Forestry planting 'grinding to a halt' over Department backlog

Declan O'Brien

Declan O'Brien

Forestry consultants have warned that the approval process for planting and clear-felling plantations is about to "grind to a halt".

The Association of Irish Forestry Consultants (AIFC) maintained that a growing backlog of applications was threatening to bring the system to a standstill.

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In correspondence with its members, which has been seen by the The AIFC stated that the Forestry Service was not processing applications for planting and clear-felling plantations on which the environmentalist Peter Sweetman had made submissions.

Mr Sweetman is a well-known environmentalist who has taken the State to the European Court on three occasions and won. The consultants' body maintained that applications on which Mr Sweetman made submissions were "going to accumulate in Johnstown Castle and go nowhere".

The AIFC further claimed that the Forestry Appeals Committee had informed the Forestry Service that it would no longer hear cases where Mr Sweetman had made a submission.

When contacted regarding this assertion, the Department of Agriculture stated that it did not comment on individual appeal cases and pointed out that the Forestry Appeals Committee was an independent entity.

The legal wrangle centres on interpretations of the statutory instrument governing the planting and clear felling of forestry plantations.

The Department insists that its procedures are compliant with the relevant statutory instrument. However, Mr Sweetman maintains that the statutory instrument is "not in compliance with European law".

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He contends that the statutory instrument underpinning the planting and clear felling of woodland is based on a "minimalist" interpretation of European law.

"All I want is that the Forestry Service, as an emanation of the State, fully complies with the law rather than in a minimalist fashion," Mr Sweetman insisted.

The AIFC warns that the current impasse is going to result in timber shortages by the end of the year if a resolution is not resolved.

"There is going to be a serious issue with timber availability for the end of 2019 and 2020 if the current lack of felling licence approvals does not change," the AIFC correspondence states. It also claims that consultants are going to run out of work for contactors shortly, because applications for felling licences are still not being approved even though they were lodged up to 15 months ago.

The difficulties have also impacted on the level of planting this year. The Department confirmed to the Afforestation levels were equally low in 2017 and 2018, at 5,500ha and 4,000ha respectively.

The low uptake of forestry comes as the Government has identified increased planting as a key element of its climate action strategy.

The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, Richard Bruton, recently announced an initiative which set a planting target of 22m trees each year for the next 20 years.

However, there has been strong opposition to the increased level of afforestation, particularly in the northwest of the country, with both the INHFA and the IFA last year calling for a moratorium in planting in Leitrim.

The INHFA want an immediate ban on the planting and replanting of monoculture conifers and their replacement with mixed broadleaf forestry and agro-forestry.

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