Melaleuca Media
Most famous tree still under a legal cloud

Without a doubt, Queensland's most famous tree is one Wodyetia Bifurcata - far more familiarly known as the Foxtail Palm.

It has been a quick rise to stardom for the palm, which was first discovered only in 1975 in its only natural habitat of a few square miles of the Cape Melville National Park in a relatively inaccessible area of Cape York.

The fame of the foxtail has very little to do with its horticultural qualities of being "a good clean palm with highly attractive foliage" and it has nothing to do with the palm being rare or endangered - it isn't. The foxtail palm is now best known as the basis of a smuggling racket which went on to generate an alleged political scandal.

But despite all the attention given to the palm by public servants, lawyers, politicians and police the legal status of thousands of foxtail palms on sale in nurseries and at weekend fleamarkets remains highly uncertain.

Scientists did not get around to officially describing the Foxtail until 1983. Some element of their description must have caught the fancy of an unknown nursery proprietor because soon afterwards the foxtail was highly prized, highly priced and on the open market.

Some of the relatively unregulated folk of Cape York promptly added foxtail palm seed collection to their other legal, barely legal and wholly illegal activities. Government authorities responded in the usual confused, desultory and totally ineffective manner and for the best part of a decade seed collectors and smugglers were mainly untroubled by official intervention or concern.

Indeed, while the Department of Environment and Heritage was beginning to realise it needed to actually do something other than mouth platitudes about the seed smugglers tearing up the national park with their four wheel drives, other government agencies were lining up as enthusiastic buyers of illegal palms.

Large scale foxtail palm purchasers in the early 1990s included the Southbank Corporation, the Cairns Port authority (11 palms at 2.5 metres, 11 at 3 metres and nine at 3.5 metres) and the Thursday Island TAFE College (74 in 200 mm pots).

In 1992, the police fauna squad descended on Sheldon Palms near Brisbane and seized 18,000 foxtail palms from proprietor David Cochran, only to give them back three months later.

With the pressure on to stop looking ridiculous, the department shifted operations to Cape Melville National Park. Very, very few were caught in the net, but one who was proved to be the brother of one of Premier's most senior staffers. In what was later found to be coincidence, official business had taken the alleged offender's brother and another senior staffer to the near vicinity, where they were able to render some assistance with the recovery of a confiscated vehicle.

With curious questions dangling everywhere - not least in State Parliament - a Criminal Justice Commission inquiry was established to get to the bottom of the matter or, on some accounts, to hose it down.

In a controversial and perhaps inadequate report into the coyly named "Cape Melville Incident", the CJC cleared the political staffers and senior departmental officers of any wrongdoing, gave a very light touch-up to the alleged smugglers and reserved most of its adverse findings for those trying to stamp out the smuggling.

Economics and botany may be about to accomplish what government could not and knock the bottom out of the smuggling trade. With the palm taking about eight years to reach sexual maturity there are now many thousands of trees planted outside the park seeding or about to seed. With each tree setting about 500 seed demand and supply look like coming into balance in the relatively near future.

According to Mr Donald Scott of the Queensland Nursery Industry Association (QNIA), even the foxtail palm at the entrance of the Florida Agricultural Department Research Station is about to set its first seed, meaning that the international window of opportunity is fast closing as well.

Both legal and illegal fortunes may still be made from the palm, but they are now much smaller fortunes. Three metre trees once worth up to $600 dollars each are now about $140, or only twice to three times as much as a perfectly legal and quite common Alexander palm of similar proportions.

Seed once wholly illegal and worth up to $5 domestically can now be gleaned from both legal and illegal sources and is now only about 70 cents in Australia and $1.40 in Florida, according to the QNIA.

However, a major grower who did not want to be named "because every time I open my mouth about this I get into trouble" said that legal seed cost about $1.40 a seed in Australia and would still be worth 50 cents a seed in 10 years time.

"We can probably get enough seed legally for the domestic market in two or three years," he said. "But the international market is huge - there is only one thing to do and that is lock up the park."

And is the foxtail palm on sale in the local nursery or flea market now a legal commodity? Well, it might be but is most probably not.

Mr Scott said the foxtail palm, which is hardly an endangered species, "now has pride of place on the restricted plant list - probably because of the political embarrassment".

This means that nurseries need a "commercial wildlife licence" and all plants sold must carry a tag certifying their legal origin, with tags obtainable for a 20 cent fee from the Department of Environment and Heritage. Not having a licence is potentially a $60,000 offence and selling an untagged plant can attract a maximum penalty of $720.

More than a year after proclamation, the law still has everyone confused. Mr Scott believed that seed collectors needed a "commercial harvesting licence" and that people collecting seed from underneath trees on the footpath could technically be liable for a huge fine.

Not so, said the department, which has prosecuted five people for foxtail palm related offences in the past two years. Commercial harvesting licences are not available for the foxtail palm and seed collection is permitted from trees growing outside Cape Melville National Park.

Most palms would seem to be being sold unadorned by any official tags. When asked whether he was affixing tags to his trees, the major grower - who doesn't have what he understood to be a "propagators licence" - responded only with "What do you think?"

"Probably not," was the hazarded guess. "You are probably right," he said.