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Saturday 20 January 2018

Forestry bill fails to address the red tape already strangling the woodland sector

The Forestry Bill 2013 is now at an advanced stage and if passed into law will shape forestry regulation and practice for a generation at the very least
The Forestry Bill 2013 is now at an advanced stage and if passed into law will shape forestry regulation and practice for a generation at the very least

William Merivale

If you have attempted to thin or harvest your forestry in recent times you will probably be familiar with the nightmare of red tape that is involved.

Near 70-year-old rules and regulations mean that an under-staffed Forestry Service is unable to cope with administering the rising tide of applications from a rapidly maturing private forestry sector.

In theory, it should only take two months for a felling or thinning licence to be granted. However, the process can actually take up to 12 months at the moment, causing a lot of grief for forestry owners trying to organise contractors, sales deliveries and timely thinning.

Bizarrely, a review of the 1946 Forestry Act seems set to simply increase the bureaucracy involved, with newly proposed application fees and management plan requirements.

Not only will this create a bigger workload for those charged with processing the paperwork, it will be an added disincentive for forestry owners to get stuck into proper management of their woodlands for operations such as thinning.

There have been some attempts over the last 15 years or so to update the legislation but none has got very far until recently. The Forestry Bill 2013 is now at an advanced stage and if passed into law will shape forestry regulation and practice for a generation at the very least.

As currently drafted, it leaves a lot to be desired.

The provisions relating to the felling of trees are to the fore of the 1946 act, so much so that many would be forgiven for thinking that the act covers little else.

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It was enacted at a time when the preservation of the existing forest resource was of utmost importance, and it was to be some years before the very productive phase we are now entering was even dreamed of.

More than 19,500 landowners, mostly farmers, have planted in excess of 250,000 hectares since 1980, much of which is now ready for thinning.

The preamble to the bill states that it aims to "provide for the development and promotion of forestry in a manner that maximises the economic, environmental and social value of forests within the principles of sustainable forest management".

John Phelan, managing director of Galway-based Woodland Group, says that while some aspects of the bill are to be welcomed, there is little or no developmental or promotional aspect in the bill as drafted.

He adds that the real aim of the bill, as the preamble goes on to say, is to "confer power on the minister to make regulations for the effective management of the forestry sector".

Mr Phelan questions whether it is the role of the minister to do anything other than create enabling conditions for the effective development of the private sector resource.

He also expressed serious concerns about the proposal to give the minister the right to make regulations about virtually every aspect of forestry including production and sale of timber and non-timber products.

He believes this would give unspecified, unlegislated powers to future ministers and their civil servants to control almost every aspect of private woodland assets.

OMISSION

Daragh Little, managing director of Forest Enterprises Ltd (FEL) and current chairman of the Irish Forests and Forest Products Association (IFFPA) agrees.

He says that the lack of a goal for timber production is a glaring omission and states that there is little in the bill that will ensure a return on investment to the Irish taxpayer.

Mr Little also expressed concerns at the long list of offences and penalties contained in Part 7 of the bill and the draconian approach to dealing with them. He believes it represents a missed opportunity to rid our regulatory framework of unnecessary red tape.

He says that recently revised regulations mean that the Northern Ireland Forest Service (NIFS) must issue a felling licence within three months or else face penalties.

"We are entering the most productive period for private forestry," Mr Little said, "and as currently drafted this bill is unfit for purpose."

Donal Whelan of the Irish Timber Growers Association (ITGA) said that the bill is unlikely to increase afforestation rates and will not facilitate future wood mobility within the sector.

He says that the already creaking system for granting general felling licences is almost unchanged in the new bill, despite harvesting from private forests forecast to increase 10-fold over the next 15 years.

He also argues that for standard plantation forestry, a felling licence should be for a considerably longer period than the current maximum of five years and should include all thinnings up to the final felling of a forest.

The new bill also imposes a significant number of new administrative, and therefore costly, burdens on forest owners and the Forest Service.

All forest owners should join in this debate, either individually or through their representative organisations.

Forthcoming events

Next week, Teagasc is organising two 'Talking Timber' events where forest owners can meet timber buyers, harvesting contractors and foresters.

The first is to be held at the Devon Inn Hotel, Templeglantine, Co Limerick on September 10. The second is at the Lough Allen Hotel and Spa, Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim on September 12.

Both events will run from 9.30am until 2pm and further details can be found on the Teagasc website.

William Merivale is national secretary of PEFC Ireland and a forestry consultant based in Cork. Email: william@cjandco.net

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