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End to Tasmanian timber conflict in sight

A DEAL to end 30 years of conflict in Tasmania's forestry industry could be announced as early as today.

Timber groups and conservationists negotiated late into last night to protect up to 500,000ha of forests and retool the industry towards plantations in an attempt to wrap up the long-awaited agreement ahead of a federally imposed deadline of June 30.

The Australian understands agreement is close on the final stumbling block — the supply of veneer wood to the Ta Ann mill, south of Hobart.

Agreement is understood to have already been reached to cut the annual harvest of sawlogs from native forests from 300,000 cubic metres to less than 150,000.

This would be the starting point for a gradual transition out of native forest and into plantations, with exceptions for some ongoing high-value furniture and craft use. It would allow the inclusion in national parks of up to 500,000ha of forests regarded by conservation groups as being of high conservation value, including areas of the Styx and Florentine valleys.

However, industry was still pushing in the talks, overseen by federally appointed facilitator Bill Kelty, for a proportion of the new reserves to be delayed. This would allow time for confirmation that sufficient quality and quantity of logs could be sourced from outside high conservation areas to sustain the bulk of current timber supply contracts.

The plan, which the parties would put to state and federal governments for funding, would include a taxpayer-funded buy-out of sawlog quotas and further help for struggling contractors to quit. However, sources last night cautioned that the deal had not yet been finalised.

Earlier this month, federal Environment Minister Tony Burke said Labor stood ready to embrace a once-in-a-generation deal to end Tasmania’s forestry wars. Mr Burke said Labor was no longer haunted by the ghost of former leader Mark Latham’s failed 2004 federal election forest policy, widely seen as contributing to Labor’s loss to the Coalition that year.

Gunns, which would qualify for compensation as the largest sawlog contract holder, sees a final "peace deal" in the forests as vital to securing its $2.3 billion plantation-based Tamar Valley pulp mill.

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