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Forestry peace: Tasmania's not out of the woods yet

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Hobart correspondent for Fairfax Media

View more articles from Andrew Darby

A series of government-imposed solutions have failed to bring lasting forestry peace.

A series of government-imposed solutions have failed to bring lasting forestry peace. Photo: Steven Siewert

It has been another day of surprise in the never-ending story that is Australia's longest environmental battle.

Just over a year ago, the green negotiators of a Tasmanian forests peace called a series of public meetings to talk about the forests they valued, and how a deal might be reached.

At some meetings, rows of workers wearing the high-visibility uniform of the state's largest surviving timber processor, Ta Ann, angrily heckled the speakers.

Now Ta Ann's boss says that the peace deal is the only game in town and the company backs it.

Such compromise raises hope of an end to the bitter forests conflict. But the most challenging backdown is yet to come. Without it, the peace will probably fail.

To recap: Tasmania's forest wars have been fought between greens and industry groups for about 30 years. Sometimes the battles became frighteningly violent. Protesters' cars were firebombed and they were assaulted; loggers' costly machinery was burnt, and their attempts to work were repeatedly hamstrung.

A series of government-imposed solutions failed to bring lasting peace. Meanwhile, driven by global demands for sustainable wood supply and the high dollar, Tasmania's forest industry collapsed.

Its employment halved in five years to just 3400 people, according to ANU researcher Jacki Schirmer. That's less than one-third of the direct jobs in Tasmanian tourism.

So industry began talking to the green groups and 30 months later, after staring into the abyss of failure in October, the two sides reached agreement last week.

The deal is imperfect. Many found reason to quarrel with it. Hardline green activists won't pledge to stop, while some on the industry side are furiously resistant to giving up trees.

So long have they been in the trenches, they can't see the way out. If this deal is lost, it's hard to see how anyone could try again, and easy to imagine the damage done to the state.

But the hardest compromise is yet to come. It must be made in the state's idiosyncratic upper house, the Legislative Council, which will vote on enabling legislation in about a fortnight.

The Leg-Co, as it is locally known, has again found itself under an intensifying gaze from observers who see a chamber that repeatedly blocks environmental gains and social change.

Only two of the 15 members claim party affiliation, but most are rural conservatives.

Time and again they rejected gay law reform. They let themselves be whipped into line to back the moribund Gunns pulp mill, ensuring it would be forever socially unacceptable. And in September they voted down marriage equality.

Last February, 12 of the 15 openly caucused against a forests peace long before there was even a deal.

It's hard to be filled with confidence that they are capable of striking out for a bold new future.

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