The saga of stiffer EU environmental standards and a deluge of appeals against forestry licences looks like being brought to a sudden halt, as the government uses its majority to rush through emergency legislation before the timber industry runs out of native raw material.

When the legislation was introduced last week in the Seanad and passed on Friday night by the Upper House of the Oireachtas, Co Cork’s Senator Tim Lombard (Fine Gael) warned that the timber industry running out of raw material is already a reality.

He revealed the GP Wood sawmill in Enniskeane, Co Cork, employing 500, is to reduce operations to only four days this week, and will then go to three-day and two-day weeks.

“To have the biggest industry in that village go to a four-day week will have a knock-on effect across the entire community in West Cork,” said Lombard.

GP Wood is one of Ireland’s largest suppliers of sawn softwood products.

He also said that farmers looking for six by three timber, used for building sheds, can’t get it from the co-ops in West Cork, and that shed construction was stopping because of the lack of timber.

“In the next few months, we will be importing timber from Scotland, through the port at Passage West, south of Cork. Five shiploads have been booked in for the next three months to keep this sawmill going. It is amazing to think that Ireland must import raw material from Scotland to keep industries alive.”

He said freeing up nearly one million square metres of timber tied up in a forest licensing logjam is the biggest dilemma for minister of state with responsibility for forestry Pippa Hackett, of the Green Party.

It is indeed a dilemma for the party which has protection of the environment as one of its pillars.Senator Tim Lombard (Fine Gael) said the timber industry running out of raw material is already reality, with the GP Wood sawmill in Enniskeane, Co Cork, employing 500, to reduce operations to only four days this week, and then going to three-day and two-day weeks. Picture: iStockSenator Tim Lombard (Fine Gael) said the timber industry running out of raw material is already reality, with the GP Wood sawmill in Enniskeane, Co Cork, employing 500, to reduce operations to only four days this week, and then going to three-day and two-day weeks. Picture: iStock

However, Ms Hackett told the Seanad the legislation she proposes is about job losses.

“I am not willing to gamble with those jobs by delaying the process. While I appreciate the concerns about the haste of the legislation, it is emergency legislation, in essence. It is a gamble I am not willing to take.

“Current delays in issuing licences have led to serious difficulties for people involved in the forestry industry. If no action is taken, we could very quickly face the prospect of sawmills running out of timber and of job losses, particularly in rural Ireland. The delays in hearing appeals are affecting the timber being felled and transported to sawmills and are influencing planting rates.

“To date this year my department has established just under 1,941 ha of new afforestation, which is down by 35% on this time last year and is way off our national targets.”

She added that Ireland is now importing wood to make the pallets on which so many industries depend.

The forestry industry has been grinding to a halt over the past year.

It began with changes in licensing introduced by the EU in response to important Court of Justice of the European Union decisions which found licensing in Ireland did not fully meet EU environmental requirements. Fundamental changes to the licensing system were unavoidable, including significant investment in extra resources in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM), which issues licences for all forestry operations.

Every application for a licence must be assessed to ensure any effect the proposed operations may have on the surrounding landscape and environment is carefully considered.

After the EU raised the environmental standards required, additional ecologists, forestry inspectors and administrative staff were required.

One of the requirements is a Natura Impact Statement (NIS) prepared by a suitably qualified person. Farmers say the extra cost of an NIS will be enough to put them off applying for a licence to establish smaller forests. However, that is one of the lesser problems in the industry at the moment.

With the number of felling licences issued in August the highest in 13 months, in both timber volume and forestry area, it seems that the DAFM is getting to grips with the administrative challenge of hiring extra staff to manage the more environment-friendly current licensing system (including 14 ecologists extra to help ensure continued compliance with the EU directives on habitats and birds).There’s a licensing logjam for establishing a new forest, building a road to access a forest, for aerial fertilisation, or thinning or clear-felling the trees. One of the victims is None-So-Hardy Nurseries in Co Wicklow which had to shred 5m young trees, half of them oak trees, over three years, because forest planting slowed to a crawl. Picture: iStockThere’s a licensing logjam for establishing a new forest, building a road to access a forest, for aerial fertilisation, or thinning or clear-felling the trees. One of the victims is None-So-Hardy Nurseries in Co Wicklow which had to shred 5m young trees, half of them oak trees, over three years, because forest planting slowed to a crawl. Picture: iStock

But the other big problem is a surge in appeals against forestry licences.

It takes a long time to get a licence. When it is granted, it can be appealed against during the next 28 days, unlike the system in other countries,

In Scotland, for example, once a licence is issued, there is no option to appeal.

Appeals against forestry licences have risen from 14 in 2017 to over 400 so far this year.

In 2019, there were 489 appeals against 311 forestry licences, more than double the total of 231 in 2017 and 2018.

A licence must be applied for if establishing a new forest, building a road to access a forest, for aerial fertilisation, or thinning or clear-felling the trees.

It is relatively easy to make an appeal, you don’t have to live near the location of the proposed licence project, and there is no fee. You can submit multiple appeals per day.

Nearly 100% of licences are being appealed.

The appeals, mostly linked to environmental regulations, are in the majority of cases shot down by the Forestry Appeals Committee, the independent body which handles appeals.

But licence applicants cannot commence work, pending the outcome of appeals.

Covid-19 restrictions have also slowed the process. With the overhaul of licensing continuing, and an overwhelming volume of appeals, it’s impossible to clear the backlog, and forest felling has slowed to the point that Ireland is running out of timber.

Very few new forests are being planted; to date this year, the DAFM has established only 1,940 hectares of new afforestation, down by 35% compared to the same time period last year, and way off the national targets.

It has been estimated it would take nearly 15 months to clear the licensing queue, even if no other applications are made, and before any appeals are submitted.

It’s not just felling that has been held up in the licence logjam.

None-So-Hardy Nurseries in Co Wicklow had to shred five million young trees, half of them oak trees, over the last three years, because forest planting slowed to a crawl. 

Meanwhile, reliance on imported timbers poses the danger of bark beetles and tree diseases which are endemic in continental Europe becoming established in Ireland.

Essentially, environmental considerations have brought the forest industry to a halt.

Such was the dilemma for Ms Hackett, of the Green Party as she introduced the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020 (previously titled the Agriculture Appeals (Amendment) Bill 2020), in Seanad Eireann last week.

It was scheduled for introduction in Dáil Eireann this week.

Even the public consultation before the legislative process began was rushed.

There was only a month for the public to make submissions, but nearly 9,000 did so, indicating intense public interest in the issue.

There wasn’t enough time for the submissions to be published, only enough analysis for the DAFM to review all the submissions and say that 81% were in support of the Bill, and submissions objecting to the Bill were 16%.

The submissions in support were 74.4% from private sources, 24.9% from industry (such as forestry companies, haulage companies, sawmills, forestry contractors, building providers, timber processing industry, etc), and 0.4% from public representatives (such as councillor, TD, Senator).

Submissions objecting to the bill were 94.9% from private sources,

1.4% from public representatives, and 4.1% from others (such as NGOs, associations, political parties).

Submissions received unrelated to the bill were 3%.

The rush continued in the Seanad, senators had less than 24 hours in which to analyse the bill proposals and submit their amendments.

As the leader of the Green Party in the Seanad, Pauline O’Reilly said: “We need to bring people with us if we are truly going to transform this country.”

Asked why not legislate for felling only, she emphasised the importance of afforestation, with Ireland having the second lowest tree cover in Europe and being about 35% behind last year in new hectares planted.

Ms Hackett pointed out that the Bill will help landowners “trying to do things the right way”.

“They are doing what we have been asking them to do, namely, to plant the right tree in the right place, and they are then subject to appeal or are being delayed in the granting of their licence because of the backlogs.”

“I have been contacted by farmers who are frustrated because they want to plant a small area of broadleaves on their farms. There is only a certain window of opportunity to do this in the year as this planting is a seasonal thing. They are ringing me up and asking why they cannot plant and who is appealing their broadleaf plantations. They are saying they are running out of time and that if they have to wait 28 days, it will push them into next year.”

But other senators did not spare the blushes of the party for protection of the environment.

Senator David Norris said he was astonished that a Green Party minister of state would introduce legislation of this kind, rushed through at such breakneck speed, and without pre-legislative scrutiny.

He said it was a real abrogation of the democratic process, and stemmed from a recent judgment which identified a failure of the forestry licensing sector of the DAFM to comply with the EU’s environmental impact assessment directive, and habitats and birds directives.

Independent Senator Sharon Keogan said the Bill is, ultimately, about jobs, and she supported it.

“It might not be too welcome to the Green Party, but it will certainly get support from the Minister of State’s Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Green Party colleagues. That is the price one must pay when in government as a smaller party.”

Senator Annie Hoey, Labour, said: “I hope this is not how the Green Party in government feels about others from different political persuasions and our contribution to environmental legislation.”

The most Seanad amendments to the proposed legislation came from Independent Senator Alice-Mary Higgins.

She said aspects of the current afforestation model have in some cases had negative impacts on local communities, biodiversity, water quality and landscapes.

“This is the position that we all took last year, yet we are seeing a significant push to fast-track business as usual and everything that is in the system currently. This bill is literally about having as many horses as possible bolt before we consider a door-closing strategy somewhere down the line.”

She suggested the Bill could have been narrowed down solely to the question of felling, instead of including the issue of planting.

Senator Victor Boyhan said: “This is a litmus test of how the Green Party will support environmentalists and NGOs, stand behind the Aarhus Convention, support the principle of justice associated with environmental matters, and support the environmental pillars that validly wish to make a submission.”

Senator Lynn Boylan of Sinn Féin said we need a licensing system that is robust, environmental law and Aarhus Convention compliant, expedient, and that will provide certainty for all stakeholders involved.Senator Lynn Boylan said we need a licensing system that is robust, compliant and expedient.Senator Lynn Boylan said we need a licensing system that is robust, compliant and expedient.

She said if this emergency legislation is to pass, it should be subject to a review, and continued oversight by the Oireachtas.

She said a new forestry programme is promised, and this is the opportunity the minister of state has to address the systemic flaws and to get rid of the legacy of previous governments.

The debate continued along party lines, with several amendments going to a vote and being fairly ruthlessly shot down by the government party senators.

Senator Michael McDowell took the opportunity to call out those who allowed the forestry situation to deteriorate.

“The problems, the arrears and the backlog must have been developing for far longer than the past few months, and it is an awful pity that this problem was not addressed earlier. I am also conscious of the fact that the crisis that has taken place in the forestry business and forestry sector, with the destruction of saplings and so on, is a sign of weak administration, unfortunately.”

He said he supports the bill, because if Ireland is to engage in major afforestation, it needs to get serious about it.

The current target is to plant 400m trees by 2040.

Mr McDowell said: “We need to make it possible to comply with the targets we are setting. There is no point in wandering off to Paris conferences or UN conferences saying we have a plan and then saying, ‘Hold on a second, though. There are four objectors here and five objectors there.’ Then the plan just collapses for want of implementation.”

He said the public has to understand the target and the process, and understand that not everybody can live surrounded by a bare landscape, if we are to plant 400 million trees over the next 20 years. “Views we used to have will no longer be there. We must get serious if we are going to afforest this country.

“If we are telling people the truth about the 400m trees over 20 years, or 250m trees over 10 years, we must get serious about this and stop the codology and stop the capacity of people, including people who do not even have to pay a fee, to get involved in afforestation plans and proposals which have very little to do with them.”

“We live in a world where the consumption of meat from sheep and cattle is in decline, and there are constraints on that form of agriculture.

“Afforestation is hugely important, and in supporting this amendment, I ask that we remember full transparency regarding the reports being received is a good idea to bring the people with us in this process.”

Senator Rónán Mullen said: “In trying to please everybody we are in danger of doing our economy and our social fabric serious damage.

“Foresters have spoken to me about needing to thin their forests but being unable to do so. This has an environmental impact. Biodiversity on the forest floor is impacted because there is less light. There is a greater risk of trees falling due to wind. It may seem laudable to lodge objections based on environmental concerns or the quality of people’s social lives if trees are growing near them, but these issues have had unforeseen consequences.

“We are at a time in our economy and our country when we simply must put Irish economic and social life at the centre and protect people’s economic well-being.”

He also asked where was the previous Government in dealing with this problem since 2018.

He said the new legislation rightly provides for the possibility of dismissing vexatious appeals.” When 100% of licences are appealed, one must think that there is an element of vexatious activity going on.”

Senator Garret Ahearn of Fine Gael suggested the same people who oppose deforestation around the world are now delaying the growth of trees in Ireland.

Contentious issues as the bill progresses through the Oireachtas include the payment of a fee with licence appeals.

Ms Hackett said this is a long-standing requirement for other boards such as An Bord Pleanála and the Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board.

“The intent is not to make it prohibitive. The fees will help in a small way to offset the cost of conducting the appeal. The appeals to the FAC are costing around €1,000 per appeal, which is quite costly. Taxpayers are paying for that now. The fee would only go towards a small portion of that.”

The minister said it has always been open to any person to appeal a decision and that will continue to be the case. Her proposals allow the Forestry Appeals Committee to invite additional expertise to discuss particular appeals if it needs to, a provision which is already available to the committee.

Many Seanad amendments called for additional time for lodgment of an appeal against a forestry licence.

These were defeated in votes. Ms Hackett said 28 days is a sufficient time to allow for the lodgment of an appeal, bearing in mind that a time period of 30 days is given in the first instance for interested parties to make a submission regarding a licence application.

“From the point at which a licence application is submitted, there is a two-month period within which a submission can be made. If people are very concerned about an issue at the point the licence application is made, they have up to two months to collect data and information and determine their view in respect of the licence.

“They can potentially appeal after that.”

She said plans are well advanced for introduction of an online portal for forestry licence applications, providing all the necessary details for interested parties to examine at the time of a licence application.

But the main provisions of the Bill are increasing the capacity of the Forestry Appeals Committee (FAC) to determine appeals by enabling it to sit in divisions of itself; enabling the FAC to determine appeals without an oral hearing, wherever it is possible; providing the Minister of the day with power to specify procedures; and introduction of reasonable fees for appeals.

Updates incorporated from the public consultation include no change to the right of applicants and all third parties to appeal directly to the FAC (which is quite rare in Europe); a chairperson or deputy chairperson and at least one ordinary member constituting an FAC quorum for decision making; all information and documentation to accompany an appeal, for it to be valid; and clarity as to circumstances in which the minister might issue a general policy directive with regard to ensuring the economic and environmental yield of forest goods and services.

Ms Hackett said the Bill aligns with the Aarhus Convention.

She said allowing the FAC sit in multiple divisions means more than one appeal can be heard at once.

However, many of her points were argued in the Seanad, and they will be disputed even more hotly in the Dáil this week.

The bill will leave a bad taste in the mouths of many, and a realisation for the Green Party of the perils of being a minority Government party.

The bill and the reasons it is necessary will scare more farmers away from forestry (although it is noticeable that many small clumps of mature forest have disappeared recently, as clever farmers take advantage of strong lumber prices in the grossly under-supplied market).

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