Great Western Woodlands - from the ‘roaring 90s’ to the present day
The discovery of gold at Southern Cross in 1888, Coolgardie and Dundas (near Norseman) in 1892, and Kalgoorlie in 1893 triggered a mining boom that transformed the land and had a radical impact on its population.
Within a decade, the region’s population had exploded to 50 000 people, the world’s longest water pipeline had been constructed, hundreds of mining companies had been floated on the London Stock Exchange, and over 50 towns had emerged around the goldfields.
Many of these diggings were short-lived and had been abandoned within the decade, leaving ghost towns and mine workings abandoned. Some who had come from overseas or escaped eastern Australia’s depression of the 1890s found wealth and prosperity. Some did not, instead suffering hardship, sickness, or death from poor supplies and harsh working conditions.
In these early days, most visitors to the Woodlands either worked in the mines themselves or in one of the many related service industries. One such group was the ‘woodliners’, mostly migrant workers who supplied mines and towns with the large quantities of wood needed for power generation (e.g. steam trains and water pumping stations), railway lines, water desalination, and for the wooden beams needed to support tunnels in the many underground mines.
Radiating outwards from Coolgardie, up to 500 workers at a time constructed and utilised a web of train lines to transport up to 1200 tonnes a day of wood - Salmon Gum, Gimlet, Merit, Boongul, Blackbutt and other trees - to the furnaces and mine shafts of the Goldfields.
Known as the ‘Woodlines’, this railway network’s 65-year working life was instrumental in shaping the Western Australia we know today. It is estimated that as much as 30 million tonnes of wood was removed along these Woodlines from approximately four million hectares of woodland (~25% of GWW).
The meteoric growth of both economy and population in the ‘roaring 90s’ also saw a proliferation of banks, breweries, hotels, churches, brothels, stores, newspapers, houses and infrastructure. Further mineral discoveries throughout the 20th century, such as the discovery of nickel in the 1960s, continued this growth.
So too did the ‘opening up’ of land for agriculture and pastoralism, with agricultural research stations established at two locations in the Woodlands—Forrestania and Ninety Mile Tank—and farm survey tracks extended far into the Woodlands southern portion.
For a variety of reasons, however, from the availability of better land to falling wheat prices at critical junctures, most agricultural expansion by the 1970s did not venture beyond the present southern and western boundaries of the Great Western Woodlands.
By the 1980s, the Wheatbelt’s worsening salinity problem and a related rise in environmental awareness began creating an ethos of ‘land care’. The bleak economic predictions for ‘marginal’ agricultural land combined with public pressure to convince WA governments to defer any plans for agricultural expansion east of the Rabbit-Proof Fence. Today, it is estimated that 50 000 people live in the Great Western Woodland, mostly in the major towns of Kalgoorlie, Coolgardie, Norseman and Southern Cross.
Mining, mineral exploration and associated activities remain the primary commercial drivers in the woodlands. Under current production, the extended Kalgoorlie mining province represents more than 50% of the state’s gold resources, and 80% of its nickel resources. Overall, Department of Industry and Resources figures from 2007 shows this region produces 17% of the economic wealth generated by minerals and petroleum in Western Australia. These activities are concentrated along three main greenstone geological formations—one in the west, one centrally located, and one on which Norseman and Coolgardie lie in the east.
Tourism within and around the Great Western Woodlands—and increasingly nature-based tourism— has recently grown to also make a significant contribution to local economies.
Following international trends in the growth of tourism, independent travellers wanting to experience ‘outback’ camping, four-wheel adventures and bird and wildflower watching are increasingly drawn to the region. This has been helped by the re-creation of the legendary Holland Track by four-wheel drive enthusiasts in 1992 and the recent provision of tourist and interpretive signage along the Hyden to Norseman Road. Tourism WA promotes the 'golden outback' and has several self drive trails that take you on a route through the region experiencing the nature, culture and history. These include;
• Granite and Woodlands Discovery Trail
• The Golden Quest Discovery Trail
• The Golden Quest Discovery Green Trail
• Golden Pipeline Heritage Trail
• Goldfields Wildflower Trail
• Granite and Goldfields Wildflower Drive
As the importance of the Woodlands gains increased regional, national and international attention, tourism is likely to grow significantly, especially nature-based tourism and related Indigenous cultural tourism.