• 'We had a red-hot go': Timber stalwart retires from Tasmania's forest wars

    Posted July 12, 2018 09:17:27

    Terry Edwards has received love mail, hate mail and everything in between, and after 16 years at the helm of Tasmania's forestry industry he's ready for a rest.

    Mr Edwards is retiring from the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania (FIAT), a job that placed him in the middle of the most turbulent and violent times in the state's forests.

    When he took on the job in 2002, Mr Edwards thought he knew what he was getting into.

    A no-nonsense straight-talker, he quickly became the public face of a contentious industry.

    "In retrospect, I didn't really fully understand or appreciate how strong the passions were on both sides of the debate in the forest industry," he said.

    The 1997 Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) Act was still going through federal parliament and environment groups had made it clear they didn't accept the outcome of the process.

    "There are times over the last 16 years where it's got quite out of control, where there's been physical violence," Mr Edwards said.

    The 2004 federal election saw then-opposition leader Mark Latham declare he would protect the overwhelming majority of Tasmania's old growth forests from logging, spurring Mr Edwards into action.

    Mr Edwards said he worked with other members of Labor, including the Paul Lennon-led state government, and Liberal prime minister John Howard on the Tasmanian Community Forest Agreement, which was announced to a Launceston town hall packed with forestry workers.

    "That agreement locked up another 170,000 hectares of forest and was another attempt to try and sort the thing out," Mr Edwards said.

    "[But] those attempts to sort things out failed because you don't have all protagonists in the room."

    The long-running conflict between environmentalists and the forestry industry continued.

    A 'soul-destroying' collapse

    Mr Edwards was there when the industry had its guts ripped out.

    A high Australian dollar, failing markets and shifting preferences for plantation and forest stewardship council-certified timber created the perfect storm.

    In 2009, forestry investment giant Great Southern collapsed, not long after, Forest Enterprises Australia went into administration.

    And then the real bombshell — the fall of Tasmanian timber giant, Gunns Ltd.

    Once the biggest hardwood saw-miller in the southern hemisphere, Gunns announced it would exit native timber logging in 2010. Two years later it entered voluntary administration.

    "It ripped the guts out of FIAT and the industry," Mr Edwards said.

    "At that stage, Gunns constituted 65 per cent of FIAT's income and were a very significant player in the industry — in an employment sense, and investment sense and in overall contributions to the way the industry functioned."

    An attempt at peace and a difficult decision

    After decades of vitriol, protests and violence between loggers and conservationists, the industry downturn paved the way for dialogue around the Tasmanian Forest Agreement (TFA).

    Its aim was to end one of the world's longest-running forestry conflicts — it's known by many as the forest peace deal, but not by Mr Edwards.

    "I'm one of the few people that has never, and will never, describe it as the peace deal," he said.

    For the head of the timber industry, only an agreement that settled all sides' agendas could be a peace deal.

    "And whilst we had a very strong representative group of environment leaders in the room, what we didn't have was some of the old war horses — your Christine Milnes, your Bob Browns, your Alec Marrs and people of that ilk which are just never going to go away."

    It took almost three years, but eventually old enemies stood side by side announcing a compromise that would see more than 500,000 hectares of native forest protected and the timber industry downsized.

    "I had an incredible difficulty agreeing at the end of the day to sign off on that agreement, because my personal philosophy is that I don't think locking forests up and throwing the key away is the right way to protect the environment," Mr Edwards said.

    No more TFA deal

    While the TFA legislation made it through parliament in 2013, the Greens' Kim Booth crossed the floor to vote against it in the Lower House.

    To the timber industry boss, it heralded the failure of what he'd worked so hard to achieve.

    Mr Edwards was not surprised the then opposition, Will Hodgman's Liberals, seized the moment, and campaigned for the 2014 election on a promise to rip up the peace deal.

    "So you had a new government coming in with a strong mandate, saying 'we're going to tear this up' and that meant MLCs were saying, well it's probably going to fall apart anyway," Mr Edwards said.

    In 2014, Tasmania's timber industry accepted the state's historic forest peace deal was dead.

    Unlikely allies had 'a red-hot go'

    Mr Edwards made a lot of enemies during the fraught TFA process.

    "Funnily enough, depending on where the process was at any given time, the same person would either send me a hate or love letter," he said.

    Amid the vitriol and criticism Mr Edwards found himself an unlikely ally of sorts — the Wilderness Society's Vica Bayley, who was another signatory to the agreement.

    "We've maintained contact since then, we do still talk about industry issues and both of us, I think, feel that we can freely pick up the phone and talk to each other," Mr Edwards said.

    While he doesn't believe the battles over Tasmania's forests are over, Mr Edwards said the full-blown war that existed when he took over as head of FIAT had receded.

    "The wars are still there, they're not as vitriolic as they were, they're not as public as they were," he said.

    Arguments over the Tarkine and a proposed new woodchip export facility have ignited passions most recently, but Mr Edwards believes the TFA process resulted in a better relationship between the forest industry and environment groups.

    The industry has shrunk dramatically, and Mr Edwards feels for the workers whose lives were turned upside down because of the deal.

    "In some ways the industry's a bit worse off than it was, because so many contractors were lost, so many families were destroyed or hurt badly by the whole process," Mr Edwards said.

    "There's still a lot of hard feelings out there in the world.

    "But everyone can see that we all had a red-hot go and that it is possible to eventually sit down and reach an agreement."

    Timber still in his sights

    Mr Edwards admits he's pretty tired, pretty worn out.

    "The TFA process in particular, I think people on both sides will admit, it took a lot out of all of us," he said.

    "And the fact that it all was for naught, at the end of the day, is a little soul-destroying on top of it."

    But he's optimistic about the timber industry's future, which is now being marketed in the same way as Tasmania's niche, high-quality produce and wines.

    But for the man himself, it's six grandchildren and building a new house that are the key retirement priorities.

    "There'll be a fair bit of timber in it, I can promise you that," he said.

    Mr Edwards would have liked to see Tasmanian forestry become a less binary argument, less black and white, less environment-versus-industry.

    "No job's ever done and that one's certainly not. But I'm not staying to do it."

    Topics: forests, environment, forestry, tas, hobart-7000, launceston-7250

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