Few issues in recent years have been as contentious in rural Ireland as government forestry policy. Depending on who you ask aforestation has created ecologically harmful monocultures, pushed people out of rural Ireland, or provided farmers with an important alternative income source for marginal land and provided jobs in the wider forestry industry.
While opposition to increased planting has made news in recent years, particularly in Leitrim where the Save Leitrim campaign has highlighted the issue since 2018 and we have covered the issue here. The is a real issue with the dominance of conifers, particularly the non native Stika Spruce which while providing a fast growing cash crop and as such is favoured by industry but have been called green deserts by environmentalists for the lack of biodiversity they create.
In recent weeks the forestry Appeals Bill proposed by Green Party Junior Minister Pippa Hackett has surprised many environmentalists with its content which is ostensibly closer to the demands of industry than what would be expected from a Green politician. Under the current forestry governance system there is a highly accessible appeals process for planting, felling, and works such as forestry roads. This has however according to industry created a delay in necessary work and threatens the viability of the industry.
The current proposals would greatly curtail the right of people to appeal any aspect of forestry planting and harvesting including limiting which NGOs can appeal, meaning community groups or any new NGOs would likely be excluded. As well as creating a situation where the right of the NGOs who are allowed to appeal would be entirely at the whim of the government of the day.
This has understandably raised concerns among NGOs, and has lead to the Environmental Pillar, a coalition of 26 NGOs raising their concerns with the Minister. Meanwhile the forestry industry has rightly highlighted the serious threat to jobs caused by the blockade in issuing licences caused by the dysfunctional appeals system.
No one would claim the current appeals and licencing system is fit for purpose, industry point to the delays and disruptions in supplies the high number of appeals causes, while environmentalists and concerned community groups point to the continued licencing of damaging monocultures as evidence that policy still does not show sufficient concern for biodiversity and other environmental issues or social concerns.
From a progressive perspective, one we would expect from a Green Minister it would make more sense to review forestry policy as a whole involving all stakeholders not simply placing plaster over a dysfunctional appeals system to suit the limited concerns of industry. Ireland and the rest of the world faces a biodiversity crisis, riding roughshod over the rights of concerned groups to participate in forestry planning will not address this issue. Similarly as our economy enters into a recession creating disruptions to what ought to be a highly sustainable industry serves no one’s interests.
The Forestry Bill is before the Dáil this week and it remains to be seen what amendments will be made however the Government and the Green party have already wasted an opportunity to fully address the larger issues around forestry policy by framing the bill as a simple environment v economy debate. Doing a disservice to rural communities, the Irish environment and the forestry sector in the process.
Unfortunately the majority of the opposition has been as unimaginative as the government, high profile rural independents who style themselves as defenders of the often ignored rural communities have have uncritically weighed in behind industry’s no appeals position, with Mattie Mcgrath dismissing those opposed to the bill as tree huggers and the Healy Rae’s calling for no appeals from non locals (a clear attempt to exclude NGOs entirely). Instead of articulating a vision of long term sustainability they want to copperfasted the failed policy we currently have, and in the process doing a greater disservice to their constituents