The Destruction of the Triabunna Mill
July 17, 2014 6:55 AM   Subscribe

In the July issue of The Monthly, John van Tiggelen tells the tale of “The Destruction of the Triabunna Mill and the Fall Of Tasmania's Woodchip Industry,” detailing how “How the end of Gunns cleared a new path for Tasmania.”
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.

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.
posted by ob1quixote (12 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
This is great news, I wasn't aware that Gunns had been shut down. Woodchipping old growth forests, what a tragedy.

The link doesn't work for me, at least on mobile.
posted by Joe Chip at 6:58 AM on July 17, 2014

Joe Chip: “The link doesn't work for me, at least on mobile.”
Not sure what the problem is. I've just checked again from both my laptop and phone and I can read it just fine.
posted by ob1quixote at 7:11 AM on July 17, 2014

As a 46-year-old expat Tasmanian who learned to drive on a winding country road behind endless log trucks headed for Triabunna, this is electrifying reading. I'm proud now of every penny I've paid into Kathmandu's coffers.

So many things I could comment on here. But I've got to finish reading first - I've slowed down in the section about Eric Abetz, because it's hard to read through the pink mist.
posted by rory at 7:44 AM on July 17, 2014

I'd missed the news about the Triabunna mill being bought by Wood and Cameron - a brilliant tactical stroke. And I'd missed the news that Abetz and Abbott were angling to open it again, but it didn't surprise me in the slightest. I expected the story to continue in depressing detail about how they'd pulled it off and got the log trucks rolling again... so the section on Marr's monkey-wrenching was like something out of a thriller. I'm averse to vandalism, but when the choice is between letting the loggers loose again on Southern old-growth forests, or dismantling a disused mill to prevent that from happening, I know what I'd choose.

And I know full well that a lot of Tasmanians would (and do) gnash their teeth and talk about jobs, but industrial forestry just doesn't translate to the jobs bonanza they imagine, and hasn't for decades. A century ago teams of men used to go into those forests and haul out one giant tree at a time for sawmilling. By the 1980s, a few men with heavy machinery could knock over whole hillsides of ancient trees in one hit, and ninety percent of it, NINETY percent of it, ended up as woodchips to be turned into newspaper. Or, as Abetz puts it in this article, "the woodchips are made from the leftovers". What kind of person thinks of 90% of any living thing as "the leftovers"? Poachers killing rhinos and elephants for their horns and tusks? Well, poachers "need jobs" too, but where is it written that they have to be those jobs?

I see that the mayor quoted in the piece has received some blowback from outraged locals, even though his "most bogan of bogans" comment was about certain elements of the state as a whole rather than his town in particular. (If you don't know the term, that link explains it.)

As for that logging trailer manufacturer saying "this mill was what kept towns like Geeveston and Huonville going": I know those towns, and although Geeveston had a fair number of forestry workers, farming would have done more to keep Huonville going through the lean 1970s and 1980s than forestry. Then the highway to Hobart was upgraded, it went from a 45-minute drive to the city to 30, and the town grew again in the 1990s as more people moved there and commuted. Neither town is exactly enormous, anyway; a few thousand people between them. Triabunna, it's worth noting, is even smaller, with a population of 800 in the last census.
posted by rory at 8:55 AM on July 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

And I know full well that a lot of Tasmanians would (and do) gnash their teeth and talk about jobs, but industrial forestry just doesn't translate to the jobs bonanza they imagine, and hasn't for decades.

Not this Tasmanian. I'm fully aware that Tasmania has more baristas than forestry industry workers these days - unfortunately there are still a significant section of the population, who personally have no stake in the industry, who nonetheless rabidly support it out of some strange sense of tradition or local pride, or just to spite the environmentalists. But the Greens didn't kill the forestry industry - global economics did. No-one wants to buy our wood, it's as simple as that. The whole state is inflicted with a weird cargo-cult mentality when it comes to out-of-state investment, and a weird sort of pride - "Tasmania is great, Tasmania is special - sure, completely backwards-ass and fucked up, but that's what makes us great!" As someone who grew up and lived in other parts of Australia, ugly Tasmanian parochialism can be extremely frustrating.

So now the new Tasmanian Liberal government wants to hold an enquiry into the "destruction" of the mill - curious, very curious, since only a month ago they passed laws imposing tough penalties on anyone who interferes with the operation of a private business. These people own the mill - it's their business, their property to do what they want with, why should it be the government's concern? If the Tasmanian government really wants to run a centrally-planned economy, they're welcome to build their own bloody mill.
posted by Jimbob at 2:54 PM on July 17, 2014

In my opinion, if Alec Marr had become a unionist instead of an environmentalist, he would be head of the ACTU by now and it probably wouldn't be a good thing. He is a bold, cunning, secretive and imaginative operator. His methods often seem to be a game for him. One time, immediately after a win against forest industry and political opponents, he sent them fax that just said: Nya nya nya nya nya

The traits that make him such a successful campaigner also made him a difficult boss. If you are not in the circle, you are way out of the loop. He has complex attitudes towards women, and he resists influences that are not in accord with his very competitive if not ruthless approach to campaigning. He loves to plan an attack and more than once I have thought - fuck, I am glad he is on our side.

It's over 20 years since I worked with Alec. Driving by the Triabunna mill entrance one day, in a car full of campaigners including Alec, we joked about how we would 'rapidly decommission' the mill. When I read a few years ago about Wood and Cameron buying the mill and putting Alec Marr in charge, I burst out laughing, then chortled for hours.

The article's third last paragraph explains the importance of the mill's eternal decommissioning. The timber industry the mill supported was unsustainable both economically and environmentally yet the ideologues haven't caught up yet. The mill had to come off the pork-barrel menu quickly.

Eric Abetz is a nasty piece of work. If the author thinks his speech is stilted now, he should have heard him before his pre-senatorial elocution lessons. Mechanical and monotone with an extended inflection at the end of almost every word that made you wonder how his colleagues could bare to listen to him day in, day out without picking up his tie and stuffing into his robotic gob. His thinking is just as inflexible and i believe he actually lacks the cognitive ability to think compassionately and empathetically upon any concept that does not fit his understandings, which are substantially limited to rules, regs, laws and loyalty to the liberal party old boys network.

As the author noted, Abetz's office is just 2 doors from the Wilderness Society's, both in gracious mansions, the latter's bought with funding raised during their 1983 nation-changing campaign to save the Franklin River. It's my thesis that the compact geographical layout of the city of Hobart has long been involved in power games between some political and environmental players. Parliament House is only down the hill, a brisk 3min walk through gardens and across the cobblestones of Hobart's most popular thoroughfare. Parliamentarians, offisiders and lobbyists drink in the same hotels and cafes as campaigners. I am not sure what relational effects are created by the concentrated proximity of politicians and campaigners in Hobart, but I think there may be a few.

TL;DR - Alec Marr said: “This is about as much fun as I’ve had before lunch in my life.” I contend that he understated his joy.

Gunns20 previously on metafilter.
posted by Kerasia at 6:47 PM on July 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

Thanks for posting this, ob1quixote.
posted by Kerasia at 6:56 PM on July 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

As the author noted, Abetz's office is just 2 doors from the Wilderness Society's

And another 2 doors down from the Ta Ann office. And across the road from a bunch of trade union offices. Hobart's awesome. I drive past there every morning, wondering if I'll see a running street battle.
posted by Jimbob at 7:19 PM on July 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

ob1quixote, thanks very much for posting this story; I know it's been overshadowed by the news a few threads up, but Tasmania gets precious few moments in the Mefi sun, and I for one was grateful to read it.

I've been thinking about Tassie a lot over the past 18 months, even though I moved away half a lifetime ago. I lived there again briefly for a few months in 1998 between jobs, and have visited my family and friends there regularly since I left, so I haven't become a stranger to it, but it's almost five years since I've been able to afford a trip home, and I've been feeling it. The feeling was exacerbated by finally getting around to reading a book I picked up on my last visit, James Boyce's Van Diemen's Land: A History, which explained so much of the society that formed me that it was a bit overwhelming; I only wished his narrative had continued right up to the present day. Every Tasmanian should read it.

I read a small news story in the mid-'90s which I've used to explain the state to non-Tasmanians ever since. In a nationwide survey of scientific knowledge conducted at the time, as a sort of proxy for general levels of education around Australia, the region that scored the highest wasn't Sydney or Melbourne or Canberra, but Hobart. The region that scored the lowest was rural Tasmania. That wasn't a revelation to me, but confirmation: I grew up in rural Tasmania as the son of white-collar workers who commuted to Hobart, and that contrast was my world. In a great many ways, I'm glad it was, because I don't have the distance from rural realities that I see in some urban people's attitudes, and I've got a lot of sympathy for those who have to make the best of limited rural prospects.

I'm part of the brain-drain that has plagued the state for decades (not that I want to big-note my brain or anything); went up to Canberra for my postgrad studies, and despite multiple attempts over the following decade to find work back in Tas, never did. I've been thinking along those lines again, though, now that I have kids. I've been fortunate enough to have seen a lot of the world, including a lot of places that have similar levels of Western comfort combined with temperate natural beauty (the South Island of New Zealand, the Pacific Northwest, BC and Alberta, Switzerland, Ireland, and where I've ended up, Scotland), but this place... there's something about this place. And it's so small in population, and so little known, that most people in Australia don't realise that. In some ways, even most people in Tasmania don't. Sure, there's the usual small-country (-state) thing there of talking up Tassie this, Tassie that, Tassie is the best place in the world; but if most Tasmanians really believed that, if they really knew what makes it special, they wouldn't have spent the past four decades, my entire lifetime, voting for people who want to rip it up and pave it and flood it and chop it down. They would have been putting everything they could into selling what makes the place special, not selling the pulverised remnants of what makes it special.

The one hope on the horizon is that the leaps and bounds in solar and wind technology that we're seeing this decade will make any future hydro projects irrelevant, and that the internet is making the market for newspaper and woodchips similarly irrelevant. As the Monthly article and others here have indicated, there are plenty of people in the state in denial about this, for understandable reasons - their livelihoods are at stake - but they have to wake up to it and start thinking about how to adapt to a non-hydro, non-logging future, because it's coming.

I used to think that the dreams of restoring Lake Pedder were just that, dreams, and that I would never get to walk its white sand beaches as my father was lucky enough to do before it was dammed; but one day soon, Australians will be getting most of their domestic power from micro-generation, and the need for baseload will be much lower, and Pedder will be a big ol' white elephant; so then, why not? And as the waters of the hydro dam make their way down the Huon again, I hope there's something left around them by way of old-growth forest, and some of the oldest trees on earth still standing there, and that a few brief generations of Tasmanians haven't clearfelled their grandkids' future for the sake of their own transitory paychecks and a few corporate shareholders.
posted by rory at 2:53 AM on July 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

(I've been on Mefi too long. Pay-cheques, not -checks.)
posted by rory at 3:02 AM on July 18, 2014

Hydro's a funny thing, you know. I've only been living in Tasmania for 6 years, and the anti-hydro-dam thing happened when I was a toddler in Adelaide. You almost never hear hydro framed as an environmental disaster in Tasmania, anymore. Oh sure, the dams that were stopped are considered victories, but the dams that weren't stopped are now broadly held as an example of how wonderfully green we are - supplying all that electricity for ourselves and exporting it to the mainland without burning an ounce of coal! The future for hydro is probably pretty bleak, though - not least because climate change will reduce rainfall and increase temperature and evaporation rates in the highlands, and that won't bode well for those ancient forests.
posted by Jimbob at 4:22 AM on July 18, 2014

I still have one of these somewhere... it used to be on one of my high-school folders. Got ripped off the cover by other kids more than once.

Here's Lake Pedder, before and after. One of the humbler victims of the dam. Just look at the size of Pedder and Gordon today; they're as big as the Tasman Pensinsula.

The Franklin dam was a close-run thing. That would have done yet more damage to the southwest, including Macquarie Harbour. People who remember it as a conservation victory may think that was an end to it, but the Hydro simply finished damming the Pieman instead a few years later, and then moved on to the King, which was completed in the 1990s. All of it driven by a mentality of "if you build more dams, heavy industry will come".

Hydro power may be greener in relative terms than coal or nuclear, but it's been problematic in more places than just Tasmania. It's intimately tied up with the history of the Tasmanian conservation struggle, and even if people aren't talking much about it at the moment, scratch the surface of contemporary pro-forestry attitudes and you'll find a lot of pro-dams thinking beneath. Until there's a serious shift in collective mindset, I can't think of the Franklin or any other Tasmanian river as being saved, only as being saved for now.
posted by rory at 5:29 AM on July 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

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