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Logging issue divides this coastal region

Vince Phillips has woodchips in his blood, and like many on the far South Coast, he relies on logging for his livelihood.

He has worked for Australia's oldest woodchipper for 17 years, helping turn native forest into woodchip for hungry markets in Japan, China, and Taiwan.

His career in the timber industry has been plagued by a bitter fight between environmental activists, contracted loggers and the large woodchip mill run by South East Fibre Exports (SEFE) at Twofold Bay near Eden. The company has filled more than 780 container ships with woodchips since it was founded in 1971, generating $2.1billion in revenue, $75million of which was made this year.

GALLERY: Rip, rip, woodchip

Activists, like former fashion designer and current South East Region Conservation Alliance spokeswoman Prue Acton, have long been opposed to the logging, arguing it threatens local koala populations, destroys old growth forests, interferes with water tables, increases bushfire risk, and damages the natural beauty and tourism pull of the far South Coast.

Protesters have chained themselves to trees, invaded the SEFE pulp mill, and sought to block the logging through courts.

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The company hotly disputes each criticism levelled at it by activists.

Central to its defence of logging operations is the fact it only has access to wood from 10per cent of NSW and Victoria's forests, with the remaining 90per cent protected.

''I think the activists are concerned about one thing, [protecting] 100per cent, that's what they're driven by,'' Mr Phillips said. ''They can smell it, they're at 90per cent, and they know 100per cent is not far away.''

The fight over logging has divided residents in many towns on the far South Coast.

Eden is considered by activists and loggers as a mostly pro-logging town, and benefits economically from the SEFE mill, which employs up to 350 people directly and through its supply chains.

''It's pretty important for Eden, because we go back 15 years ago and Eden had a big cannery employing a couple of hundred people that closed, the fishery industry has been wound back from probably 40 trawlers to about seven,'' Mr Phillips said. ''Eden itself has gone through a really hard hit over the past 10 or 15 years, this mill is the biggest business left around town.''

The activists argue that all of the jobs created by the pulp mill could be replaced by a strong eco-tourism industry, centered around the region's spectacular natural forests.

''Eden, I've lived there, it's a divided town, it's not nice, you can't open your mouth,'' Ms Acton said.

''The whole idea of the tourist market is this Australian coastal wilderness landscape,'' she said.

''The idea is that we bring in the big liners from the growing middle classes in India and China into Eden, a deep port, a beautiful deep port.

''But not to see a chip mill, and not to see wrecked forests.''

Yet the fate of SEFE may not be decided by the actions of activists, despite their best efforts.

The company is struggling in the face of emerging woodchipping operations in China and other South-East Asian nations.

Foreign firms have the ability to employ cheap labour, easily ship their woodchips, and operate largely free from government regulation, making it hard for SEFE to compete.

But whatever SEFE's future, it is clear that the raging battle between environmental activists and those who depend on the timber industry will continue.