Young man, Ashley Bell, elder of Badimia, used to make money harvesting sandalwood, but now he is so concerned about the sustainability of wild sandalwood that he calls for a ban on removing it from his traditional lands .

Native Australian sandalwood, Santalum spicatum, is a small, slow-growing hemiparasitic tree containing valuable heartwood that grows in the southern half of Western Australia.

Sought after by the frankincense and petroleum markets, sandalwood has been commercially harvested in the state for 175 years, but concerns have been expressed about the sustainability of wild wood populations under government management agreements. current.

Years ago, like many people, Mr. Bell and his father earned an income by harvesting and selling sandalwood.

Ashley Bell wants wild sandalwood to be a protected species.(ABC landline: Chris Lewis)

“I have been in the sandalwood industry since I was 14. I was graduating from sandalwood [harvesting] and help bark and pack, and pull sandalwood, ”he said.

He now fears that the wild populations of the fragrant tree are on the verge of extinction.

“Many of the seniors who have worked in the industry have [sandalwood harvesting] for years and years of work, and they were never, ever told the truth that the plant was near extinction, ”said Mr. Bell.

Study casts doubt on sustainability

The WA government’s Forest Products Commission (FPC) is responsible for the commercial harvest, regeneration, marketing and sale of wild Australian sandalwood.

Each year, 2,500 tonnes of sandalwood are legally harvested from state rangelands, destined for oil and frankincense markets around the world.

Premium heartwood can cost $ 15,000 per tonne.

“Their management practices for harvesting wild sandalwood… I think it’s more for the money and doesn’t coincide with what the science says,” Mr. Bell said.

A sandalwood tree growing in red earth surrounded by wild flowers
After 175 years of harvesting and exporting, concerns have been expressed about the future of Washington state’s wild sandalwood trees. (ABC landline: Chris Lewis)

Research ecologist Richard McLellan has spent the past three years examining the science around sandalwood regeneration and mortality.

He said the estimated wild Australian sandalwood population had declined by 90 percent.

“At the end of the day, no one knows how many are left, we just know that it is not regenerating and therefore its numbers are decreasing due to natural mortality and harvesting.”

A man wearing a wide-brimmed hat and glasses looks at a sandalwood tree leaf
Richard McLellan believes sandalwood is being harvested at an unsustainable rate. (ABC landline: Chris Lewis)

He said there had been no regeneration of sandalwood “for maybe 80 to 100 years” and that most sandalwood plants were between 100 and 200 years old.

“In the [sandalwood industry] parliamentary inquiry in Western Australia between 2012 and 2014, it emerged that a sustainable harvest rate might be 200 tonnes per year, “he said.

“We are harvesting at an unsustainable rate and yet we are not recruiting or regenerating at a rate close to this rate. ”

Mr McLellan said the regeneration and reseeding programs developed by the government were not working.

“The [state government’s] The sandalwood harvest proposal indicated that we would produce around 100,000 plants per year. PFC says, “Well, maybe now we can only produce 50,000 a year,” but the annual reports show that they are not, “he said.

“A lot of it is because we are not getting the precipitation that they need in the Goldfields and Great Western Woodlands to help them,” he said.

Dr. McLellan’s research was recently published in the Rangeland Journal of CSIRO.

A bunch of sandalwood branches.
Sandalwood is used to produce incense and oil.(ABC landline: Chris Lewis)

In a written statement, a state government spokesperson said the harvest of wild sandalwood was being managed under strict sustainability criteria.

They said half of all harvested wood had already died naturally and that the FPC was working to increase regeneration of wild sandalwood and establish young sandalwood trees.

“The FPC actively sows more wild sandalwood than it harvests, sowing between 5 and 10 million wild sandalwood seeds per year, in an area equivalent to the distance between Perth and Karratha,” the report said. communicated.

“The FPC wild sandalwood replanting program is currently reaping the benefits of this year’s winter rains, with seeds that have remained dormant due to drought, now germinating for up to five years after being sown.”

Lobby to ban harvesting on traditional lands

Ashley Bell and her family have officially requested that no sandalwood be removed from their property, Ninghan Station in WA’s Mid West.

Mr Bell has said he wants wild sandalwood harvesting banned on Badimia lands, and he believes all Australian sandalwood should be classified as endangered.

Although it is considered a forest wood in Western Australia, sandalwood is protected and listed as “vulnerable” in South Australia.

A sandalwood tree with the setting sun behind it.
Richard McLellan believes that most of the sandalwood trees remaining in the WA courses are old trees.(ABC landline: Chris Lewis)

“It is one of the fastest disappearing plants in our landscape right now, and has been heavily harvested for it for hundreds of years,” said Mr. Bell.

“Many of the small animals that also buried the seeds have disappeared from the landscape.

“They would pick up the seeds and bury them like a squirrel and come back later and eat them later, and they died out.

“There are not many left, but we are trying to deal with those that are left.”

He said all the young plants that sprouted were quickly eaten up by livestock and native animals.

The plant has been an integral part of indigenous culture for thousands of years.

“We have been taught in our culture that it is a source of food and medicine and that it is used in smoking ceremonies, and it is a plant that we do not really want to see leaving the landscape,” said said Mr. Bell.

A pile of logs sits under a white dome.
Australian sandalwood plantations in the Wheat Belt are preparing for harvest.(ABC landline: Chris Lewis)

Transition to plantation harvest

Ashley Bell and Richard McLellan are urging the government of Western Australia to support a transition from wild harvest to plantation agriculture.

WA Sandalwood Plantations (WASP) manages 13,000 hectares of native Australian sandalwood trees growing in plantations across the WA Wheatbelt.

This year, WASP started clearcutting some of its plantation trees.

WASP chief executive Keith Drage wants the government to honor a commitment he said he made 20 years ago to develop and transition the plantation sector away from the wild harvest.

A close up of a man looking off camera.
WASP Managing Director Keith Drage wants the amount of wild wood harvested from WA rangelands to be drastically reduced. (ABC landline: Chris Lewis)

“I think the biggest disappointment is just that when we got into this industry in the very early 2000s, it was supported by good government policy, prompting private industry to invest in the wheat belt, in various forest species, but especially sandalwood, “he said.

“And he came up with a very well articulated policy around government allowing that process.

“The Forest Products Commission was the agency that was appointed to work through this process, but with a clear desire that over time there would be a transition to a new world of reduced wild harvest to complete this renewable plantation resource. ”

This year, WASP will harvest around 400 tonnes of plantation sandalwood, and by 2023 the total harvest could reach 4,000 tonnes per year.

A machine pulls a sandalwood tree from the ground.
Thousands of acres of Australian sandalwood growing in wheat belt plantations will be ready for harvest over the next decade. (ABC landline: Chris Lewis)

The company was one of 12 signatories to a letter sent to the Washington state government last year detailing concerns about the sustainability of wild sandalwood populations.

He also warned of the potential price collapse, with additional tonnes of plantation timber entering the market that previously dealt only with wild timber.

Keith Drage and WASP co-founder Ron Mulder are also co-owners of wildwood distillation company Dutjahn Sandalwood Oils.

The Kalgoorlie-based company is 50 percent owned by Indigenous Australians and provides valuable employment opportunities for traditional owners to work in the country.

WASP is lobbying the government for a reduction in the state’s wild timber harvest, but with some harvesting allowed by indigenous groups.

A piece of cut sandalwood showing the heartwood in its center.
The heartwood of sandalwood contains a valuable aromatic oil. (ABC landline: Chris Lewis)

The FPC also manages 6,000 hectares of Australian sandalwood plantation.

In a recently released report, he said he plans to start harvesting his crops in 2026.

A WA government spokesperson said the annual sandalwood harvest quota will be reviewed before 2026.

They said that due to reduced global demand, the full quota of wild sandalwood from the FPC is not currently being harvested.

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