Committee in Doha was due days after this article went to press.)

But it’s not all about the environment for Wood. The what-comes-next question – or how to address the social cost of locking up land for conservation – has increasingly informed his corporate activism. In 2008, he started Wild Mob, which trains young people to work in conservation programs. His Graeme Wood Foundation has given $6 million to fund university research into teenage drug and alcohol abuse. The foundation also funds various projects at disadvantaged schools, including a food garden at Triabunna District High School, where, according to the My School website, two thirds of enrolments come from families in the bottom quarter of average income.

Wood, who grew up in central Queensland in a working-class family, visited Tasmania for the first time in 2004. Driving down the east coast, he was “blown away” by its beauty. The following year, he sailed along it while competing in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race. The year after that, he floated Wotif on the stock exchange for $670 million. Suddenly he had more money than he knew what to do with.

“I started thinking about causes,” Wood said. He sought out Bob Brown, “the only politician I ever felt I could trust”, and got “entwined” in the forest wars. He also met Alec Marr, who at the time was still running the Wilderness Society. “My first impression was that he was a bit crazy, like he had a hornet’s nest on top of his head. But he was very committed and very clever strategically. We hit it off.”

Before long, though, Wood realised that the state’s economy needed rescuing as much as its forests. Like Bertrand Cadart, he admires Jonathan West, the Hobart academic (and another former Wilderness Society boss) who has portrayed Tasmania as a state so dependent on welfare and federal government subsidies that it is showing the sort of social dysfunction more commonly associated with remote Aboriginal communities. The problem with Tasmania, Wood wrote to me in an email, was that it was “bereft of leadership. The lowest common denominator rules. Inbred corporate/government relationships … ensure conservative views always seem to dominate.”

Wood, like West, and indeed like much of Tasmania post–MONA, is convinced that tourism is the state’s best chance of economic transformation. But Wood’s finances are finite, and Spring Bay Mill is by far his biggest undertaking yet. Also, Wood will likely have to buy out Jan Cameron, who has lost much of her fortune recently and is facing legal action for allegedly trading while insolvent.

The new premier, Will Hodgman, has said he won’t stand in the way of the project but, Wood told me, “the perception is that Hodgman has the good senator’s hand up his arse”. Although the two have never met, Abetz has made no secret of his dislike of Wood. In the past three years he has pushed for a royal commission into Wood’s acquisition of the Triabunna mill, a Senate inquiry into Wood’s donations to the Greens and a Fair Work Commission investigation into reports of staff discontent at Wood’s Global Mail.

Not so long ago, logging trucks returning empty from Triabunna would rumble past Eric Abetz’s Hobart office every five minutes en route to the upriver forests. The senator’s office is on one-way Davey Street, just two doors up from the Wilderness Society. His foyer features a large photograph of a clearfelled (or “generation burnt”, in forestry speak) coupe in the Picton Valley, next to a picture of the same coupe eight years later. The regrowth looks reassuring, as “before and after” sequences go, until you twig that there is no “before” shot.

The day after my meeting with Graeme Wood, Abetz greeted me in the foyer flanked by his press secretary, David Allender, and his electorate officer, ex-forestry official Alan Ashbarry. We were off to Triabunna to gauge the level of community opposition to Wood’s plans, via a stop at a former Gunns plantation.

The senator drove. In person he is warmer than he appears on TV, although he still sounds like he is speaking through clenched teeth. He entered the Senate during Paul Keating’s prime ministership, and seems to share the ideological chip that marks others who arrived in that time, like Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne. A firm Calvinist (Abetz was born in Stuttgart and only recently renounced his German citizenship), in 1997 he became chair of the Lyons Forum, an avowedly anti-abortion, anti–gay rights and anti-euthanasia parliamentary grouping, now defunct. But he always reserved a special anti-feeling for the Greens, whom he regards as “the epitome of extremism”.

“I sort of ask, ‘Where do humans fit in, according to the world view of the Greens?’” Abetz explained, keeping his eyes on the road. “If I’m a beaver, I’m allowed to chop down trees and dam rivers to create a habitat for myself, but if I’m a human being doing that, it’s the worst environmental disaster in the world. Beavers have more rights than humans in the Greens’s world.”

But it’s a certain forester who really raises his hackles. Greg L’Estrange’s sale of the Triabunna mill and port was an “act of bastardry”, Abetz told me. So, too, was his speech to the Forest Industry Development Conference, in which he had “trashed” the reputation of Forestry Tasmania.

Abetz wholly opposed the 2013 peace deal. Unlike the “treacherous” L’Estrange, he was not prepared to countenance that Tasmania’s old-growth forest industry was terminally on the nose. Woodchips were a commodity, he said. Prices and trade were cyclical. But he conceded the industry had taken its eye off the ball in relation to research and development: it should have done more to ensure there would be other markets for the “waste wood” of clear felling – that is, for the 90% of logs that were unsuitable for sawmilling.

“The industry has been left to scramble for options,” he said. His government was presently funding a veneer plant that would be capable of processing the next-best 10% of logs, after sawlogs, into plywood. As for the remaining 80% of logged old-growth forest, “it should be regarded as a renewable energy source as part of the Renewable Energy Target”, so that it might be burnt to generate electricity.

This would outrage environmentalists, of course, but possibly that was his point. Abetz, who is a global-warming sceptic, pressed on: “Why wouldn’t you allow wood waste to be used just as long as you plant more trees? Burning wood cannot create more carbon than a newly growing tree will suck back out of the atmosphere. It’s a genuinely closed loop.” Never mind that it takes decades to grow a tree and hours to burn one – by that logic, burning coal is a closed loop, too.

Near the hamlet of Runnymede we turned off the highway into a rather shabby-looking plantation of Eucalyptus nitens, or shining gum. Statewide, there are about a quarter of a million hectares of these hardwood plantations, chiefly in the north. Most began as managed investment schemes, which were designed to write off tax for rich investors rather than to make money. Consequently, many plantations were established in marginal areas and were poorly maintained. The companies running them duly went belly up, and much of the plantation estate was sold cheaply to Gunns. (In April, the Gunns administrators sold it to New Forests, a Sydney investment fund, along with its two woodchip mills in northern Tasmania.)

“This plantation has been stranded by the sale of Triabunna,” said Abetz, idling to a stop. “It would require substantial subsidies to move this now [to the mills up north].” And it would be politically tricky for him to allow those. As the minister for employment, he famously ruled out further government support for the country’s car manufacturing industry, at the cost of tens of thousands of jobs, as well as for a Victorian cannery.

Still, Tasmanian forestry was different, he said. Unlike, say, car manufacturing, the Greens had actively interfered to limit both supply of and demand for Tasmanian forest products, which meant government support in the form of subsidies and compensation was warranted.

Did “warranted government support” still include compulsory acquisition of the mill?

“Oh look, I understand it’s no longer operational. I would need technical advice, but it would be extremely difficult.”

In that case, could he see himself supporting Wood’s plans?

“Let’s wait and see what he’s actually going to do. But in general terms, any development I support, and if he’s going to attract a lot of tourists, all strength to his arm. Regrettably, he could have done that by buying other areas of Tasmania without destroying a viable forest industry. When I say viable, was it going through a tough time? Yes, it was, but … why couldn’t we have had tourism in Triabunna and a woodchip mill? A tourist would be interested to learn how we do forestry in Tasmania, and learn that the woodchips are made from the leftovers … it’s a great story to tell.”

Fifteen minutes later, a sign welcomed us to “Triabunna, Heart of Fishery and Forestry”. We stopped briefly at the shire chambers, where the council CEO wanted to sound out the senator on the possibility of federal money for a stalled golf course development, across the bay from the mill. Abetz was dubious. Had they tried Mr Wood up the road? “Yes, but he doesn’t want to invest in golf courses,” said the CEO, rolling his eyes. “It must be the chipping,” deadpanned Abetz’s press secretary.

From there we headed to a coffee shop to meet with the local chamber of commerce. About a dozen people turned up, but if Abetz’s advisers had expected to drum up indignation about the mill, they were mistaken. Of the dozen, at least half had attended the MONA-run concert there, and two had been in touch with Wood overnight for an update on his plans.

“It’s just fantastic,” said a ferryman who runs tours to Maria Island. “I see Graeme’s development as a major, major thing. For the town.”

“What’s the likelihood of it actually happening?” Abetz asked him.

“Well, good. It will be the MONA of the east coast.”

Abetz nodded, tight-lipped, and turned to a woman who owned two scallop boats. “Graeme has told us he’s not going to be the white knight that rides in and saves the town,” she said, “but that the town has to get up and going by itself. Our future is in our hands.”

“Senator, you asked if he was actually going to go ahead with it,” said David Kirk, from nearby Orford. “Well, he told us he was doing it for his grandchildren. He’s been very passionate about that.” Kirk paused for emphasis. “I’ve looked him in the eye and I believe him.”

Abetz nodded some more. Wrapping up the session, his adviser, Ashbarry, promised I would see another side to the debate over a community lunch at Graeme Elphinstone’s home. Elphinstone manufactured logging trailers, and his wife fondly remembered growing up in a town where “there was a log truck parked at every house”.

“These trucks were hauling timber from 120, 140 kilometres away,” Elphinstone recounted from the head of his dining table. “So it’s not just about Triabunna. This mill was what kept towns like Geeveston and Huonville going. Its closure is absolutely criminal.”

Before the mill closed, Elphinstone employed 40 people and manufactured a trailer every four days. After, he was lucky to sell one a month. “You don’t realise what it’s done to people’s minds. Many are on happy pills now.”

Elphinstone thought Wood’s plans were a “crock”. “Even MONA doesn’t make money.”

“Taking out Triabunna was the strategic triumph of the environment movement of the last five years,” Sean Cadman, the conservationist, told me. It’s a view joyously shared in green circles, and there’s little doubt that the campaign targeting Japanese customers hastened the mill’s demise. But equally, global economics would have seen it shut down soon enough. What Wood and Cameron’s acquisition had actually achieved was what Greg L’Estrange had tried in vain to do the previous year, which was to snuff out the false hopes of an industry in denial.

A week after my encounters with Wood and Abetz, I visited L’Estrange, the man caught between the old Gunns and what might have been, on his former dairy property in the subtropical hinterland of Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. When I arrived, he was putting the finishing touches on an executive retreat, set among a revegetated rainforest down the hill from his imposing home. We sat on his balcony, looking out across further plantations of rainforest trees to the dark green pyramid of Mount Cooroy. The birds and native animals were coming back, he noted. He planned to put a covenant on the property, so that it might never be cleared again.

Overnight, the International Union for Conservation of Nature had lambasted the Australian government’s campaign to have 74,000 hectares of World Heritage area delisted. When I mentioned this, L’Estrange shook his head. “The government can open up all of Tasmania for logging, but it’s going to achieve diddly squat. Because who are they going to sell it to? Where is the market?”

He went on, “People in Tasmania have got so caught up with their ideological positions that they have lost sight of the economics of native forests. The Liberals don’t want to hear about it. They just want victory. Eric Abetz will keep throwing money at the industry because that’s his ideological position. It’s almost like revenge.”

Asked if he had any friends left in Tasmania, L’Estrange looked away. “Who cares? I mean, look, I’m disappointed. I feel I offered a middle path. And I still think running the plantations in Tasmania around a world-class pulp mill that … engages with the communities properly and brings wealth into the state is a whole lot better idea than riding a dead horse into the ground.”

If anything, he reflected, he’d been too optimistic about the sale of native forest products. In past months, exports of woodchips had ceased out of Eden, Newcastle and Western Australia. “No one wants them. The market is for pulp, not woodchips.”

L’Estrange insisted that the pulp mill would have been highly profitable, even at current pulp prices. “If the pulp mill had been going today, we’d have been harvesting 4.5 million tonnes of plantation fibre and delivering it to Bell Bay, which is the same amount as at the peak of the harvest from Tasmania’s native forests. So all of this angst about community transition need not have happened. The issues around World Heritage would have been put to bed.”

He swatted at an insect. “The forest wars would have been dead and buried if the Greens had helped – not hindered – Gunns get the pulp mill and build an industry around plantations. Instead it was killed by politics, and we’re left with 240,000 hectares of [plantation] trees and at least another decade of pain. From a social perspective, I think the Greens should hang their heads in shame. A great opportunity was missed.”

L’Estrange’s expression was plaintive; I wanted to believe him. But the story was more complicated. Gunns’ prospective financiers, including the ANZ bank, weren’t simply dissuaded by environmental politics. In this country a pulp mill based on farming trees is much more expensive than one that “mines” them out of native forest, which is what Gunns, under Gay, had originally proposed. In addition, government subsidies seeded Tasmania’s plantations, whether directly, in the case of those managed by Forestry Tasmania, or indirectly, in the case of the vast majority, which began as managed investment schemes. As business models go, this was hardly sustainable. Once the first rotation of trees was harvested, how feasible would it be to grow a second crop without subsidies? Eucalypt plantations are profitable overseas, where the land is cheap and the trees grow quickly – up to three times as quickly in countries like Brazil, partly because of the climate but also because Portuguese timber giants have invested huge amounts in productivity research. Gunns, on the other hand, hardly spent a cent on studying how to grow trees. Presently, Tasmanian plantations take 12 to 15 years to be ready for harvest. By L’Estrange’s own estimation, that figure would need to be halved for tree-farming to be viable.

So, if the pulp mill had got up, what would have happened when the supply crunch came or pulp prices dipped and the company was under pressure? Would it have been able to resist asking the government of the day for access to its vast supply of cheap native timber? You’ve got to wonder, especially when Forestry Tasmania (which refused to co-operate with this article) is still fuming about Gunns’ exit from its old-growth coupes in the first place. In truth, there may never have been a middle path in the forest wars. In any event, there is not one now.

Even back among the guests in Graeme Elphinstone’s sunlit dining room, the host’s was the minority view. To my other side sat Phillip Lamb, a mussel and scallop farmer and the Spring Bay Mill’s near neighbour. While Lamb hadn’t minded sharing the road with logging trucks, Wood’s proposed culinary school excited him. “The mill is dead. Yesterday was yesterday, and the woodchippers lost,” he said. “You don’t back losers. You back the winners.” 

About the author John van Tiggelen

John van Tiggelen is a freelance writer and the author of Mango Country.