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Monday, January 23, 2006

Smith chips in to save bay [24jan06]

The Mercury: Smith chips in to save bay [24jan06]

THE battle to stop logging on the historic north-eastern peninsula of Recherche Bay has almost been won -- as long as its owners agree to sell the land to conservationists.

Australian entrepreneur Dick Smith promised yesterday to immediately provide a conservation trust with all the funds needed to buy the Vernon family property at Recherche Bay in Tasmania's far South.

Mr Smith donated $100,000 outright in his bid to save the bay, where 150ha is scheduled to be logged soon by timber giant Gunns.

The remaining funds offered by Mr Smith, estimated to be at least $2 million, will effectively be on loan to conservationists, to be repaid within a year of the land's buyback.

Recherche Bay is known as Australia's "other Botany Bay" for its unique place in the early European exploration of Australia.

The breakthrough deal -- if the Vernon family agrees to the sale -- also removes a potential flashpoint from next month's likely state election campaign.

Mr Smith is part of a national fundraising effort, co-ordinated by Australian Greens senator Bob Brown, which is negotiating with brothers David and Robert Vernon about alternative uses and ownership of their land.

Part-owner David Vernon yesterday declined to comment on Mr Smith's funds pledge.

But Mr Smith, who has been bushwalking in Tasmania for more than 30 years, said his offer was not about taking sides or breaking a deadlock between greenies and the timber industry.

"I am not a rabid anti-logger and I understand that Tasmanians need to be employed," he said yesterday.

"But this is an exceptional area of Tasmania, and of Australia, that must be saved."

French explorers spent several months in 1792 and 1793 anchored in Recherche Bay while charting the remote region, collecting botanical samples and mingling with local Aborigines at nearby Southport Lagoon.

Mr Smith is adamant Recherche Bay is a national issue.

"I have the same view of this as I had about Franklin River," he said.

"This needs to be saved for all of Australia.

Mr Smith said he had spent last Christmas on his boat anchored in Recherche Bay, and believed the historic and beautiful place should be protected.

"It's just the most extraordinary area. I didn't believe it [when told] that area was going to be logged so heavily," he said.

"I immediately contacted [Senator Brown] and said: `Look, I'd be happy to put some of my own money up to try and stop this from happening'."

Mr Smith said he hoped other corporate and individual donors would join in buying back Recherche Bay.

The entrepreneur, who recently also bought land on the Tasman Peninsula at Crescent Bay near Port Arthur for a private retreat, admitted he thought the Federal Government should also chip in to save such a historically important part of Australia.

But Senator Brown insisted yesterday no deal had yet been completed with the Vernons.

He also appealed for all speculation about the land's future to cease to allow "breathing space" for the delicate negotiations to continue over the next fortnight.

"There is a lot at stake here -- not least of all for Tasmania -- and it is extremely generous of the Vernon brothers to be involved in negotiations," Senator Brown said.

He said David and Robert Vernon were sincere, direct and honourable people who wanted the best outcome for Recherche Bay.

"They are extremely good Tasmanians who have been put in quite an unusual situation, being asked to change course [from what they had planned]," Senator Brown said.

"Whatever the outcome, even if our negotiations don't succeed, Tasmania will owe a great thank-you to the Vernon brothers for being prepared to consider alternatives."

The Vernons have signed an agreement with Gunns to harvest 150ha of their land within the next three years, yielding 30,000 tonnes of woodchips and 5000 tonnes of sawlogs.

Their forest practices plan authorising the logging has been approved by the State Government, as well as the construction of a 4km logging access road to cross the protected Southport Lagoon Conservation Area.


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