Pressure is mounting on the Department of Agriculture to “abolish” its forestry licensing system as an estimated 4,500 applications are still backlogged for processing.
The latest figures show that 2,760 felling applications, 1,009 afforestation applications and 684 roads applications are still awaiting approval.
Last week, the Department published a new report – ‘Project Woodlands’ – which says a revised governance structure at the helm is required to overcome long-running issues which have hampered the sector’s growth in recent years. The report is focused on the implementation of the Mackinnon report on forestry licences which was published in November 2019..
Nonetheless, Professor John Fitzgerald, a leading economist and former chairman of the Climate Change Advisory Council, is urging the Department to “scrap” its current licensing system and replace it with an EPA regulated regime.
Speaking at an online climate conference in recent days Prof Fitzgerald outlined the potential of timber materials to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the construction sector.
“Across Europe, and the US, timber is the norm in many housing developments, unlike in Ireland. Two years ago up to 20pc of new houses in Ireland were already timber framed structures.
“This very important progress replacing carbon dioxide rich cement with carbon fixing timber is being halted because the state has not dealt with the obstacle of timber supply in Ireland constituted by the licensing regime in forestry.
“We need to immediately deal with this administrative barrier that is preventing vital innovation in the building sector.
“It is also a huge obstacle to changing land use from activities that emit greenhouse gases to forestry which sucks carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“This administrative failure is not only contributing to higher greenhouse gas emissions, but it is also raising the cost of housing for everybody – a lose-lose for society.
“If we are serious about tackling climate change, the licensing regime for forestry should be abolished tomorrow morning.
“It should be replaced by a regulation-based regime run by the EPA, the kind of regime that applies across the rest of the land use and agricultural sector.
“Such a regulatory regime could deliver on the other environmental goals such as biodiversity without preventing progress on forestry and construction using wood,” the professor said.
According to Project Woodlands an increase in appeals against forestry licensing decisions since late 2019 has resulted in further delays in processing felling licences and declining confidence with the forestry sector.
Approximately 90pc of all plantings were undertaken by farmers 10 years ago, but the figure for 2020 was just 30pc.
The report states that the “Department needs to act swiftly to address weaknesses in project management and communications” to establish a clear pathway to deliver the Mackinnon recommendations.
However, the report does not include a timeline for meeting the state’s national planting target of 8,000ha per annum – last year just 2,433 new hectares of forestry were planted in 2020.
On the ongoing backlog a Department spokesperson said: “We currently have approximately 4,500 licences on hand for processing which has reduced from 4,700 in October which means licence decisions are exceeding new applications received.
“Issuing these licences remains a priority for 2021, and this was confirmed by Minister Hackett last Thursday as part of the launch of Project Woodlands. A particular focus of our efforts is on the 1,840 files needing specific ecological assessment in our system.
“This backlog is a subset of our overall licencing output and there are other files which are not yet licensed but these are the ones which pose a particular challenge. This backlog will be dealt with by a particular workstream under Project Woodland.”
Three other workstreams are set to concentrate on a vision for forestry, devising a fit for purpose organisational structure and the fourth on streamlining the licensing process.
“The entire project will be overseen by a project manager and project board and will include an outside perspective as independent chairs will lead the workstreams and three external experts will sit on the project board.
“We already have a project plan in place for dealing with the backlog and have and are increasing resources in order to deliver greater output.
“This has resulted in an increase in the number of licences issued, and the last quarter of 2020 saw the highest number of licences issued last year.
“In addition, January saw the highest number of licences issued in any one month since July 2019. So far this year 621 licences have issued, which is a 55pc increase on the same period last year,” the statement concluded.
Speaking to the Farming Independent at the launch of Project Woodlands Minister of State for Agriculture Pippa Hackett said the current split of licences being approved is 60:40 – Coillte: private. It was also stated that Coillte supplies 75pc of the timber to the sector.