You’d be a cold fish not to have an emotional response to the powerful protest that lines the fence of Blue Ridge Hardwoods as you enter Eden. The detail behind it is more complex.
Blue Ridge, the largest employer in Eden, has not been able to renew its exclusive wood supply agreement with the NSW Forestry Corporation, placing the future employment of the 56 workers behind each of those shirts in jeopardy.
The symbolism of the shirts suggests workers have been “hung out to dry”.
Blue Ridge Managing Director, Allan Richards says the shirts are the same ones his staff pull on every day, “they are people, not just workers,” Mr Richards says.
Speaking with Region Media, Mr Richrads suggests the goal posts changed and Blue Ridge lost out.
“During the [wood supply agreement] process, the Forestry Corporation decided to institute an expression of interest which meant that the new wood supply agreement was open to anyone and everyone,” he says.
“They wrote to us and told us we had not performed satisfactorily, we dispute that.”
In a media statement, Forestry Corporation says Blue Ridge failed to meet the requirements of the process.
“The 20-year contract for timber supply to Blue Ridge Hardwoods came to an end last year,” Forestry Corporation says.
“At the end of this contract, a new approach to processing the timber resource was needed as the timber available from the Eden forests in future will be very different to that supplied in the past.
“The changing timber resource is largely due to the effects of substantial wildfires in the 1980’s. The forests that regenerated following these fires have smaller more uniform diameter trees than the large mixed-size trees harvested from the forests over the last 20 years. New equipment is needed to process this new resource.
“In 2017 Blue Ridge Hardwoods was provided an exclusive opportunity to submit a processing proposal to Forestry Corporation for the future regrowth sawlog resource.
“A suitable processing and business proposal was not put forward, so Forestry Corporation undertook an open commercial process to seek interest from industry in processing the Eden resource into the future,” Forestry Corporation says.
The new wood supply agreement was awarded to Allied Natural Wood Exports (ANWE) who also operate the Eden Woodchip Mill on the southern shores of Twofold Bay, an area that is increasingly being developed as a place for industry.
Forestry Corporation says Blue Ridge was part of the more competitive process but that, “ANWE presented an option which was judged to have better outcomes for the timber resource and commercial return to the State of NSW, as well as continued employment of locals.”
ANWE has flagged its intention to build a new timber hub on Edrom Road at a cost of around $20 million, “a high-tech optimisation facility aimed at maximising the value of resource handled in the Eden and East Gippsland regions.”
The wood supply agreement is for 25,000 cbm per year of quota hardwood logs. The new hub that will process that timber and “will include a separate log optimising facility that can extract short logs from existing pulpwood streams.”
Additionally, ANWE, who is partnering with Boral and Pentarch Forestry in the initiative says, “we are in the process of identifying processes that will use the sawdust and residues from the sawmill and existing wood chipping operations.”
Negotiations to finalise this new agreement between Forestry Corporation and ANWE are nearing completion. Forestry Corporation says, “[The new agreement] will see significant new investment in processing in the Eden region and new local employment opportunities.”
While the wood that is being traded belongs to the people of NSW, Member for Bega Andrew Constance says, “The NSW Government isn’t part of these commercial discussions” with the resource managed by Foresty Corporation.
“The NSW Government is committed to a strong and sustainable forestry sector in the Eden region and there is every reason for workers in the timber industry to be confident in its future,” Mr Constance says.
Blue Ridge has wood stockpiles and agreements in place with Foresty that will keep the business going until at least 30 December this year with suggestions the operation could push out to 2021.
“It’s a slow wind down of a business,” Mr Richards says.
“We are the only sawmill within 200km, we are an established business with established employees we have a right to an ongoing business.
“I believe that if Forest Corp is going to go to an expression of interest for every resource then they are going to fragment the industry. We put $6 million into the local economy each year.”
Mr Richards says Blue Ridge will never give up, and that their intention is to find a way to stay open.
“This is not right, the government and Forest Corp have a responsibility to look after communities,” he says.
“Sustainability is not just about the forests it’s about economics and communities. This is very important to the rest of the industry and a line needs to be drawn in the sand.”
The NSW Government has put in place an income support payment of $150,000 per employee if people end up being sacked at Blue Ridge Hardwoods.
Andrew Constance says the payment is conditional on management terminating the mill workers at the end of 2019, and that to get the money, workers will not be allowed to transfer to the new ANWE sawmill.
“There is still a lot of water to go under the bridge when it comes to the future of Blue Ridge and I will be doing everything possible to protect the timber industry in Eden and support these workers,” Mr Constance says.
“Whilst commercial discussions continue behind closed doors with Forestry Corporation I want these employees to have work first and foremost.
“This package does not in any form relieve Blue Ridge management of their legal obligations to employees.”
Mr Richards says discussions with employees are ongoing.