I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce the Forestry Bill 2013 and look forward to Members' constructive discussion and comment on its provisions. The purpose of this Bill is to reform and update the legislative framework relating to forestry. It will support the development of a modern forest sector, which operates in accordance with good forest practice and with a view to protection of the environment.
As Members are no doubt aware, the current regulatory regime, underpinned by the Forestry Act 1946, has been in place for 67 years. Considerable progress has been achieved within the forestry sector during this period. There have also been many technological, scientific and regulatory developments in the intervening period. Key among these has been the recognition that forests are a multi-functional resource with economic, social and environmental benefits.
As Minister of State with responsibility for forestry, I need to ensure there is an appropriate balance between the various interests. One of the objectives of the Bill is to promote and facilitate the growth and sustainability while at the same time having regard to protection of the environment and maintenance of the social benefits and other public goods that forests provide. This Bill is about forestry and good forest practice. It is not about Coillte. Its provisions are applicable to public and private forest owners.
It is important to stress that the intention of the Bill is not to add to the administrative burden on landowners or other stakeholders in the forest sector but to streamline and simplify the various processes. This will benefit not only the forest sector, but the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, which is responsible for the administration and regulation of forestry. I can assure Deputies that the systems that will be put in place by the Department will be as user-friendly as possible and that this legislation will place no unreasonable demands on anybody. Where regulations are to be introduced, I will facilitate prior consultation with the relevant stakeholders.
I will expand on the individual features of the Bill later. I would first like to briefly outline for the information of the Members of the House the importance of forestry to farmers, the economy and society. It is useful to put Irish forestry into context, in terms both of size and its contribution to the economy.
By the early 1900s, forest cover in Ireland had been reduced to just 1%.
This contributed to the need to regulate felling by the introduction of the Forestry Acts 1928 and 1946, which ensured that existing forest cover was maintained. The area of the national forest estate is now slightly more than 730,000 ha or nearly 11% of the total land area. While the forest estate has expanded significantly since the early 1980s with the introduction of grant schemes aimed at encouraging private landowners, mainly farmers, to become involved in forestry, the figure for Ireland is still relatively low compared to our European Union counterparts given that nearly 40% of total land in the EU is under forest cover.
Of the national forest estate, more than 54% is in public ownership, mainly through Coillte Teoranta, with the remaining 46% in private ownership. This contrasts with the position 20 years ago when 70% of the forest estate was in public ownership and 30% in private ownership. There are more than 19,000 private forest owners nationwide, the majority of whom are farmers. Forestry is a growing sector and vibrant processing sector and a modern harvesting and transport operation. The growing forestry industry comprises many small and medium-sized enterprises which service Ireland's woods and forests, including forest nurseries, foresters, forestry companies and forestry contractors.
The processing sector includes sawmills and panel board mills that rely on the growing forestry industry as a source of raw material. Nine large to medium-sized fully automated sawmills process in excess of 90% of current supply, while three board mill processing industries utilise a combination of small round wood, recycled wood and wood waste. Sawmills and board mills have a strong export focus and in value terms, exports of wood products reached €303 million in 2012.
Wood fuel harvesting and processing are also expanding as forests enter the production phase. The harvesting and transport sector forms the essential link between the grower and the processing sector. Total employment in the forestry sector is estimated to be in the region of 12,000 persons. The sector generates considerable economic activity and benefits in the wider economy, especially in rural communities.
As I indicated, farmers now undertake the bulk of new planting, which they regard as a realistic and viable land use option. The afforestation grant covering the entire initial cost of planting of the trees, coupled with an annual tax-free premium of up to €515 per hectare for up to 20 years, is an attractive option for farmers, many of whom would have been traditionally reluctant to plant trees on agricultural land. Forestry offers a substantial income to the landowner, both annually and in the medium to long term, through the availability of thinnings and output from final harvest. Other non-monetary factors must also be taken into account, including the way in which various farming and forestry enterprises complement each other, the type of land and how labour intensive and time consuming an enterprise is, especially if the farmer is also working part-time off the farm.
Since my appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for forestry, I have availed of as many opportunities as I could to visit forest plantations, nurseries and timber processing facilities to see at first hand the work involved. I have also met with a number of representative groups, including forest owner producer groups. The forestry sector has developed significantly in recent decades and it is appropriate that the legislative framework be updated to facilitate the further development of our forest resource.
I will now address the Bill's main provisions to give Members a general outline of its scope and the way in which the proposed system of regulation will work in practice. Deputies will appreciate that many of the provisions are standard or technical legal provisions which do not require further clarification. Part 1 contains a number of general provisions, including the Short Title, commencement, interpretations and rules governing the laying of documents before the Houses of the Oireachtas, service of documents and expenses of the Minister.
Section 2 contains the important definitions which determine the scope of the Bill. It is of necessity an extensive list that draws on many aspects of forest operations and practices, including the various laws and directives, both national and European Union, relating to planning and environmental considerations that must be adhered to by the State and operators involved in forestry. Given the potential impact that forestry can have on the environment, it is important that regard be had to these requirements.
In Part 2, the functions of the Minister, both general and specific, are set out in some detail. The general functions in section 5 include a range of promotional responsibilities relating to forestry, including afforestation, good forest practice that maintains the biological diversity of forests, the promotion of knowledge and awareness of forestry through education and training and the development and marketing of a quality based processing sector. The Minister's general functions also include the regulation and monitoring of forest operations to ensure forests are properly managed and protected from harmful pests, diseases and invasive species.
The specific functions of the Minister are set down in section 6. The primary ministerial functions are the granting of licences, such as felling licences, approval of forest management plans and the attaching of conditions to such licences and approvals. While I appreciate the powers are wide-ranging, this is standard for primary legislation. The purpose is to set parameters for years to come. Regulation of forestry activities is essential to minimise environmental damage and maintain the existing forest estate and, in so doing, protect the investment by the State in the afforestation programme. It also enables the Minister to produce and implement guidelines, codes of practice and standards for good forest practice.
An important feature of this section is the granting of powers to the Minister to give legislative effect to those guidelines and standards which cover a range of environmental considerations, extending from water quality to the protection of species such as the red squirrel and freshwater pearl mussel. While the powers in this section are wide-ranging, all future regulation will be the subject of widespread consultation before decisions are made.
Section 7 elaborates on the technical aspects of the Minister's powers relating to the granting of licences and approvals, including the setting of conditions, extension of such licences and approvals and their suspension or revocation.
Section 8 allows the Minister to appoint committees to assist and advise in the performance of his or her functions. This will include the delegation to a committee of certain functions, subject to the Minister retaining overall responsibility and accountability. Issues concerning the confidentiality of the work of the committee and responsibility of members are set down in section 9.
In a long-term activity such as forestry, which can create substantial and lasting change, good planning is essential to ensure that forest operations are undertaken with minimum impact on the environment and social and economic fabric of the areas in which they occur.
When the Forestry Act 1946 was enacted, commercial forestry was almost entirely State controlled, a situation which has now changed radically. The emphasis in the Bill on forest management plans is to provide guidance to farmers, some of whom have little forestry experience, on the long-term management of their forests. Section 10 enables the Minister to require forest owners to submit a forest management plan in support of applications for consented activities. Such plans would cover felling, including thinning, reforestation, forest road works and other forestry-related activities such as amenity and recreational use of forests. The forest management plan will also provide a mechanism whereby an application for a felling licence may be incorporated within the plan thus allowing for a flexible, responsive and timely system for dealing with activities such as thinning. As I pointed out earlier in my address, the purpose of the legislation is to simplify processes and not to add to the administrative burden. The requirements for management plans will, therefore, reflect this objective and no unreasonable demands will be placed on anyone.
Part 3 of the Bill provides for protection of the environment when any forestry activity is being planned. Approval of all forestry schemes and licences is dependent on continued protection of the environment. There are consultation processes in place with a range of stakeholders including the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Inland Fisheries Ireland, An Taisce, local authorities and the general public. There are also guidelines on matters such as water quality, landscape, biodiversity, archaeology and on sensitive species. Approximately 18% of the land area of Ireland is designated by Europe as special areas of conservation, SACs, or special protection areas, SPAs. There are also additional Irish designations such as natural heritage areas, NHAs, and national parks. Forest activities may be constrained in these designated areas.
Section 11 requires the Minister to have regard to the social, economic and environmental functions of forestry; to follow good forest practice; and to take particular account of the potential impact of forestry activities on different habitats and species in forests. Activities occurring within designated areas, or that have the potential to impact on such areas, must be screened for any adverse impact. Where it is considered that the activity has the potential to impact adversely on the designated area, the Minister will require the completion of an assessment of the impact of the forestry activity on the habitat, plant life, birds or animals so affected.
Sections 12 and 13 are technical provisions that place an onus on forest owners to notify the Minister if their forest is damaged or destroyed and also give the Minister the power to require information from forest owners and wood processing businesses for statistical or investigative purposes.
Section 14 is important in the context of forest protection. The years 2010 and 2011 were among the worst on record for land and forest fires in Ireland with many forest fires being caused by the burning of furze and scrub which spread to nearby forests. The forest estate suffered over 3,000 ha of damage during those two years. This provision allows the Minister to serve a notice on a landowner to remove vegetation from uncultivated land that is posing a threat to an adjoining forest or to authorise persons to enter the land and remove the vegetation.
Section 15 deals with the control of species such as grey squirrels and rabbits where they pose a threat to forests, and generally restates an existing provision in the Forestry Act 1946. It allows the Minister to serve notice on landowners requiring them to take specified action to protect trees from damage. Where land is unoccupied or the owner fails to comply with such notice, the Minister may authorise a person to enter the land and deal with the particular species.
Part 4 of the Bill deals with the important issue of felling licenses. The current licence system operated under the Forestry Act 1946 is now considered cumbersome given the needs of a modern forestry sector. There are currently two types of felling licence - a general felling licence and a limited felling licence. The Bill proposes to simplify the process by replacing the two existing licences with a single felling licence, the application for which will be made to the Minister in a specified format. There will no longer be a requirement for a person to lodge an application for a felling licence at the nearest Garda station. The licence will be valid for a period of up to ten years, which is a very significant development, as the existing legislation does not permit extension beyond five years.
When the Minister grants a licence, he or she may impose conditions including whether the land should be replanted. As one of the primary purposes of the afforestation programme is to maintain and increase the national forest area, the removal of the replanting requirement will only be considered in the most exceptional of cases. Unlicensed felling will continue to be an offence with penalties, on summary conviction, of €200 for every tree removed and-or imprisonment for six months. On conviction on indictment, penalties ranging to a maximum of €1 million and-or imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years may be imposed. These penalties are at the higher end of the scale reflecting the seriousness of the offence and the need for dissuasive measures to ensure that the forest estate is protected.
There are, however, a number of exemptions to the requirement for a felling licence listed in section 18 of the Bill. These include all trees within an urban area, trees that must be removed for public safety reasons, including in the aftermath of an accident, or to prevent the spread of fire, pests or disease; Christmas trees; and trees uprooted in a registered forest nursery for the purpose of transplantation. An important exemption from the licensing requirement, and one which will be welcomed by many landowners, is that they will be able to remove for their own use on the holding up to 15 cu. m of wood in any 12-month period, provided the trees are outside a forest and do not from part of a decorative avenue or ring of trees on the holding. The purpose of this is to allow farmers to exploit their wood resources for their personal use as a fuel source, for fencing or other purposes on the farm, in a limited and manageable way that continues to protect the natural beauty and landscape value of their holding. Notwithstanding the exemptions, the Bill in section 19 also enables the Minister to issue an order prohibiting the felling or removing of any tree, with penalties for those who do not comply.
With a view to ensuring that the conditions of a felling licence or a replanting order are respected, it is intended in section 20 to allow the Minister notify the Property Registration Authority, PRA, of the granting of a licence or the imposition of a replanting order so that these can be registered as a burden in the case of registered land and a deed where the land is unregistered. This will protect the purchaser of forestry land. Once the conditions of the licence or the order are satisfied, the Minister, on such notification by the owner, will inform the registering authority of the discharge of the burden or compliance with the conditions.
Many of the provisions of the Bill impose obligations on owners and other parties engaged in forestry activities and the enforcement provisions in Part 5 are vital to ensure compliance with those requirements. Section 21 allows the Minister to appoint authorised officers to enforce the various statutory provisions. These officers are normally departmental forestry inspectors. The powers of authorised officers are listed in detail in section 22 of the Bill.
They include the power of entry on to lands to inspect and remove, if necessary, any material considered a risk to trees and to remove records or other information relevant to the inspection or investigation. I will not elaborate further on the powers since the purpose and content of this provision is self-explanatory.
An important innovation is the provision in section 23 that allows an authorised officer to impose a fixed payment notice on an individual who, he has reasonable grounds for believing, has unlawfully felled or removed a tree or trees without a licence. In circumstances where the notice is imposed and paid by the offender within a specific period and where he consents to a replanting order, the person will not be prosecuted in the courts. This is an important improvement in the enforcement of the laws relating to illegal felling. It will remove the necessity for costly court cases and criminal convictions for minor offences while continuing to act as a deterrent to potential offenders.
Section 24 empowers the Minister to charge for licences and other services provided by the legislation. It is a matter of policy whether the Minister should charge for such services and its inclusion in the Bill should not be interpreted as a statement of intent at this point.
One of the important tenets of sustainable forest management is the regeneration of forests following felling. The licensing system outlined in the Bill is built on the premise that save in exceptional circumstances, forests that are felled must be replanted. Where illegal felling has occurred it is important, therefore, that the Minister has the power to impose an order on the offender compelling him to replant the area or an equivalent area within his ownership. Part 6, section 25 provides the Minister with such powers and makes it an offence if the offender fails to comply with the order.
Part 7 deals with offences and penalties and encompasses an extensive list of such offences in section 26. Offences range from submitting false or misleading information in support of an application for approval or a licence, to failure to comply with notices or other conditions or requirements. Important provisions include causing irremediable damage to a tree or intentional or reckless setting fire to trees. The penalties in section 26 range from €200 for damaging or removing a tree, to fines of up to €1 million and five years imprisonment for conviction on indictment of felling or removing trees without a licence. The penalties applicable, ranked according to the seriousness of the offences, are of necessity severe to act as a deterrent against wrong-doing or failure to comply with conditions set out in the legislation. Where an offence is committed by a body corporate, section 28 enables the Minister to prosecute both the body corporate and officers of the body corporate. Part 8, section 29 enables the Minister to make regulations relating to a range of forestry activities including afforestation, forest protection, forest roads, training and education.
Importantly, the regulations also include provision to prevent the entry into the State, or the control or extermination within the State, of insects, pests or invasive species which might threaten trees, an important provision having regard to the recent outbreak of ash dieback disease. Yesterday, the Department confirmed that for the first time in Ireland ash trees other than imported young trees have tested positive for ash dieback disease. These trees were detected in follow-up surveys of native hedgerows within and adjacent to the first confirmed positive plantation in County Leitrim. This was the first site in Ireland where Chalara was detected in October 2012 and where trees had been planted using imported trees from the Continent. To date, it remains the largest known outbreak of the disease in Ireland. The site was cleared of these young imported trees in October 2012. My officials have put in place a comprehensive eradication plan and works commenced on the ground yesterday to clear ash trees in the area within a buffer zone of 250 metres in an effort to eradicate the disease. We will continue this policy of eradication and keep the policy under constant review as ongoing results come in from the national ash surveys. The Bill includes an amendment to the Agriculture Appeals Act 2001 to extend its remit to several forestry activities.
I thank all Deputies for coming to the House this evening and for their attention. I look forward to engaging with everyone on the many issues of interest in the Bill. I believe we all share a common goal of ensuring that this legislation is fit for purpose and that it provides a solid basis for a strong indigenous forest industry, one which contributes greatly to the social and economic well-being of rural communities and which has a great deal to offer both environmentally and economically. I assure the House that any of the ideas that come to the House, especially on Second Stage, will be listened to and I will be only too willing to make the legislation amenable to everyone. I commend the Bill to the House.