Pastoralists want sandalwood share

Rueben HaleThe West Australian

Pastoral leaseholders are pushing to claim their share of the State's multimillion-dollar wild sandalwood industry.

Last month, the State Government called for stakeholder submissions on the future of the harvesting, debarking and marketing arrangements for the 15,000-tonne-a-year allocation of the valuable wood, predominantly found in pastoral rangelands, every year.

Industry values for wild sandalwood are as high as $15,000 a tonne, which is more than double its value 10 years ago.

The review is in response to the findings of the Legislative Council committee inquiry into the WA sandalwood industry, which asked for tougher laws for illegal poaching and an overhaul of the sales and marketing process for the precious wood.

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The existing industry structure has been in place since 1998, with contracts between the Government-owned and operated Forestry Products Commission and private contractors Wescorp and Tropical Forestry Service (Mt Romance) coming to an end next year.

Under the arrangements, leaseholders with stock of the precious wood on land they care for are not allowed to harvest it, with handling and marketing controlled by Wescorp and TFS.

TFS is believed to also have a lucrative agreement with the Government to take a proportion of the harvest to distil about 1000 tonnes a year for oil, and pay well below market price.

The submissions will be compiled as part of a review, with the Government expected to make a decision on a new structure when the contracts expire in June 2016.

Last year, Forestry Minister Mia Davies vowed to take on board all the recommendations and also consult with industry over access to the wood.

Sandalwood harvesting contractor and part-owner of Bruce Rock-based Santaleuca Sandalwood Products, Stephen Fry, said the current arrangements were a duopoly.

Mr Fry and wife Michelle operate an 80ha plantation of sandalwood between Narembeen and Bruce Rock, as well "pulling" wild sandalwood under contract in wild growth areas.

"At the moment the industry is completely controlled by Wescorp and TFS in what seems to be a cosy and longstanding arrangement with the Government," he said.

"It's a State resource and pastoralists have people contracting for these companies coming on to their stations and tearing up the ground.

"Not only are they concerned about the damage these people may be doing to their property, but also sometimes fearful of their and their families' personal safety, with unknown people having the right to access their land because, as you can imagine, it is serious business at $15,000 a tonne."

Mr Fry said there were signs the State Government may choose to ignore the parliamentary recommendations altogether.

"This would be a great shame because there is an opportunity to create a new management regime which is fair and equitable, because under the current arrangements pastoralists don't have industry equity," he said.

The allocation makes up only 10 per cent of the State's total wild sandalwood.

However, Ms Davies said the State Government has provided a strong response to the findings of the inquiry.

"Actions are well under way to address the issues identified in the committee's report and its recommendations," she said.

"A number of the recommendations will be addressed through the proposed Biodiversity Conservation Bill.

"This new legislation will include much stronger enforcement powers and penalties for dealing with illegal sandalwood harvesting."

Ms Davies said State Environment Minister Albert Jacob was working on this legislation to bring it to Parliament in the near future.

"The levels of sandalwood available for harvest are also being considered," she said.

"The sales and marketing arrangements are also being reviewed and the Forest Products Commission is currently seeking stakeholder input on this structure.

"The Government has set criteria for the new structure to include the involvement of regional and Aboriginal communities, domestic processing, the development of the WA sandalwood brand, and the transparency of the sales process.

"Decisions will be made on the future structure following the completion of this consultation."

Ms Davies also said FPC would review future supply contracts in line with State Supply Commission requirements before the contracts were reissued.

"The requirement for contractors to replant seeds has been changed in light of the success of the FPC's regeneration program," she said.

The public consultation process has been extended to tomorrow and details can be found on the Tenders WA website.

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