At an industry conference in Melbourne Thursday, Gunns chief executive Greg L'Estrange acknowledged that most Australians support the environmental groups in their decades-long campaign to end logging in the old growth native forests of Tasmania.
Gunns CEO Greg L'Estrange (Photo courtesy Gunns)
"This may well mean transitioning to plantations but move we must, for the conflict must end," said L'Estrange. "Through this inclusive approach we will find joint solutions to age-old conflicts and move beyond to a real, sustainable forest industry."
Gunns is Australia's largest producer of hardwood pulp wood, Australia's largest hardwood sawmiller, Australasia's largest producer of decorative hardwood veneer and also has a chain of retail stores.
"Over the past year we have made a clear, directional statement that our future will be in the development and use of plantation-based products because we must change in order to achieve broader community and investor support," L'Estrange told delegates to the ForestWorks conference on Australia's place in the changing global forest products market.
In court, on the streets and in the forests, environmental campaigners have battled for decades to keep Gunns from logging Tasmania's old growth forests. They have worked to influence the company's shareholders, banks and customers and successive state and national governments.
Today they are taking L'Estrange's announcement as a white flag.
Wilderness Society spokesperson Paul Oosting said, "Community and environment groups working for decades for the protection of Tasmania's irreplaceable native forests see Gunns announcement as a very welcome breakthrough. We look forward to protecting Tasmania's forests and supporting new lasting jobs by continuing to work with the timber industry to pave a way forward."
Environment Tasmania Director Dr. Phill Pullinger welcomed Gunns' shift, saying, "We now have the best opportunity in decades to resolve the forest conflict in Tasmania.
In Tasmania's Styx River valley grow the Eucalyptus regnans, the tallest of all flowering plants. There are also ancient tree ferns and 1,000 year old myrtles. (Photo by T. Taylor)
Environment Tasmania, The Wilderness Society and the Australian Conservation Foundation are engaged in talks with forestry industry representatives on options for the protection of native forests, the creation of a sustainable timber industry and the delivery of an end to the decades-long forest conflict.
If groups can reach an agreement over principles, then they say they would seek government support for a broad process to involve stakeholders and the broader community in the development and delivery of a solution.
"It is vitally important for Tasmania's future that we protect our native forests, create a timber industry that Tasmanians can be proud of, and heal the deep divisions in our community," said Pullinger. "We have to find a solution to the conflict over forestry that is durable, lasting and involves the whole Tasmanian community."
"If Gunns moves out of native forest logging and concentrates on processing its plantations, it will protect jobs in the timber industry," said Lindsay Hesketh, national forest campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation.
"It's time to look at forests in Tasmania in a new way because the old way - a battle between jobs and forests - has protected neither," said Hesketh. "It ruptured the community, failed to protect jobs and destroyed Tasmanian's natural heritage. We encourage all players to continue dialogue to find common ground on these important issues."
In 2009, Gunns lost a 7.8 million dollar court case it had launched against 20 defendents four years earlier in an attempt to prevent protests.
In Gunns Limited v Marr & Ors, Gunns filed a writ in the Supreme Court of Victoria against 20 individuals and organizations protesting against the company's logging operations. Defendents included The Wilderness Society and Senator Bob Brown of Tasmania, who leads the Australian Greens.
Styx Valley landscape after clear-felling, showing old-growth to the right and in the distance, pine plantations (Photo by T. Taylor)
In 2006, Gunns dropped its case against Senator Brown.
In a March 2009 settlement Gunns dropped its case against The Wilderness Society and paid the group's legal fees worth $350,000.
In return, The Wilderness Society agreed to pay Gunns $25,000 in damages for a November 2003 protest against logging in Tasmania's Styx Valley where some of the world's largest trees stand. At least 3,000 people showed up at a Styx Valley protest in July 2003, including Senator Brown.
Gunns still has plans to build the $2 billion Bell Bay Pulp Mill, also known as the Tamar Valley Pulp Mill, near Launceston, Tasmania's second largest city.
The proposed mill would use the Kraft process, elementally chlorine free bleaching, and be fed with native eucalypt forest and plantation timber. The mill is supported by the state government which wants the economic opportunities and jobs it will create.
Opponents include environmental and political groups including The Wilderness Society, TAP into a better Tasmania, Rainforest Action Network, and the Tasmanian Greens.
One of Australia's oldest companies, Gunns was founded in 1875 by brothers John and Thomas Gunn. It is Tasmania's largest private landowner and owns more than 900 square kilometers of plantations, mainly eucalyptus trees.
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