Forestry is about a whole lot more than timber production. But many in Ireland seem to view the terms almost as synonymous.
Timber production is undeniably important. I want to state that without equivocation. But trees – and forests – are about more than timber. They are also about beauty, mysticism, culture, biodiversity, the environment, carbon capture, community enjoyment and enterprise, and social good. The list of words we can associate with trees is long. But I believe it is time to consider them all, and to value them too.
In doing so, I am not ignoring an industry that I know supports 12,000 livelihoods. I know wood products are valuable and carbon friendly. And I also know that things have been extremely difficult for the industry in the recent past.
Court cases and decisions at European level led to significant delays in the licensing of forest roads, felling and afforestation. Landowners, forestry companies, contractors, sawmills and timber processors encountered significant frustrations, caught in an impasse not of their making. The sector came virtually to a halt.
These difficulties have not yet been resolved, but there has been much progress. We have added many ecologists to the staff in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and are looking for more.
The legislation I steered through the Houses of the Oireachtas last autumn brought forestry appeals into line with other planning processes, and through hard, steady work on the part of my o fficials, the number of licences being issued has increased substantially. In fact, if we hit the target I have set for this year – 4,500 – that will represent an 80pc increase on the number issued last year.
But while we must of course continue to tackle that backlog in licensing applications, we must also try to see the bigger picture. We must distinguish the wood from the trees.
That is why I am so happy that, later today, I will be announcing what I believe will be the start of us looking at forestry in a new way. It will be a broader way, and it will be one which takes all views, all stakeholders, even all trees, into account.
I am calling this Project Woodland.
The project is being launched following the recommendations, which Jo O’Hara, the former chief executive of Scottish Forestry, has made in a report which I will publish later today.
It also looks at how best to implement recommendations made by Jim Mackinnon on forestry licences.
While the full detail of Jo’s recommendations will only become clear later, I can say now that she has confirmed my own belief that while of course the issues with licensing must be dealt with, the bigger questions about forestry also need to be addressed.
Jo suggests we must deal with them separately, and she has suggested a project-type structure to achieve this.
We will be setting up such a structure from today.
We also intend to put in place the means by which we get as much help as possible from both impartial outsiders and invested stakeholders.
There are some very strongly held views in Ireland about forestry. But interestingly, as Jo discovered, the level of engagement between those holding such different views is poor, and even non-existent.
I have tried to change that already by setting up a stakeholder Forestry Policy Group, and I will be asking its members to become even more involved in future forestry direction by joining working groups.
These groups will support my departmental officials by working on four distinct workstreams, dealing with backlog, future strategy, organisational development, and processes.
Without question, the issue of the backlog is pressing. But we must go beyond it to address questions like what this country – and its people – wants from its trees. We simply must establish an agreed vision of the role of trees, woods and forests in Ireland’s future.
We must also decide on how we should organise ourselves, both to get the best support from Coillte, Teagasc and industry experts – the Council for Forest Research and Development – and to deliver for the public. Finally, we also must improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the various licensing processes so that they fully address legal and regulatory requirements and deliver better results.
We won’t be doing this alone. I’m delighted that Jo O’Hara will continue to be involved and I am also enlisting some other experienced independent people to help us steer this project to a successful outcome.
But for us to be successful, everyone must commit to listening. Industry must listen to those with environmental concerns. Environmentalists must listen to those whose livelihoods are dependent on timber production. And we must all operate within the law, regardless of how complex that might be.
It won’t be easy. But it is possible, and the prize is huge. I know it will take time and, for some, progress may be too slow. But worthwhile change usually does take time, and I truly believe that if we give this project the time and attention it needs, we really can create an Ireland where woodland works for all.
Project Woodland starts here.
Green Party Senator Pippa Hackett is Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity