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Column: Ireland's forestry industry has hit a blockade - here's a way we can get through it

Ireland needs a new model for forestry that does not damage nature, writes Minister of State for Agriculture Pippa Hackett.

Pippa Hackett Minister of State for Agriculture

RIGHT NOW, ONLY 11% of Ireland’s land is covered in trees. That is the lowest level of forest cover of any EU country, and it is not enough. There’s little argument about that.

But what there is much discussion about is how, as we seek to increase our level of forestry cover, we can make sure that we deliver a model which puts ‘the right tree in the right place’, the unofficial forestry motto of the past few years.  

Getting the model right is essential, for everyone. After all, forests can deliver huge climate and biodiversity benefits and provide us with much-needed space for recreation. They are also, in Ireland right now, supporting 12,000 jobs and contributing €2.3 billion each year to the economy.

But there is still much conversation going on about just what a ‘right model’ should or would look like, with the shape of such conversation depending very much on one’s point of view.

Sawmill workers for example, will want a model that delivers a steady stream of timber to the mill so that jobs are secure. Those living in the countryside will want forestry that does not overwhelm local areas or communities. Foresters will want one which ensures farmer clients get their planting licences issued on time, while those concerned about the environment will want forestry that does not damage nature.

A blockade

I firmly believe that if we deliver on the last of those desires, a forestry model that does not damage nature, then many of the other issues will fall into place. That is why I am so determined that a new one will both be developed and implemented under my watch.

But in the meantime, the Irish forestry industry has hit a blockade. We are neither planting sufficient number of trees to meet our climate commitments, nor are we felling enough trees to supply the timber sector.

As Minister for Forestry, Land Use and Biodiversity, I want to fix that impasse.

At the root of the immediate problem is a significant delay in the process for appealing decisions about forestry. Forestry appeals are overseen by the independent Forestry Appeals Committee (FAC), and it is currently swamped by huge numbers of appeals.

There are hundreds now on hand and the FAC is simply unable to cope. As such, there is a very real risk that the supply of timber will dry up and many thousands of jobs will be lost. Equally at the other end of the supply chain we have had millions of saplings destroyed, as afforestation licenses are also caught up in the same process.

To be fair, I know that there are strong views out there on forestry and I understand if some of them have manifested themselves in objections to licences. As I said, I have every intention of dealing with those views, but right now, I need to address the paralysis in the system. It would be irresponsible of me as a minister not to.

For objections and appeals to be dealt with correctly and efficiently, we need new legislation – legislation I will be introducing this week to the Seanad. The legislation proposed is the Forestry Bill 2020, and it seeks to align the appeals process for forestry with that of the process of appealing against other planning decisions.

Concerns

The draft Bill was published in July, and was followed up with a month-long public consultation, which received almost 9,000 submissions. The majority of submissions were supportive of what we were doing, recognising that the current system is not working for stakeholders.

Others however raised concerns about the draft Bill’s provisions on who would have the right to object, and also on whether it was compliant with the Aarhus Convention, which establishes a numbe of rights for the public with regard to the environment. 

We considered the submissions, re-examined the proposed legislation, consulted with legal experts and the Attorney General, and made amendments which I am satisfied have now improved the Bill.

A key change we made was to remove limitations on who can object to a licencing decision. I fully support this concept of a third-party right of appeal, and am proud that allowing it makes Ireland almost unique in the EU in relation to forestry.

I am also happy that it ensures the Bill aligns with the Aarhus Convention, and that public participation in the planning process is being enhanced through a new online portal for forestry licence applications. It will provide all the necessary details for interested parties to examine at the time of a licence application.

We are also increasing the capacity of the Forestry Appeals Committee. From now on it will be allowed to sit in multiple divisions, which means more than one appeal can be heard at once. And in addition, my Department has recently hired an extra 14 ecologists to help ensure continued compliance with EU Directives on Habitats and Birds.

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The future

To return to the bigger picture however, I really want to emphasise that what I am looking forward to in the slightly longer term, is developing a new vision for forestry.

I do expect that vision, whatever it is, will still contain a mix. Without question we must address all the justified environmental concerns, but we must also continue to support a commercial forestry sector which supports so many thousands of important rural-based jobs, and also provides a valuable, carbon storing material for construction and furniture.

The key is to do this while also making sure that the commercial forestry sector works with nature and with local communities in a way which has perhaps not always been the case.

I will be starting the process of developing such a policy in the very near future.

But right now, the rights of those whose livelihoods are dependent on supplying trees, planting trees, and felling trees are in the balance, and must take priority.

I cannot move forward towards a new future for forestry without first dealing with this immediate crisis. The system must get moving, the Bill must get passed, and I am hoping my fellow Oireachtas members will support me in ensuring that happens.

Senator Pippa Hackett is Minister of State for Agriculture with responsibility for land use and biodiversity. She holds a BSc in Agriculture from the University of Essex, a postgraduate diploma from University College Dublin, and a PhD from the University of Limerick.

About the author:

Pippa Hackett  / Minister of State for Agriculture

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