With another hairshirt Budget looming early next month, all manner of organisations and industries are lobbying hard to persuade the Government that theirs is a special case and therefore their budgets should not be cut. Unfortunately, few will escape unscathed.
The forestry sector can certainly make a legitimate claim to special-case status. The reduction in the forest road grants at the beginning of the year is bound to reduce the number of plantations that will now be thinned even though they may require it.
Now rumours of a planned 7pc cut in the forest premium are gathering momentum, it is high time to detail some of the reasons to maintain the forestry budget.
Afforestation represents a permanent change in land use, and therefore involves a very major decision on the part of the landowner.
Forestry is one of the longest term of all investments made by individuals, organisations, and indeed the State. Decisions taken today have direct consequences well into the next generation, and even minor tinkering with the forestry budget can have a very damaging effect on confidence in the sector.
The afforestation programme has still not recovered from the 8pc cut in the forest premia in spring 2009 and there is a clear relationship between maintaining annual premiums, planting and confidence in the forestry industry as a whole.
The entire forest industry, comprising the growing, harvesting and processing of forest products, makes a significant and growing contribution to our economy. The total output in 2010 was of the order of €2.2bn.
Almost 11pc of the land area is now under forest, supporting a vibrant and export-orientated forest products sector. More than 80pc of the output from our panelboard mills is exported, along with over 70pc of our sawn timber production.
The contribution by Irish forests mitigating climate change is significant. Our forests absorb about 4m tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum, which equates to about 6pc of our total greenhouse gas emissions. Every additional hectare of new planting increases the total volume of carbon dioxide absorbed.
The total harvest from Irish forests in 2011 amounted to 2.68m cubic metres of timber. This roundwood volume is forecast to increase from 2.68m cubic metres to 6.95m cubic metres by 2028.
In short, the volumes of roundwood available to be harvested are set to more than double over the next 15 years, with associated increases in employment, exports and overall value to the economy.
Direct and indirect employment in forestry in 2010 was 5,531 people, while direct and indirect employment in the wood products sectors was 10,315.
Moreover, a considerable proportion of these jobs are in hard-pressed rural areas.
In addition to climate change benefits, forests provide the largest outdoor area in the country for recreational use.
This has been valued at €97m, which, in turn, generates an estimated €268m in economic activities in rural areas.
Visitor numbers to our forests are in excess of 18m per annum. The very real health benefits of all this recreation are probably impossible to quantify.
There is significant potential for wood fuel to displace fossil fuel, particularly in the generation of heat in industrial, commercial, institutional and domestic markets.
Moreover, the returns generated from this remain in the local economy, whereas the greater proportion of the money spent on fossil fuels disappears out of the country.
After wind energy, wood fuels are currently the largest contributor to renewable energy generation in Ireland.
While the strain on the public purse is a very real one, the Government parties must remember that the entire forestry budget represents an investment in a thriving and expanding industry that punches well above its weight in terms of employment generation, added value to the economy, especially in vulnerable rural areas, and exports.
In 2003, the Bacon Report concluded that the cut in the forestry budget that year was a highly regrettable and retrograde step. The report also calculated that the benefit-to-cost ratio of public expenditure in forestry was in the order of 1.59 – a pretty healthy return for public investment by any measure.
Let us hope that the Bacon Report findings and numerous similar ones since, will not go unheeded in December. The message to the Government is clear: the forestry budget must remain intact.
William Merivale is national secretary of PEFC Ireland and a forestry consultant based in Cork. Email: email@example.com