Incensed

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

Pastoralists are demanding an inquiry into the government agency that controls the harvest and sale of native sandalwood.

This week their concerns over what they claim are unjust and unsustainable practices were raised in State Parliament.

On Tuesday, a petition calling for a royal commission into the Forest Products Commission's (FPC) sandalwood activities was tabled in parliament by Mining and Pastoral Region MLC Wendy Duncan.

It was instigated by Menzies pastoralist Keith Mader who has been waging war against the FPC for nearly two years.

The Goldfields cattle producer said since contractors began collecting the valuable native timber on his station, they had made hundreds of tracks and cleared thousands of acres, all without any sign of rehabilitating the fragile rangeland ecosystem.

Mr Mader believes the contractors' activities on his station equate to environmental vandalism.

Until the tabling in parliament of the petition, which had almost 2000 signatures, his pleas for an investigation into the FPC's sandalwood arm had fallen on deaf ears.

Mr Mader claims the FPC will make millions of dollars from the sandalwood harvested on his property but will leave him with a damage bill.

"They've caused millions of dollars of damage and I want them to rehabilitate it," he said. "At the end of the five years our place is a mess and they just walk away from it and move onto the next station."

Mr Mader is not the only pastoralist fed up with what he describes as unjust and inequitable sandalwood practices.

The issue was one of the concerns unearthed by a recent review into sustainability in the Southern Rangelands, chaired by Ms Duncan.

Pastoralists and Graziers Association (PGA) pastoral and livestock executive officer Ian Randles said that the issue was about viability of pastoralists.

Under the current conditions, tenders to harvest sandalwood are open to all, even if the wood is located on a pastoral lease. Despite paying land lease payments to the Government, pastoralists do not necessarily have the right to harvest sandalwood on their own land.

It's a situation Mr Randles said had to change.

"There it is sitting on their land and they can't access it," he said. "They're paying a rental to graze animals in difficult circumstances and it's hard to earn an income from grazing animals out there any more."

The PGA wants the sandalwood industry to be reformed and, like Mr Mader, it believes pastoralists should play a greater role in harvesting the lucrative resource if it is located on their land.

"We have one simple request," Mr Randles said. "The leaseholder of a pastoral lease where sandalwood occurs should be allowed first right of refusal to harvest that sandalwood under the same conditions that a sandalwood tenderer would accept."

Mr Mader said if pastoralists were in control of harvesting on their own properties, they were more likely to carefully monitor the environmental consequences as well as turn a profit.

It is an issue Ms Duncan is keen to see tackled by the Government.

She said although a royal commission might not be necessary, an inquiry into the sandalwood issue was warranted.

"Pastoralists in particular are concerned about the fact that it's very difficult to get a quota to harvest and sell sandalwood," she said. "They don't have the opportunity to sell it in a free market - it has to go through the FPC.

"Furthermore … they can't grow sandalwood on their properties and own the outcome.

"Sandalwood trees that are grown on a pastoral property are owned by the Government and that is where the legislation needs to be amended."

Ms Duncan said the issue went further than pastoralists - processors and others in the sandalwood supply chain also had concerns about how the industry was structured.

"There are other issues relating to how processors in Australia get access to Australian sandalwood and whether there is any room in some of the contracts that have been let by the FPC for other parties to come into the game," she said.

The FPC has rejected the need for an inquiry or royal commission.

"The FPC does not support an inquiry as previous unsubstantiated allegations have been investigated at length by a number of independent parties including the Corruption and Crime Commission and the Ombudsman," a spokeswoman said.

"On each occasion these allegations and complaints have been found to be without foundation."

The spokeswoman also said pastoralists were encouraged to participate in the industry by tendering for harvesting and carting contracts and that the FPC operated within strict environmental guidelines.

After being tabled, the petition is sent to the Environment and Public Affairs Committee, which decides whether to investigate the petition.

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