A quaint town on Tasmania’s east coast has become the focus of a heated battle on the island state.
Triabunna, about a one-hour drive northeast of Hobart, possesses a valuable asset: a deep-sea port.
Against a backdrop of beaches and eucalypt-covered hills, ships have for decades pulled in to the mouth of the township’s Spring Bay to be fed by conveyor belt tonne after tonne of woodchips bound for export.
But in 2010 amid a downturn in demand for the product, a high Australian dollar, debate in Canberra about forming a (now defunct) forestry peace deal, and growing social discomfort about the logging industry, Triabunna’s woodchip mill ground to a halt and the property hit the market.
The buyers? Cashed-up environmentalists Graeme Wood and Jan Cameron who paid $10 million.
Wood, the founder of online travel site wotif and Cameron, who made her fortune from Kathmandu clothing, teamed up to take down the mill.
Supporters of the logging industry had hoped investors might bring the mill back to life and continue to use the state-owned wharf.
It was not to be.
While the circumstances surrounding the closure, sale and ultimate dismantling of the Triabunna woodchip mill are the focus of an ongoing parliamentary inquiry, Wood and Cameron have launched their vision for the site.
The $50 million tourism development includes a hotel, conference facilities, restaurants, bars, cooking school, and marine research and discovery centre.
The deep port combined with plans for mooring facilities means cruise ships will be able to add Triabunna to their itinerary.
However, Tasmania’s new Liberal government, which came to power in March promising to reinvigorate the state’s forest industry, has its eye on Triabunna and a possible forced acquisition of land to access the port.
Tasmanian Resources Minister Paul Harriss said rebuilding the forest industry in the state’s south, where there is no other suitable port facility, could be worth up to $100 million a year in export earnings and create hundreds of jobs.
“It is an immense opportunity and we ought not park that opportunity to grow jobs and deliver economic benefits to Tasmania,” he told reporters in Hobart recently.
The government has asked Forestry Tasmania and Tas Ports to investigate the best way for woodchips from the state’s southern forests to leave the island, with Harriss admitting there are limited options, including a subsidy for the cargo to be freighted by road to a wharf in the state’s north.
The report, already handed to government, has not been made public but if Triabunna is found to be the best option, “it will be addressed”, Harriss said.
He refuses to rule out using government power to acquire land to access the port.
But while the government insists industry and tourism could co-exist at the Triabunna site, Wood has ruled out having the export site – which included mountains of woodchips in its previous guise – beside his tourism venture.
“Compulsory acquisition would be the death-knell of (the development),” he told the ABC.
Wood is reluctant to move forward with his plans and attract investors while the government continues to give mixed messages.
“On the one hand they are saying tourism is terrific and on the other hand the premier won’t rule out compulsory acquisition of the Spring Bay mill site.”
Tasmanian Labor is backing Woods’ plans for Triabunna but fears the government might have already scared off potential investors.
“The government’s behaviour is completely at odds with its open-for-business mantra,” Labor tourism spokesman Scott Bacon said.
Australian Greens leader and Tasmanian senator Christine Milne said the Liberal administrations at both state and federal level are fixated with living in the bygone era of “dig it up, cut it down and ship it away”.
“Therein lies last century compared with this century,” she told AAP of the government’s approach versus plans for a tourism development.
With public hearings held through August and September, the parliamentary inquiry into the port is due to table an interim report on Tuesday.
A final report is due by the end of 2014.
Tasmanian premier Will Hodgman said the government will move quickly to make a decision on a southern Tasmanian export port “in the coming weeks”.