Calls to better protect wild sandalwood amid fears of extinction

As a young man, Ashley Bell of Pademia made money harvesting sandalwood, but now he is so concerned about the sustainability of wild sandalwood that he advocates banning its removal from his traditional lands.

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

Required by the incense and oil markets, sandalwood has been commercially harvested in the state for 175 years, but concerns have been raised about the sustainability of wild timber populations under current government administration arrangements.

Years ago, like many people, Mr. Bell and his father were earning income from harvesting and selling sandalwood.

A man in a blue shirt with gray hair looks at a tree.
Ashley Bell wants wild sandalwood to be a protected species.(ABC landline: Chris Lewis)

“I have been working in sandalwood since I was 14 years old. I have been making sandalwood [harvesting] and help with the bark, packing and pulling of the sandalwood.”

He is now concerned that wild populations of the aromatic tree are on the path to extinction.

“A lot of old people who worked in the industry have done [sandalwood harvesting] About a job for years and years, they were never told the truth about the plant being near extinction,” said Mr. Bell.

Study casts doubt on sustainability

The Washington State Government’s Forest Products Commission (FPC) is responsible for the commercial harvest, regeneration, marketing and sale of wild-grown Australian sandalwood.

Each year, 2,500 tons of sandalwood are legally harvested across the state’s pastures, bound for oil or incense markets around the world.

Top-grade heartwood can fetch $15,000 a ton.

“Their management practice of harvesting wild sandalwood…I think it’s more for the money and it doesn’t match what the science says,” Bell said.

The sandalwood tree grows in red dirt surrounded by wildflowers
After 175 years of harvesting and exporting, concerns have been raised about the future of wild sandalwood trees in Western Australia. (ABC landline: Chris Lewis)

Research ecologist Richard McClellan has spent the past three years reviewing the science on sandalwood regeneration and mortality rates.

He said the estimated wild population of Australian sandalwood has been reduced by as much as 90 percent.

“The bottom line is that no one knows how much is left, we just know that it does not regenerate, and therefore decreases in numbers through natural mortality and harvesting.”

A man in a wide-brimmed hat and glasses looking at a sandalwood leaf
Richard McClellan believes sandalwood is harvested at an unsustainable rate. (ABC landline: Chris Lewis)

He said there has been no regeneration of sandalwood “probably 80 to 100 years” and that most sandalwood plants are between 100 and 200 years old.

“In the [sandalwood industry] The Parliamentary Inquiry in Western Australia between 2012 and 2014, said there could be a sustainable rate of harvest perhaps 200 tons per year.”

“We’re harvesting at an unsustainable rate and yet we’re not recruiting or replenishing anywhere near that rate.”

McClellan said government development programs for regeneration and reseeding have not been successful.

“The [state government’s] The proposal to harvest sandalwood said that we would produce about 100,000 seedlings per year. FPC says, “Well, we can probably only produce 50,000 a year now,” but annual reports show they’re not making that,” he said.

“This is largely because we are not getting the rainfall that they need in the Goldfields and Great Western Woodlands to help them,” he said.

Mr. McClellan’s research was recently published in CSIRO’s Rangeland Journal.

A pile of sandalwood boughs.
Sandalwood is used in the production of incense and oil.(ABC landline: Chris Lewis)

In a written statement, a state government spokesperson said that the harvest of wild sandalwood is managed under strict sustainability standards.

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

“The Environmental Protection Agency actively grows more wild sandalwood than it harvests, planting between 5 and 10 million seeds of wild sandalwood annually, across an area equivalent to the distance between Perth and Carata,” the statement read.

“The FPC’s Wild Sandalwood Replanting Program is currently reaping the benefits of this year’s winter rainfall, with the seeds remaining dormant due to drought conditions, and which now germinate for up to five years after they are planted.”

Pressure to ban harvesting in traditional lands

Ashley Bell and his family have formally requested that sandalwood not be taken from their property, Ningan Station, in the Midwest in Washington.

Mr Bell said he wants to harvest wild sandalwood that is banned in the Badimia lands, and believes all Australian sandalwood should be classified as an endangered species.

While it is considered a forest wood in Washington state, sandalwood is protected and listed as “vulnerable” in South Australia.

Sandalwood tree with sunset behind it.
Richard McClellan believes that most of the sandalwood trees left on pasturelands in Washington state are old trees.(ABC landline: Chris Lewis)

“It’s one of the fastest disappearing plants in our landscapes right now, and it’s been heavily harvested for hundreds of years,” Bell said.

“A lot of the small animals that were also burying the seeds have come out of the landscape.

“They used to collect the seeds and bury them like a squirrel and come back later and eat them later, and they are extinct.

“There aren’t many of them left, but we’re trying to take care of those that are left.”

He said that any small plants that sprouted were quickly eaten by local livestock and animals.

The plant has been an important part of Aboriginal culture for thousands of years.

“We’ve been taught in our culture that it’s a source of food and medicine and we use it for smoking ceremonies, and it’s a plant that we don’t really want to see come out of the landscape,” Bell said.

A pile of tree trunks under a white dome.
Australian sandalwood farms in Wheatbelt prepare for harvest.(ABC landline: Chris Lewis)

Move to farm harvest

Ashley Bell and Richard McClellan are urging the Western Australian government to support the transition from wild harvesting to agricultural farming.

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

This year, WASP began removing some of its planted trees completely.

WASP managing director Keith Drage wants the government to live up to a commitment he said it made 20 years ago to develop the farm sector, and then move it further away from wild harvest.

Close-up of a man looking away from the camera.
WASP managing director, Keith Drage, wants to significantly reduce the amount of wild timber taken from the lands of Western Australia. (ABC landline: Chris Lewis)

“I think the biggest disappointment is simply that when we got started in this industry in the early 2000s, it was backed by some good government policies around it, spurring the private industry to invest in Wheatbelt, in different forest types, but especially sandalwood. , ” He said.

“And he came up with a very clear policy around the government to enable this process.

“The Committee on Forest Products was the agency appointed to work within this process, but with a clear desire that over time there would be a transition to a new world of low yield wild crop to supplement this renewable agricultural resource.”

This year, WASP will harvest about 400 tons of planted sandalwood, and by 2023 the total harvest could increase to 4,000 tons annually.

A machine that cuts a sandalwood tree from the ground.
Thousands of hectares of Australian sandalwood grown on plantations in Wheatbelt will be ready for harvest within the next decade. (ABC landline: Chris Lewis)

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

It also warned of a possible collapse in prices, with additional tons of farmland lumber entering the market that previously dealt only with wild lumber.

Keith Drage and WASP co-founder Ron Mulder are also part-owners of Dutjahn Sandalwood Oils’ wild wood distillery.

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

WASP is lobbying the government to reduce the state’s wild timber harvest, but with some harvests allowed by indigenous groups.

A piece of sandalwood showing heartwood in the center.
The heart of sandalwood contains a precious essential oil. (ABC landline: Chris Lewis)

FPC also manages 6000 hectares of Australian sandalwood plantations.

In a recent report, she said she plans to start harvesting her farms in 2026.

A spokesperson for the Western Australian government said the annual sandalwood harvest quota will be revised before 2026.

They said that due to lower global demand, FPC’s full share of wild sandalwood is not currently being harvested.

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