Deputy Martin Ferris was in possession and 23 minutes remain in this speaking slot.
Forestry Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed)
I hope I am continuing at the right point because I am not sure where I finished the last day. Therefore, if I read a point twice into the record the Members will understand.
Perhaps the wording of section 6 is too vague and might be open to arbitrary compulsory purchases without the need to prove there is a public interest in doing so. Perhaps that section requires amendment to make more precise the circumstances under which a compulsory purchase might be made. We certainly do not want to have situations where for example land might be subject to a compulsory purchase order so that it could be then sold on to a commercial interest, as happened in the case of Bellanaboy, and as people have expressed concern in relation to wind farms. I do not believe there can be too much objection to the Minister having an input into forestry plans, as proposed in section 6(b) as there needs to be control over the manner in which forests in private ownership are used. However, there is perhaps scope for greater consultation between the Department and private owners in the framing of such plans.
As part of a plan to extract more value from the forests with a view to expanding the overall sector, perhaps it might be an idea to hold a consultation with private owners in order to find out how individual plans for the use of the forests might be co-ordinated with a national plan. There is the question of whether such a plan exists, as one of the complaints against Coillte from people with a direct interest in the sector is that there is no overall plan, or that if there is one, no one knows what it might be. Again that ties in with the overall perception and suspicion of Coillte as a body shrouded in secrecy and not subject to the transparency and inquiry that pertains to other public bodies. I suggest to the Minister that he make it a priority to frame a long-term plan for the forestry sector and that this be subject to debate and scrutiny at committee level in here, and to wider consultation with the private sector in forestry, and others with an interest in the use of the forests for recreational and other purposes. If that was to be carried out, the proposals in the Bill would not only make more sense but would be more broadly acceptable as they would be seen as part of a cohesive plan, rather than, as some suspect, simply the random conferring of extra powers without any real understanding of how they might be utilised.
That aspect also relates to section 10 which concerns the drafting, submission and approval of forestry management plans by owners of private forests. This is a sound proposal and one that is necessary to ensure that forestry in private ownership is properly utilised. However, perhaps more thought needs to go into the framing of such plans. Rather than individuals submitting their own plans based on the utilisation of their forestry, perhaps there could be local area management plans, centred on either the productive or amenity usage of the forestry. For example, an individual owner's plan for the utilisation of their forest might tie in with potential employment opportunities through the processing of the wood, or even in tourism projects. In general I can see no fault with the provisions to ensure the protection of existing forestry as outlined in Part 3 of the Bill. However, I reiterate what I said earlier regarding the role of Coillte in this regard.
While the regulations governing private forestry owners are quite strict, and will be tightened up if this legislation is passed, there appears to be little onus on Coillte to observe the same criteria in regard to the protection of the forestry and the natural environment for other plant and animal species related to the forest.
For example, Coillte sold 400 acres of public forestry land at Bellanaboy to the Corrib gas consortium in order that it might build a refinery there. As far as I am aware, an environmental impact assessment was not carried out in respect of the site and, since I became a Member in 2002, successive Ministers have repeatedly refused to explain the circumstances of that sale. While it is right and proper that private forestry owners have an obligation to protect the environment, surely the same obligation must also to apply to Coillte.
Concerns have also been expressed in respect of what is proposed in section 17 with regard to, for example, the regulation of tree felling and requirements relating to replanting. One objection is that the requirement to replace a felled tree with one of the same species imposes too much of a restriction on forestry owners in the context of how they might utilise their lands. While there is much emphasis on the need for management plans, it could be argued in this instance that the stringent conditions regarding replanting take no account of such plans. If, for example, a forestry plan submitted by an individual owner proposes that existing trees be replaced with a different species during the next replanting period, would such a move be automatically ruled out? There is considerable debate about different species and, in particular, about the replacement of imported pine species with native varieties. In general, this appears to be favoured and is a factor in the cultivation of trees suitable for processing into alternative fuels. Is there not a danger then that the provisions relating to replanting might impose overly stringent conditions and, therefore, prevent the transition to other species which have more economic potential and which could give rise to greater benefits?
Some people would argue along the same lines against the requirement in section 18 that felling licences will be required in order for landowners to thin trees. While there does need to be supervision of forestry in the context of the preservation of stock and so on, surely a large degree of discretion can be granted to and trust can be placed in individual owners when it comes to thinning, which is an essential part of forestry management. Does this not impose too many restrictions and introduce an unnecessary level of regulation? It has been pointed out that this has already given rise to a bureaucratic backlog, with officials unable to keep pace with the number of applications for felling licences. I understand that only half such applications are processed in the year in which they are made.
The language used in section 22 is quite harsh. In the past I have pointed out, in the context of farm regulations and the fisheries protection legislation introduced by the previous Government, that there is a tendency to use terms more appropriate to criminal activity and to criminalise bad practices on the part of farmers and fishermen. It appears the trend in this regard is being continued in the legislation before the House. Of course those who are engaged in fraudulent or other criminal behaviour must be subject to sanction. However, many involved in the rural economy are of the view that an unwarranted level of suspicion and bureaucracy obtains in respect of them. They are also of the opinion that the Bill continues this trend.
I look forward to the Minister of State's responses in respect of the issues which have been raised. I hope he will be in a position to take on board some of the points that have been made. It is important that the right framework for the development of forestry here is put into place. I hope this debate and the possible amendment of some sections of the legislation will contribute in that regard.
The next speaking slot will be shared by Deputies Halligan and Boyd Barrett. The Deputies have 30 minutes between them.
Ireland's forestry sector was once described as a sleeping giant, an asset with so much more to deliver to the economy in the context of providing income for forest owners through direct and indirect employment, exports and home-grown sustainable and renewable sources of energy. Output from the industry has been estimated at approximately €2.2 billion since 1994. Forestry has delivered an average output of 5.65% per annum. I am not definite that this is the actual figure and, if volatility is taken into account, it could be below 5%. This high-quality Irish asset is too often overlooked. The forestry service remains inadequately staffed and is ill-equipped to deal with the increasing volume of applications from those in the private forestry sector whose trees are rapidly approaching maturity. On the horizon are possible plans on the part of the State to sell off our forestry. That would be a retrograde step and it would constitute a terrible move in the long term.
On average, it currently takes approximately 12 months for a thinning or tree felling licence to be granted. That is ridiculous. I can say this because I live in the vicinity of the Comeragh Mountains and I know many of the people who work in the forests there. I have not even referred to the incredibly frustrating position in which forestry owners find themselves in the context of trying to organise contractors, sales deliveries and timely thinning. More than 19,500 landowners have planted in excess of 250,000 ha of forestry since 1980. Much of this is now ready for thinning. Forecasts indicate that the number of trees harvested from private forests will increase tenfold during the next 15 years. The Bill does not appear to contain anything much that will change the system used to grant licences. I may have missed something and, if I have, perhaps the Minister of State will point it out.
The rules and regulations which govern the forestry sector are extremely outdated. Any move to alter the position in this regard would be welcome. There is a great deal in the Bill which will add to the red tape with which forestry owners are already expected to deal. The administrative duties for which it makes provision will result in the imposition of further costs on the owners of forests and the staff of the forestry service. Despite the huge potential that exists in this area, the Bill contains little that will assist in increasing afforestation rates. The new management plan requirements - which will add another layer of bureaucracy - will be off-putting for forest owners. I have spoken to quite a few of the latter in respect of this issue.
There is a major challenge for the industry in the context of the protection of our forests. In this regard, I refer to the threat posed by forest fires. I have been informed that instead of providing supports, the Government is actually removing them. For example, grant aid is no longer available to forest owners who replant their lands after fire or storm damage. In 2012, the support available for the reconstitution of crops damaged by deer and frost was also removed. I would like the Minister of State to provide an update on any plans to reintroduce the relevant schemes. I am not stating that commitments were given but prior to the general election in 2011, reference was made to reintroducing some of the schemes which obtained in the past.
The new EU forestry strategy acknowledges the contribution of the forestry sector to rural development, growth and job creation. I am not sure but I understand that Ireland's total forest cover stands at 11%, which is one of the lowest levels in Europe. We need to do more to ensure that the economic, social, environmental and recreational benefits which can accrue from a vibrant forestry estate are recognised by compensating forest owners for the costs relating to forestry establishment and for the income they forego while their timber crops are maturing. We should consider the economic impact of the forestry sectors in countries such as Norway and Denmark and also the social, environmental and recreational benefits to which they have given rise. These countries are way ahead of Ireland in this matter. It is difficult to believe that our total forest cover stands at 11%. This figure has not changed for approximately 20 years. That is dreadful, particularly when one considers the amount of forestry land which could be made available to the State.
The taxation restrictions introduced in the Finance Act 2006 do not recognise the unique nature of growing forests, which only realise the full revenue at the end of a growth cycle. Such a cycle is commonly in the region of 40 years but it stretch to 50, 60 or 70 years. This issue must be addressed, particularly because it represents a considerable threat in the context of developing the industry. The latter is, of course, what we need to do in the coming years. The current number of logs harvested annually in Irish forests is not sufficient to meet demand from the processing sector. Logs continue to be imported, which is ridiculous.
People in forestry are aghast, shocked and taken aback that we have the potential to create extra employment and to develop the industry and yet shiploads of logs are imported into the country. That is criminal.
Demand continues to outstrip supply and this position will worsen as an increasing volume of timber residue and small logs will be required for the rapidly expanding wood industry sector. I know the Minister will do his best but if we look at the forestry sector and the current economic crisis, there is potential to create employment in and to develop recreational use. That can help the economy.
If we look at Norway, Sweden and Denmark, the number of people employed in the forestry sector in those countries has increased dramatically over a number of years but the number employed here appears to have stagnated and the figure of 11% has gone nowhere over the past 20 years. People in the industry in Europe find it quite shocking when they see the potential Ireland has. Forest owners here have set up committees and they meet people from Norway, Denmark, Sweden and other countries. They come back here astounded and shocked when they see the government input in those countries compared to that here. A small amount of investment in relative terms would help the economy over a long period of time. We are talking about 20 to 40 years but is that not what it is all about? It is about our children's children and everything we can do to sustain and grow the economy. This is where we are losing badly.
I keep harking back to this but I found it astounding when I was given the figure of 11% some years ago. In my constituency, if one leaves Waterford, one sees thousands of acres of forests extending to Clonmel, Carrick-on-Suir and elsewhere and the potential there for employment, recreational use and so on. I remember driving through those forests as a child but 30 or 40 years later, nothing has changed. We have not attempted to develop or create economic value from these forests, which is astounding. This is not a criticism of this Government.
I am disappointed we have not set out a strategy in the Bill for long-term development so that we can project how much money can be made over a period of 30 to 40 years and how jobs can be created. Strategies put forward in other countries, such as Norway, project 20 to 30 years ahead. They are now able to project how forestry will affect their economies and job creation in 20 to 30 years' time. It also affects the national debt because they will create or lose jobs and make money for the economy.
It looks as if I will vote against this Bill but I will speak to people today and tomorrow. I am very disappointed we have not made any economic projections. Many people working in the forestry industry will also be disappointed that much of what has happened here over the past 20 to 30 years will not change as a result of this Bill.
With the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's indulgence, I would like to dedicate my comments on this issue of Ireland's forests, which is very close to my heart and to the hearts of many people in this country, to my auntie, Silvia Stewart nee Boyd Barrett, who died on Sunday after a short and sudden illness. I have just come from her funeral. She was very proud to have a nephew elected to the Dáil and she was a big inspiration to me because her home was a place where there was great debate, discussion and ideas. The Ceann Comhairle would have known her quite well and her sister who died a few years ago. I would like to dedicate what I will say on this issue, about which she felt strongly, as do I, to my aunt Silvia.
We all join in that.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle.
It is kind of appropriate, in a way, to connect any discussion about Ireland's forests to things that are important to us, to people and to places which are important to us. A play I strongly recommend to people that has just opened is Frank McGuinness's new play, "The Hanging Gardens", which is about Irish families, the places they inhabit and their roots, the roots of people and of places. There was a beautiful line in the play spoken by the father of the family who was nearing his death. The family was gathering around him in the place that was most important to them. He said to his children, "Make your refuge of the things that are most precious to you". That was his advice to his children. I thought it was a very profound and poignant line because it was about those connections of people and places and roots which are important - our personal history but also our cultural history, our tradition - and how they link the past and the present to the future.
Nothing symbolises that relationship and those precious things as much as trees and forests - maybe even more so in this country. In these straitened economic times, there is an understandable tendency to look at every issue through the prism of the balance sheet, the monetary value, and how it can help the public finances. It is understandable that we have to do that but it is often a mistake and, in something like forestry, it would certainly be a grave mistake.
Any discussion about forests needs to begin with understanding how important they are to us as a culture, as something that helps identify us as a nation and to people in all sorts of ways. Of course, they have economic value, which is important, but the beginning of wisdom is to understand just how precious the forests are to the people of this country at every level. They mark our history in the sense that they were here long before us. They sustain our life now. Without them, there is literally no existence. They breath the air we need to survive. If we do not protect them, we will not survive.
In a Bill dealing with the management of Ireland's forests, we must recognise the absolute imperative of doing everything we can to protect and nurture them because they are so important at every level now and in the future.
During the real debate about whether we should sell our public forests, the people showed how much they cared and how important the issue was. I want to give credit to the Government for listening to people because I know it is under pressure. The people spoke and the Government listened and decided to keep the forests in public ownership. We need to go further now. It is not enough to protect them by keeping them nominally in public ownership - we need to manage and nurture them in a way that will protect them long into the future and will realise their value at every level. In addition to their financial value, our forests have a cultural value as public amenities. They are vital because they literally sustain our existence.
I want to support this Bill in that regard. When this House passes the Bill I want us all to be able to say that it safeguards the future of our forests. I have to be honest and say that at present it does not do that. It expresses at the level of general aspiration what we would all want to see, but it does not do it in a way that will guarantee Irish forestry is protected, nurtured and cultivated in a way that allows it to be what it can be.
We all know we are dealing with an historical legacy when we address the management of this country's forests. This country used to be a forest nation. At one time it was totally covered in forestry but that was decimated, because of the legacy of colonialism and empire, to the point where at the beginning of the 20th century our forests were almost gone. While this State has slowly improved that situation, we are still a long way short of where we should be at in terms of forestry. The comparisons with the rest of Europe are stark. Even though trees grow almost twice as quickly in Ireland as in anywhere else in Europe, because of our climate, we have the second lowest level of forest cover of any EU member state and the lowest level of native tree cover of any country in Europe.
Our native species comprise a tiny proportion of our national forest estate. That is something we have to change, for all sorts of reasons including their amenity value. The native forests that were devastated and destroyed are our forests. They are important at all kinds of other levels. The Bill seeks to uphold some of those values, such as the protection of the environment and the maintenance of biodiversity. We cannot do these things if we do not bring about a dramatic improvement in the level of native broadleaf forest cover. The monoculture forestry of foreign species is damaging for our environment and is not conducive to the cultivation of biological diversity. The various habitats found in our native forests create the environment for animal biodiversity. The Sitka spruce monoculture of evergreen forests does not protect, nurture or enhance biodiversity; in fact, it damages it. This type of forestry leads to extensive acidification of our rivers and other waterways. Many reports suggest that this problem is at a dangerous level and cannot get any worse without poisoning our environment in a serious way. Native species deal with that problem. They do not cause such damage. They protect water, biodiversity and the environment.
We need a radical expansion of forest cover in this country to meet the targets we have set. We are aiming to have 17% forest cover by 2030. The long-term target is 30% forest cover, which would bring us up to the EU average. We are currently far short of that. The Bacon report suggested that we should be planting between 10,000 and 15,000 hectares of trees each year, but we have dramatically failed to achieve that. We are planting approximately 5,000 hectares of afforestation annually, on average, which is far short of the targets we need to meet if we are to adhere to the Kyoto climate change targets and our own stated objectives for increasing forest cover. We need to diversify the species mix and expand the amount of native broadleaf cover. It is stipulated that there must be a reasonable mix of native and foreign species when afforestation is taking place, but there is no such stipulation in the case of the replanting that is required when trees are cut down. There is no requirement that at least 50% of the trees that are planted during reforestation should be native species. That has to change. A specific provision to that effect should be included in the Bill. A species mix is needed when we are replanting after trees have been cut down, as well as when we are planting new forests. That is just one example of the sort of thing that needs to change if we are to meet our own targets.
The problem is that nothing in this Bill really ties us into meeting the objectives that have been set. We should be providing for binding targets instead of general aspirations. There is concern that many environmental organisations that are involved with forestry have not had a chance to make an input into this Bill. In the section of the programme for Government relating to legislation, the Government said there would be a shift towards pre-legislative consultations that would allow stakeholders and concerned groups to make an input in advance of Second Stage debates. We should be able to hear the forestry organisations' ideas on issues like afforestation; problems like clear felling, the industrialisation of forestry and the damage caused to the environment by monoculture; and the vital need for community and public participation in the management and control of our forests. These matters came up again and again the last time the groups were asked to make submissions, which was five, six or seven years ago. No such consultation has taken place on this occasion, even though it is important to update the input into the drafting of this legislation of experts and people who care. Sadly, the legislation reflects that fact. It is general and aspirational.
Ultimately, most of the power to deliver on the generally good aspirations in the Bill will be in the hands of the Minister, who will be responsible for the detail. There is no mention at all of the committees the Minister will be given the power to establish, or the role of community participation in trying to meet the goals and objectives of the Bill. Experts from the academic world, environment and forestry groups and other amenity users should be able to make an input into the development of the sort of forest policy we need. This has not happened.
I talked to some of those groups in recent days and they were angry that the Bill is even before us. Although they want this Bill, they thought they would have a chance to have an input into it. God knows they have shown in the past six months how much they care. We should see it as a positive that people who have a passion for forestry, who want to develop it and who see its value and importance want an input into the legislation that will develop and manage our forestry. I ask the Government in all sincerity to stall the process after Second Stage to allow for public consultation and submissions before the Bill is moved on to Committee Stage when the Bill will be amended in order that we hear those voices. I do not mean the Bill should be stalled forever - we want the Bill - but let us have a chance for people to come in.
A glaring omission is that the forestry review report, which was a good review, is also doubling up as a strategic environmental assessment of our forests, but it is doing so without the promised review of Coillte. At the same time that the forestry review was set up and started, there was supposed to be a review of Coillte. I believe, although I do not know for sure, that that review was begun but was never completed or published. How can we have a Bill to manage our forests when we do not have a review report of the biggest owner of forests? Coillte controls 50% of the forests. The Government cannot be serious about what we need to do for forestry if we do not know what is going on inside Coillte. As much as I and others fought hard against Coillte's sale, we did so in the knowledge that it has problems. We all know that, and everybody on every side of the House and at the committees when the matter has been discussed acknowledges that to be the case. We need a serious review to be completed to inform the Bill in order that it is up to standard and meets our requirements for managing our forests.
We recently discussed the Freedom of Information Bill. Some Members feel that the Bill has omissions in that semi-State enterprises are excluded from its provisions. Coillte is one such body and is therefore excluded from that Bill, which is a problem. We are talking about the public forest estate for which the public has demonstrated its passion and to which it has demonstrated its attachment, and we are not allowed to ask questions about what is going on inside a company we own, and there are serious question marks over the sale of forest land in recent years. I think the sales run into the hundreds of millions of acres. I do not have the figures in front of me, but significant areas of forest land were sold. In fact, the only way Coillte has made money in recent years is by selling off forestry. Serious questions must be asked about why it is no longer planting new forests, about the Derrybrien calamity, which saw a mountain collapse despite prior warnings, and about all sorts of other things that I do not have the time to go into.
I want a Bill passed that will do justice to the importance of our forests as amenities and as part of our culture. I have not even had the time to go into the huge potential of forestry for the creation of jobs if we are to meet our targets for 30% or even 70% forest cover. That could be an enormous boost for the country. However, none of that can be done without the information, consultation and participation of the people who care and know about our forests. I urge the Government to heed that appeal and bring those people in before we move on to the amendment Stage.
Is it agreed that Deputies Heather Humphreys and Michael Creed will share their time? Agreed.
First, I extend my sympathy to Deputy Boyd Barrett on the loss of his aunt. He was obviously close to her and I know he will miss her.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Forestry Bill 2013. The forestry sector plays an important role in our economy, particularly in rural areas. The fact that forestry cover nationally stands at 11% shows what an important national asset it is. It brings significant benefits, including rural employment and exports, and it is also of significant social, recreational and environmental value.
Almost half of our forestry is privately owned by farmers, and it is important that their voice is heard when finalising the Bill's details. I recently met an IFA delegation who expressed concerns about certain aspects of the Bill. It is widely acknowledged that the rules and regulations which govern the forestry industry need to be updated. The licensing system operates under the Forestry Act 1946. The legislation is almost 70 years old and is clearly no longer appropriate for a modern forestry sector.
There is also a need to reduce the level of red tape and bureaucracy that farmers face, but there are concerns that aspects of the Bill may have the opposite effect. I have been told that the fines associated with felling a tree without a licence or in contravention of a condition of a licence are excessive. There are times when, in the interest of safety, a tree may need to be cut urgently and it is felt that fines should be in line with the nature of the offence and take account of the circumstances involved.
I welcome the proposals to simplify the granting of a felling licence process by replacing the two existing licences with a single felling licence. The removal of the requirement for an application to be lodged at a Garda station is also a positive development. It will make the application process considerably easier for farmers and should also reduce the lengthy waiting times for a licence.
I also welcome the provision to allow farmers to remove up to 15 cu. m of wood for their own use in any 12 month period provided the trees are outside a forest. This would allow farmers to use their wood for their personal use. This is important for farmers in rural areas where wood is a vital fuel resource for many, particularly given the rising price of oil and heating costs.
There is concern, however, about the requirement that a person wishing to fell trees as part of good management practices, such as general thinning operations, will need to apply for a licence. I ask the Minister to consider amending this section to reduce the administrative burden on farmers. I also ask the Minister to take on board the concerns expressed by the farming community about the powers that are to be conferred on authorised officers under the Bill which far surpass the responsibilities of existing enforcement bodies and may act as a major disincentive for those considering forestry as a land use option. Similarly, there are serious concerns about the powers that are to be conferred on the Minister of the day, particularly on the function to compulsorily purchase land suitable for forestry.
The forestry sector has the potential to make a significant contribution to our economic recovery if the necessary supports are provided. There is huge demand for timber globally, and we need to ensure Ireland is well placed to take advantage of this growing demand. I therefore ask that consideration be given to setting a goal for timber production which could act as a similar template to Food Harvest 2020 for the agrifood industry.
I commend the Minister on treating this matter as a priority and on bringing this legislation before the House. However, if we are to realise the potential of the forestry sector, it is important we get the Bill right. I ask the Minister to take account of the concerns I have outlined and consult the farming community before finalising the legislation.
I thank Deputy Heather Humphreys for sharing her time with me. I congratulate Deputy Tom Hayes on his appointment as Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. In that role, he is responsible for the forestry sector.
I wish to take up a point that has been referred to by one of the previous speakers. It is not all about the economics of forestry, which are very significant. The impact of a thriving forestry sector can be much more than just its economic value. In that context, as a proud Tipperary man, I am sure the Minister of State will search long and hard to find a more appropriate testimony to the significance of forestry than that contained in the Lament for Kilcash or Caoine Cill Cháis. I am sure many of us learned this poem long ago in school. It began with the lines "Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmad? Tá deireadh na gcoillte ar lár; níl trácht ar Chill Cháis ná ar a teaghlach is ní chluinfear a cling go brách." Kilcash is in the Minister of State's constituency and was the home of the Butlers. The poem is a lament for, among other things, the lady of the House who was one of the Butlers but also for the demise of Irish forestry and the woodlands around Kilcash. The line relates to a reference by previous speakers to the impact of a positive forestry sector. The poem goes on to reflect on the biodiversity that forestry supports such as the ducks' voices, the geese, the eagle's cry, the bird's song and the bees and refers to "no hazel nor holly nor berry". If the Minister of State wants appropriate motivation for the forestry sector and what can be achieved, I would advise him to frame a copy of that poem and hang it in his Ministerial office because it is a testimony to the fact that long before the establishment of this House, we had very substantial forestry cover.
It is already there.
At the beginning of the 20th century, this cover dropped to approximately 1%. The European average is in the region of 35% while our average is about 11%. I accept that this Bill is not the be-all-and-end-all. It is not going to cure all the ills of the forestry sector and it is about setting out a regulatory framework. However, it is important to acknowledge that forests are much more than just the economic value they bring to the nation's balance sheet. Reference has been made to biodiversity but also to our greenhouse gas emissions and the contribution forestry makes to the regulation of global climate and temperature. They are all very significant issues in respect of which we have global obligations and targets to meet.
I am not sure that it would be appropriate to stitch into this legislation targets for afforestation levels. However, it is important that this legislation gets the balance right in terms of the regulatory framework. It begs the question "cad a dhéanfaimid anois leis an mBille seo?" I am not sure that we have got the balance right. From my reading of it, it is an administrator's charter. It really does not seem to grasp the fact that if the forestry sector is to thrive and if we are to achieve targets of first 17% and then 30%, they will not be achieved through State afforestation, significant as that role will be. We will largely depend on the private forestry sector and farmers in particular to meet those targets. There is much in this Bill that will frighten landowners. It might be appropriate between now and Committee Stage to reflect on some of the contributions that have been made in that context and take on board the points that are being made.
It is a very significant economic sector that is valued in excess of €2 billion. Rural Ireland is trotted out as if it is a homogenous area but forestry is a particularly important sector in areas where the traditional farming practices of dairy or beef farming are not as prevalent or significant in the local economy. This is predominantly marginal land. In terms of the ambitious targets of 17% and 30% we hope to meet, the fact is that we will be moving on to much more productive land and that is an issue that brings with it considerable cultural difficulties. I thought Deputy Boyd Barrett's contribution was very fine but there are different cultures at play. There is an urban culture which obviously relishes its inhabitants' opportunity to walk in woodlands but there is a rural culture that is very reluctant to embrace the concept of increased afforestation on what is considered good land. Good land will be afforested to a greater extent than it was in the past - certainly in the history of this State - if we are to meet those targets. If we are to do that, we need a cultural change and an educational initiative to sell the opportunities that come with it. I am not sure that the framework is appropriate in terms of what is in the legislation.
It is an industry worth €2.2 billion that employs somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people. They are mostly in areas where the land is of marginal quality. It is those who are directly involved in ownership but there are downstream industries in timber processing, haulage and associated services so it is a very significant industry and one where the legislation has been found to be significantly out of date. My colleague referred to it. I am not sure when the previous legislation was introduced - possibly 60 or 70 years ago - but it is long due an updating.
It must also be acknowledged that while we started from a very low base, private concerns involved in forestry have been the ones who have stepped up to the plate in terms of meeting targets for increased afforestation. More than 20 years ago, there was virtually no private forestry and State forestry and subsequently Coillte was the predominant player. Twenty years ago, it was a balance of 70% to 30% between the State and the private sector. Due to initiatives, encouragement and an appropriate framework, we now have almost a 50:50 balance between public and private forestry. The targets we set for a higher level of afforestation will only be met if we have the appropriate framework for private investment and that is the challenge.
The Bill contains things that are excessive. Section 6(e) refers to "land suitable for afforestation or for any other forestry-related activities". The inference I read from that section is that such land can be compulsorily purchased. If we are to encourage the private sector to get involved in forestry, the idea of Big Brother having compulsory purchase powers over land suitable for forestry strikes the wrong note completely. In his response, could the Minister of State tell me what the rationale for the inclusion of that provision in the Bill is?
Most of us in rural constituencies and certainly those of us from farming backgrounds would be aware of the cumbersome nature of felling licences. Much of what is contained in respect of reform there is welcome. Dangerous trees can be felled in a much speedier manner, which is particularly welcome. In respect of the replanting requirement, the Minister of State is, for the purposes of the legislation, mentioned as having all of these powers. He can attach conditions to replanting lands that have been clear-felled and can do so in a manner that can impact on the title of the land.
Sledge hammers cracking nuts come to mind. It is inappropriate and potential investors in forestry will be frightened away if they think their opportunities to maximise returns from their land holdings may be compromised by the State obliging them to do something. If they can show they can get a better economic return through a different approach, that should be open to consideration. People will be slow to sign up to forestry management plans if the Minister is able to impose conditions on replanting without appropriate consultation or reference to the potential for adverse economic impacts on forestry owners and their entitlement to compensation from the State where they are obliged to do something else. This issue is related to the imbalance in forestry policy between native species and spruce and other imports, which are currently predominate. We need to take a co-operative approach rather than wield the big stick. There is too much of the stick in this Bill.
I look forward to engaging with the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, on Committee Stage but I ask whether the amount of consultation that has been pursued to date was sufficient to take account of the views of the industry. The people to whom I have spoken think the suggestions they made as part of the consultation process for the Bill, which has had a long gestation, are not reflected in its contents.
Section 26(1) provides:
A person who, in applying for a grant, loan, registration, licence or approval under the relevant statutory provisions -
(a) furnishes information, or
(b) makes a statement,
that he or she knows to be false or misleading in a material respect, shall be guilty of an offence.
Most people who get into forestry employ a forester to manage their lands. Given that most of these professionals have professional indemnity insurance, if they are in breach of regulations or obligations in respect of sustainable forestry management is it appropriate to penalise the landowner rather the agent who is acting in a professional capacity?
This legislation was never going to become the be-all and end-all for the forestry sector. Forestry is an important part of our economy and it plays a significant role in a range of areas, from recreation and biodiversity to climate change and greenhouse emissions. I acknowledge what Coillte has done in regard to recreational forestry.
I beg the Acting Chair's indulgence if I make reference to a case I encountered through my constituency office involving a former employee of Coillte who retired on a pension of €30 per week after 30 years of service. That is a gross offence to an individual who gave long service to a State company, particularly when others in that company have retired on enormous pensions. I will give the Minister of State the details of the case so that he might examine them.
Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit. Is é seo an chéad Bhille atá tugtha faoi bhráid na Dála aige, go bhfios dom, ina ról mar Aire Stáit a bhfuil freagracht ar leith aige i leith foraoiseachta. Os rud é go dtagann sé as Contae Thiobraid Árann, ní fhéadfainn gan a rá leis:
Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmad?
Tá deireadh na gcoillte ar lár.
Caithfidh mé cuairt a thabhairt ar Chill Chais am éigin.
I welcome this opportunity to discuss the forestry industry. It is often treated as Cinderella when it comes to land use in Ireland but, as other speakers have noted, afforestation offers many benefits. However, we should remember it is one of several competing uses for land. Contrary to what many people think, the better the land, the better the forestry. It is not as simple as forestry being confined to marginal land while the good land is used solely for agriculture.
I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, to follow the example of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine in dealing with this Bill. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, took on board a significant number of amendments to the Animal Health and Welfare Bill 2012 and he took all of our proposals seriously. On Report Stage he either accepted our amendments or came back with his own alternatives. The IFA has raised issues with the Forestry Bill. The best way of dealing with the issues raised by the IFA or anybody else - the IFA does not have a monopoly on raising issues - is to tease them out on Committee and Report Stages to decide whether their concerns are valid and how we might work collectively to improve the legislation.
If the debate on the Seanad and Dáil reform are to have any relevance, we must improve the way in which we scrutinise legislation. Unfortunately, the media often describe the business of this House in terms of votes and confrontations. They seem to think that Ministers never listen to rational or reasonable arguments put forward by Opposition Members. If an amendment stands up to scrutiny as part of the tedious work done on Committee Stage, it is incumbent on the Minister concerned to take it on board irrespective of who proposes it. However, if an amendment is shown to be superfluous or without foundation, the Minister is perfectly right to reject it. When we do this type of work we must forget about party divisions and recognise that all of us can play a role. The role of Opposition is to voice the concerns that are raised with us and to decide whether the counter-arguments hold water. If we take this approach to legislating we will be able to deal with serious issues.
I have great sympathy for those who see more bureaucracy in many of the provisions we make in this House. I do not know how many times over the years, whether in government or opposition, I have been assured that the process to be followed will be so simple that it will not require delays or paperwork. Inevitably, the process in question did not work out that way. We should be careful to ensure there is a purpose to every regulation and that the information sought will be used. We must not ask anybody to do anything that is not strictly to the benefit of society.
Many ordinary people, particularly those in small operations, find that the amount of paperwork involved in the simplest processes is horrendous.
We keep discussing necessary reforms of the Houses. I bet Members that, if we held a referendum on changing how the Oireachtas operates and another on getting answers to letters and decisions on applications from the State in good time, it would be 10:1 in favour of the latter. I must wait more than a year for a decision from the Ombudsman. The State has become bogged down in process and untimely decision making.
As the Minister of State knows, I raised a question a number of weeks ago about delays in the issuing of planting licences. I understand that there is some toing and froing between his Department and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS. It is not right that people must wait while two Government bodies pass the parcel on decisions. We must introduce legislation on time limits on decision making. A planning application takes eight weeks and one must jump when asked for further information before a decision is given. It should be the case that, unless there is a valid response to a licence application within a fixed time, that licence should be automatically granted. Bureaucratic delays are costing money.
I have had a long association with forestry. I started work in Corr na Mona on 2 January 1974. In 1978, I was involved in the setting up of a fencing stake mill. I knew nothing about forestry, but I learned fast and furious. The successor company on the same site, ECC Teoranta, is probably known to the Minister of State as one of the largest timber mills in the country. In fairness to Connacht Gold and P. J. Fahy, they have made a success of that mill. It started as a lamb fattening station, but fattening mountain lambs in a shed proved not to be the most economic prospect after the oil crisis.
Since then, I have witnessed significant change in the timber and forestry industries. When I was involved, there was no Coillte Teoranta. Everything belonged to the Department. It is fair to say that those forests were well managed. The situation changed and Coillte Teoranta was established. I do not agree with the popular belief that Coillte Teoranta does not have a central role in afforestation. As a State company, it should be encouraged to afforest more land and to have a planting policy. It should not merely become the manager of an existing State forest. Given its know-how and skill, it should be part of the national drive to plant. Any private planting is actually funded by the taxpayer. It would be cheaper to have Coillte plant more forest, as the taxpayer would not need to provide direct funding. I foresee a considerable role for Coillte.
I welcome the decision not to proceed with a foolish policy. Everyone in the industry from workers and timber millers to recreational users welcomed how the Government drew back from selling the forest crop. I do not doubt that the Minister of State was very relieved when the Cabinet decided not to sell Coillte. However, we should not assume that the issue has now been addressed. Coillte has more potential and should not be left as is. We should view it as a leading edge development company with a large land resource.
I do not believe in merging Bord na Móna and Coillte. Their raisons d'être are fundamentally different. However, there is no reason for a lack of total co-operation in those parts of their businesses that overlap.
I will address this issue in two segments, the first of which is the development of the timber industry. The construction industry used to use very little Irish timber in construction. We were told that it was too damp and not up to standard. The change in the past 15 to 20 years has been extraordinary - kiln drying, stress testing, other technical innovations and better management of quality control in timber mills. Not only is Irish timber acceptable on the Irish market, but it has 5% of the British market.
We often discuss the large down sides of the past five years, the terrible fallout for construction, etc. The construction industry has seen significant unemployment. What is often overlooked is the fact that, in 2008, between 70% and 80% of major timber mills' sales were to the domestic construction market. They have managed to change this situation with no loss of employment and just a few weeks of short-term working. Now, 70% to 80% of their timber is being exported to Britain. We should salute those in the industry, including Coillte Teoranta, which worked with the mills through a difficult period. Had Coillte been sold off, it would not have been able to save our timber industry. We should also salute the processors, who adopted an extraordinary get-up-and-go attitude instead of crying about a major problem. They got out on the road and decided that, with their home market gone, they needed to get into export markets. They did so successfully. In the past five years, they have invested in further technological developments so as to produce better product and compete in export markets. It is important to note that the industry's exports are worth €303 million to this economy.
This example shows the major advantage of resource-based industries. If they move upmarket, pursue technological improvements and develop their products, they will hang in during the bad times when overseas industries might decide to move elsewhere. I always place a large premium on indigenous industry. My argument for investment in and State support for indigenous industry is that, if supported, it is less likely to leave during a downturn. Basically, it has nowhere to go. The people involved are from this island and their operations are based here. Obviously, multinationals consider the world stage. I am not saying that we should not have multinationals, but we should encourage our resource-based industry. We must also continue pursuing technological innovation.
Our large timber mills are producing high volumes of high-quality standard products. When I was involved in exporting timber to Germany, I was always fascinated by its large number of micro-timber industries. They produced everything from garden paving to products that tended to be done in concrete in Ireland. At the time, arguments were put forward to the effect that our timber was not as suitable.
Many of those technical issues can be resolved if we develop the right technology. It is important to invest in technological development such as the Marine Institute does for the maritime sector and Teagasc does for agriculture. We should examine the forestry industry to discover if there are other uses for our timber.
There are major possibilities for indigenous timber in the energy sector and the Western Development Commission has done a lot of work in that regard. There are also challenges because burning wet timber does not provide much heat. There are ways to overcome that problem, but a concerted programme is required. Nonetheless, every forest product is important.
In addition, afforestation is important for nature reserves, including as a habitat for the red squirrel which has been under threat in the east. West of the Shannon, however, it seems to have withstood the ravages of the grey squirrel. Many other wildlife species inhabit our forests also. The State must look beyond the purely commercial value of public goods, as well as recognising the contribution of State and private owners to wider environmental issues. Carbon sequestration is another major benefit.
Having been in the timber industry, I was in the unusual position of winding up as Minister with responsibility for rural recreation. Some 45% of the country's waymarked ways are over Coillte lands. If Coillte was not in the equation, we effectively would not have such waymarked ways. I pay tribute to Coillte for its early recognition of the part it could play in rural recreation and the company's willingness to invest in it.
When the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform works out the dividend for Coillte, he should give a rebate from that dividend for the public goods element of its work, particularly if the company can prove it is investing in such matters as rural recreation which is so important for tourism.
It is important not to have over regulation in forestry. There is a balance to be struck in laying down broad powers for the Minister who may say that he or she would not use them unreasonably, and on the other hand not having a workable system. We should take our time with this Bill and ensure that in every stage of the afforestation process - including planting, growing, felling and replanting - the requirements are balanced. There should not be a surfeit of regulations for small amounts of work.
We cannot seem to get into our heads, either here or in the EU, the idea of de minimus. The process for felling a few hectares of forest should be a lot different to what is involved in felling an entire forest. We must ensure that in areas of ecological sensitivity we will preserve the ecology, while on the other hand being able to operate a commercial business.
I wish the Minister of State well in his new appointment. While his portfolio may not have the biggest profile, he can make a major contribution to progress in the areas under his Department's aegis. We are all agreed that forestry is good and by working together we can try to make sure that we will have a vibrant forestry industry that complements the country's superb agricultural industry.
I welcome the new Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, to the House. I am delighted he has ensured that the Government reversed the decision of the previous government to sell Coillte or our forests. That is very much appreciated. That was the previous Government's policy and it was agreed with the troika.
It was not our policy. Even the Minister of State is laughing at Deputy Bannon.
The Deputy need not laugh. It is a fact and I know the truth hurts him a great deal.
Deputy Bannon should speak to the Bill, please.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Forestry Bill 2013 which seeks to update existing forestry law. Forestry is vital to the livelihoods of many farmers across the country, particularly in the midlands.
Priorities in the forestry sector on economic, agricultural and environmental grounds have changed significantly since the Forestry Act 1946. Forestry premiums and grants provide farmers with an annual income stream from their woodlands and the industry provides significant employment like Glennon Brothers in Longford, which this year celebrates 100 years in the processing business.
The Forestry Bill 1945 was enacted at a time when the national forest estate was much smaller. Forestry activity was mainly undertaken by the State when we had strict control of felling because of severe timber shortages. The increasing volume of timber being harvested has become cumbersome in the context of the felling licence system, whose updating is long overdue. The requirement that all limited felling notifications must be lodged through a local Garda station, which was an outdated process, is no longer required.
Direct output in Ireland's wood products sectors, including panel board mills, saw mills and other wood products sectors, was €1.3 billion in 2010. The total direct and indirect value to the economy of the three wood processing sectors was €2.2 billion. The average employment figure for the forest sector as a whole is estimated at close to 12,000, the majority of whom are employed in rural areas like Longford and Westmeath, where jobs are provided across the sector in activities such as growing, harvesting and processing.
One of the new Minister of State's first actions was to visit Glennon Brothers' establishment in Longford. He got a great insight from two Longford entrepreneurs on how the industry works. The Minister of State was fairly experienced in this industry before taking over the portfolio. At parliamentary party meetings and in this Chamber he has always made valuable contributions in debates on the agricultural sector and forestry in particular.
There has been a significant increase in demand for forest-based biomass and lower value firewood. Glennon Brothers sawmills in Longford is one of the largest sawmills in Ireland, employing over 300 people. Glennon Brothers and similar companies export volumes of high category timber mainly to markets in the UK, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Overall timber demand - that is, biomass for renewables and conventional demand for the timber processing sector - is expected to increase over the next decade.
To avoid medium-term shortfalls in wood fibre and to meet the demands of our export driven timber processing sector, mobilisation of the private forest timber resource is necessary. We must simplify the current licence granting system.
Currently, there are two types of felling licence, a general felling licence which allows a person to cut down trees as part of normal forest management practices, including forest thinning and clear-felling, and a limited felling license which allows a person to cut down trees other than for normal forest management reasons, including trees located in hedgerows. This is further complicated by the necessity to notify the Garda Síochána of all applications for a limited felling licence. This process has become cumbersome because of the increasing volume of timber being harvested, in particular from the private sector. While in theory it should take only two months for a felling or thinning licence to be granted, this process currently takes up to 12 months, causing a lot of grief for forestry owners trying to organise contractors, sales deliveries and timely thinning. The Bill aims to streamline this process by removing the need for notification of all applications for a limited felling licence to the nearest Garda station and providing that, in future, all applications will be made to the Minister for a single felling licence, thus replacing the tedious dual system of general and limited felling licences.
Where a person wants to fell or remove a tree that is not exempted, he or she must apply to the Minister for a licence. The application must contain the particulars of the tree or trees concerned. A licence is valid for a period not exceeding five years. I would argue that for standard plantation forestry, a felling licence should be valid for a considerably longer period than five years as provided for in the Bill and should include all thinnings up to the final felling of a forest. This would reduce unnecessary cumbersome work that would otherwise slow down the process.
I am concerned that this Bill has no firm goal and contains little or no developmental or promotional aspect in regard to forestry. According to expert opinion, the annual planting rates for trees needs to be increased by more than 300% if our target of 18% coverage by 2030 is to be reached. No reference is made in the Bill to a target planting of approximately 16,000 hectares per annum. I am concerned at the long list of offences and penalties contained in Part 7 and the almost draconian approach to dealing with them. This represents a missed opportunity to rid our regulatory framework of unnecessary red tape. More than 19,500 landowners, mostly farmers, have planted in excess of 250,000 hectares since 1980, much of which is now ready for thinning. This is a rapidly maturing private forestry sector and we need to allow it to grow.
There are numerous benefits to forestry for farmers, forest owners and the wider economy. On top of premium payments, forest owners can avail of returns from thinnings due to the increasing popularity of wood energy and the clear-felling of their forestry plantation. Forestry is of long-term economic benefit to the economy in that it generates jobs and contributes to our national exports. It is also benefits the environment and is of recreational and amenity value to society in general.
I welcome this Bill and hope that the Minister might take into account some of my concerns.
I welcome the Bill and congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, on his recent appointment to office. Coming from a part of the country where the sector is of some significance, he will be committed to the industry. I wish him well in during his tenure in office. It is appropriate to remember at this time the Minister of State's predecessor, the late Shane McEntee, who, in his capacity as Minister of State with responsibility for forestry, served with distinction, great energy, passion and commitment.
The Minister of State, Deputy Hayes, has been at pains to point out that the purpose of this Bill is primarily to streamline and simplify the various processes associated with forestry. This is to be welcomed. I welcome that the licence system operated under the Forestry Act 1946, as it pertains to felling licences, is to be changed and that following enactment of this legislation, licences will be valid for up to ten years rather than five years.
The Minister of State said with regard to section 24 and the charging for felling licences and other services provided by the legislation that 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. I would welcome a more concrete and definitive statement in regard to what the State expects to receive for the issuing of licences and the administration of services. I raise this point because, like many Deputies from certain parts of the country, I, too, deal regularly with forestry representations from constituents.
If we want to get the most out of this potentially very valuable sector, change is required. The State severely dented confidence in the sector with the significant reduction three years ago of annual premiums. An afforestation contract between landowner and State is a big step. In essence, it is a commitment to tie up one's land to forestry in perpetuity. This is a big step, one never taken lightly by the landowner. To have the terms of this contract changed subsequent to signing can only make landowners wary of future investment or land use change. In addition, the current initiative by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in relation to repayments in respect of remapping leaves much to be desired. In one particular case with which I have been dealing, the Department is seeking the repayment of moneys dating back to 1998. I do not agree with this and believe that the Statute of Limitations should apply in such cases. I can understand and appreciate the need to recoup moneys, but this should not be achieved by the changing of parameters a number of years down the line. I would welcome if the Minister of State would address this point in his Second Stage response.
Irish forestry has changed significantly over the past 25 years. Thirty years ago, 30% of forestry was in private ownership. There are currently 17,000 private forest owners, with an average forest size of ten hectares, representing 47% of all forestry. This significant growth in our private forest estate is fast becoming a considerable wood and energy resource. Most of the private forest estate has been established over the past two decades, with many areas now entering the first thinning stage. This presents us with a huge opportunity and an even greater challenge. I do not believe we are properly positioned to maximise the benefit. The economics of thinning relatively small forests has not been dealt with properly. Many forest owners in County Clare tell me that they cannot get contractors to do a first thinning on a relatively small plot because the value of the thinning will not cover the cost of doing it. This is simply a matter of scale in machinery. There is not an infinite window to get it right. If we do not or cannot thin properly now, we will not have a premium timber product in 15 or 20 years time.
I would like to see acknowledged in the Bill that what works for large Coillte type forests might not be appropriate for 47% of our national resource. It would be a travesty if small ten hectare forests were not to achieve their potential because of a lack of proper management. The timber industry is now splitting into two definitive sectors, namely, timber product and green energy. While this is welcome, there are inherent dangers in this regard. Finsa Forest Products in Scariff, County Clare, a significant player in the production of various timber board and a significant employer in east Clare, unfortunately no longer manufactures, resulting in the loss of many jobs. Among the many reasons for its closure was that it could not compete against the newly State subvented energy sector in the purchase of pulpwood.
I say this to ensure the Minister is aware of the need to continue to strike a balance between timber and energy production in the forestry sector. The Department must address this difficulty as soon as possible.
In referring to the Finsa company in Scarriff, I find it peculiar, when driving through east County Clare, that I persistently encounter timber lorries leaving the county. This area is one of the most afforested regions in the State, yet all the raw materials are moved out of it. It would be appropriate for the Minister of State with responsibility for forestry to liaise and work with the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to seek to maximise employment in the timber industry in County Clare. Afforested areas are often those areas where land is not of the best quality and one often finds a correlation between forestry and areas of economic disadvantage. There is a need and an opportunity in County Clare, specifically east Clare, to develop a sustainable, job creating timber and wood energy industry. I invite the Minister of State to visit County Clare to meet public representatives and other interested parties to explore this potential.
I welcome and support this legislation and wish the Minister of State well as he steers his first Bill through the House.
I welcome aspects of this Bill, which will be judged on the basis of whether it inhibits people from entering the forestry industry. A report published by the Irish Farmers' Association raised concerns in this regard. I also welcome the decision to remove from the Government's agenda - hopefully permanently - the proposal to sell off Coillte forests. An IMPACT commissioned report by Dr. Peter Bacon concluded that the sale of Coillte forests would have been a massive financial error and would have generated major losses for the State. It would also have had implications for the amenity aspects of forestry.
My constituency of Dublin South-West takes in part of the Dublin mountains, which are a popular location for leisure activities. Given that the Dublin and Wicklow mountains are close to the edge of the capital, one frequently hears about anti-social activity in the area, for example, thefts from cars belonging to visitors and walkers. While the Bill does not address that issue, we should take action to deal with this wider societal problem.
We must also encourage more people to use our forest amenities. Public access to Coillte lands was a major concern for those who opposed plans to sell off our forests. Given the problem of obesity and other health problems, it is important to make forests more accessible and open for people who wish to engage in activities such as walking. We need to encourage the view that forests are part of our heritage, rather than something on the margins. If we get young people involved through scouting and youth groups, we will instil a greater appreciation of the environment and so forth.
It is difficult to obtain information about Coillte. One report indicated the sale of the company could generate €1.3 billion. Public representatives do not have an opportunity to query decisions made by Coillte. While it is nominally a private company, the primary shareholders are the Minister for Finance and, I understand, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It would assist our understanding of forestry if the activities of Coillte became more transparent and public representatives were given an opportunity to discuss decisions taken by the company as well as their impact on farmers, private forestry owners and local communities.
Access to privately owned forestry does not come within the remit of the Bill, other than the introduction of an obligation on private forestry owners to ensure forests are properly looked after. Forestry owners will also be required to obtain a licence to thin out scrub and so on. This suggests an assumption on the part of the Department that private forestry owners will destroy forests. I do not believe that will happen. Farmers who remove weeds on their farms will not destroy their farms. This provision is over the top and needs to be addressed on Committee Stage. As the IFA has noted, it may inhibit people from entering the forestry sector.
I know a number of forest owners and remember visiting the forest of a late friend whose family had owned the forest for generations and who were very proud of its history. He spoke of officials and political representatives who produced great ideas but did not understand what was involved in maintaining and harvesting a forest. I get the sense from the legislation that while it may look good on paper, it may not be possible to roll it out. This issue needs to be addressed.
More defined regulation is needed with regard to access to forestry for members of the public. In my local authority, we discussed motions about access to land. This issue is a minefield and one would need to be Solomon to decide who was right or wrong in many cases because both sides of the argument had merit. Although this issue has been parked, it will need to be addressed at some stage.
I recall discussions on the Wicklow Way, which created difficulties as responsibility cut across South Dublin County Council and other local authorities. I remember the publication of a grand plan, route maps and so forth. Local farmers argued that they were not involved in the process and had been taken for granted. Common sense is required in this regard. I accept, however, that the Wicklow Way has developed into a fantastic amenity.
Recently, anti-social behaviour at Bohernabreena waterworks resulted in some official or other deciding to close public access to the facility. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people use this amenity at weekends in the summer. Perhaps its popularity was the problem but it was closed despite only a handful of visitors engaging in anti-social behaviour. One could argue that this step was necessary because of the water treatment works. The decision also impacted on access to the Wicklow Way, however. I heard, for example, that two Japanese tourists who inadvertently entered the Bohernabreena site were told they would be fined if they did not leave immediately. This was hardly an example of Ireland of the welcomes.
I was subsequently told they genuinely did not know the area was sealed off. There was uproar involving fishermen. Two Dodder anglers and another angling company had access to it and were paying rent. They were denied access to it. There are huge difficulties with public access.
Ten years ago Dr. Peter Bacon analysed the sale of our forests and referred to the overall place of the forestry sector in the economy. Unfortunately some would argue little has been done since to develop the potential of the sector. Across all parties and none in this House, there would be the view that it has huge potential. Other speakers talked about the potential for jobs, but there is also the potential of getting people out of the city into forestry areas.
There are difficulties with replanting our forests. Many in the House would favour more afforestation, planting trees, improving the environment, biodiversity and so on. However, part of the difficulty is that although people sign up to planting their own trees, no one knows where the trees are. So there is a need to involve people. If it was opened up to the public, youth clubs and scouting organisations, it could be a way to get people back to work, training and so on. Those elements do not seem to come together. There is huge potential in that regard. We talk about upskilling people and so on, but we know how many people are working in this area in other countries.
Dr. Bacon concluded on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis that public investment in forestry compared favourably with State investment in other sectors. He emphasised the need for strong co-ordination between the public and private sectors in forestry. The potential for forestry is evident if we look at what is happening in other countries. In Switzerland almost 100,000 people are employed in forestry or in related industries such as paper production. The forest area in Switzerland is twice that of this State, but the overall sector employs almost ten times the number of people employed here. There is clear potential for expansion.
Clondalkin and other areas traditionally had their paper mills and so on. Much of the potential for recycling paper has been moved outside the country. If we are talking about joined-up government, we need to put in supports to keep those types of industries in the country. We need to become much more independent and not reliant on sending our waste materials outside the country.
I spoke about Coillte doing its own thing without being accountable to public scrutiny. If it is worth €1.3 billion and if we are serious about public accountability, we need to come up with some mechanism for scrutiny into decisions made in that company. Some newspapers referred to links with former politicians. We need considerably more transparency which would be helpful for the company. We need to give people the opportunity to look at decisions that are made. We need to give the company an opportunity to explain some of its decisions. It may require people coming together to discuss areas such as diversity and making some of our forests more environmentally friendly.
Contrasting the Bacon report with the fact that the State was seriously considering selling off public forests probably says all that needs to be said about how successive Governments and Coillte have treated the sector. I presume the Government will now claim it has made a decision on the matter. However, given the financial pressure on us, there will always be the potential for it to be sold off, but I see it as a resource. It is not healthy for people to have to rely on some media interest on what happening with our forests and it needs greater attention.
Now that privatisation is supposedly off the agenda, we need to look again at the Bacon report and frame a proactive policy to use the public forests properly in co-operation with private forest owners and related enterprises. The Bacon report also referred to the amenity value of the forests and I touched on that at the start. There are varying estimates of the economic value these bring. It is an area capable of greater development and expansion. We can also learn from other countries that are much more advanced in this area. There would be genuine cross-party support for initiatives in this area - I do not believe people would adopt party-political lines on it. There is so much good will for us to tap into. We should use the collective ideas of the House to move things forward.
The Bill is important in setting out the regulatory framework for private forests. I hope a proper balance will be struck to assist the future development of the forestry sector based on co-operation between the public and private sectors. My biggest concern would be over the nanny state and overregulation. Whether forestry is public or private we need to make people much more aware of the resource we have. We need to encourage more people to invest in forestry. Every day we talk about the potential to create jobs and people say the State cannot do that. This is one area where the State under supposedly a private company could create a huge number of jobs. If Switzerland can employ ten times the number we employ in this area, there is huge potential.
We need to look at the diversity of the forests. If we are talking in terms of private forestry, our policies should encourage private individuals and forests to grow oak trees and those trees that are more environmentally friendly than trees such as firs. That is an area in which we as legislators can make major changes.
I represent the county with the highest percentage forestry cover in Ireland. Just over 18% of the land area of County Wicklow is planted in trees, which is twice the national average. The Bill therefore will have a significantly higher effect in County Wicklow than in most other parts of the country.
Wicklow's trees support hundreds of jobs in the forestry industry. The people who manage Wicklow's trees contribute an estimated €100 million annually towards a €2.2 billion national forestry sector. The value of forestry to our economy can only increase further. Timber is a global commodity that is much in demand and Europe is a net exporter of wood. However, the economic value of forestry must be balanced against its tourism and eco value. The tourists who walk in the forests of County Wicklow spend about €5 million in our local economy every year. The other tourists, the ones attracted to our county because of the beautiful green and afforested environment but do not actually walk in them, spend a further €5 million in hotels and shops and restaurants. Forestry associated tourism nationally is worth about €270 million to Ireland's economy.
It does not stop there. Our forests in Wicklow are the forests that keep on giving. Situated on the doorstep of Dublin, Wicklow's forests have significant national amenity value and contribute greatly to biodiversity. They also act as an important carbon sink for emissions from Ireland's capital city. Approximately 70% of Wicklow's forests are owned by the people and are in the care of the State forestry agency, Coillte. In this context it was a significant relief to me and thousands of my constituents when it was announced earlier in the year that the proposal to sell off Coillte's harvesting rights was no longer on the Minister's table. There was a real fear about the economic impact that could result to the forestry sector and the local tourism sector in Wicklow should control of the phasing of timber felling and replanting be handed over to a third party. This is especially the case since it would have resulted in more frequent felling with the associated visual and tourism impacts or in the movement of timber processing overseas, which would have affected forestry jobs in Ireland. I lobbied quietly but consistently against that proposal and I am pleased for the people of Wicklow that it has not come to pass. I am also pleased that there is now a renewed focus on legislating for the management of the highly valuable asset that is our forestry sector.
The work of forestry maintenance, felling and replanting is at the core of this important industry. To protect tourism we must ensure that the environmental impacts of these activities are tightly regulated. At the same time, to encourage investment in the sector we also need to ensure that compliance with regulations does not become too costly and off-putting for the small forestry developers who manage almost half of the country's forests. Many of the evergreen forests planted between 25 and 30 years ago by private individuals are coming to maturity now and I understand that in the coming years there will be a long queue of applicants for the tree-felling licences provided in this legislation. It is important that this process is managed cleanly and efficiently and that it is not seen as prohibitive or onerous. It is important that the forestry regulation brought in now is seen as part of a wider ambition to promote replanting and growth. Jobs in our tourism and forestry sectors depend on the continued renewal of our forests and the Forestry Bill 2013 must play a part in ensuring that objective is achieved.
I welcome this Bill which gives the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine increased power to support, improve and protect our forestry industry. It is vital to have a strong and growing forestry industry that will support and create jobs and which, I believe, can have considerable spin-off benefits for tourism and our environmental ecosystems.
In 1996, under the rainbow coalition Government, a report entitled Growing for the Future – A Strategic Plan for the Development of the Forestry Sector in Ireland was released and it has provided a basis for Government policy ever since. In particular, the plan sets out the implementation of sustainable forest management. In the strategic plan targets were set for forest cover as a percentage of Irish land, afforestation, that is, the planting of new forests, and annual timber production. Unfortunately, under successive Governments we have fallen well short of our targets. Under the strategic plan, targets for planting 25,000 ha per annum up to 2000 and 20,000 ha per annum thereafter were set with the goal of increasing forestry in Ireland from 7% to 17% by 2030. Subsequently, annual timber production should have increased from the 1995 figure of 2.2 million cu. tonnes to 10 million cu. tonnes. We have fallen well short of our targets in both areas with our levels of afforestation actually decreasing and our annual timber production remaining relatively flat.
With this Bill, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine can push for us to reach our targets in afforestation and timber production and I expect he will do so. The Bill also strengthens the Minister's role in conserving our environment through the removal of threats such as fire, the use of good forest management and the protection against damage from disease, invasive species, pests and other organisms. Last week we learned of confirmed reports of ash dieback at a plantation in Leitrim containing imported ash trees. The trees were destroyed in a bid to contain the outbreak and avoid the spread of the disease as has occurred on mainland Europe.
Section 29 empowers the Minister to make regulations to protect our trees, including the restriction or expulsion from the State of any invasive species which could be deemed harmful to the environment. Our ecosystem is under an increasing threat from invasive species beyond trees and plants, from grey squirrels to giant hogweed to the North America crayfish. Invasive species threaten our delicate ecosystems and a strong response is required from State bodies to combat them. I call on the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and all future Ministers with responsibility for forestry to act swiftly under the powers contained in the Bill to counter the threats of invasive species and the damage they do to our natural environment.
Apart from benefits to the timber industry and the improvement in our environment, forests provide the largest outdoor area for recreational use in Ireland, attracting 18 million tourists per annum. This recreational use generates €268 million in economic activities for communities, especially in rural areas. This figure could increase further and generate more economic activity. However, to accomplish this we need a comprehensive cross-departmental strategy which should be led by the Minister to link our forestry industry with our tourism industry to maximise its potential. We could look to the tourism forestry protocol agreement in the Australian state of Tasmania for an example of joined-up strategy between a forestry industry and state tourism boards. I call on the Minister to consider a similar approach in Ireland. Such an agreement in Ireland, facilitating communication, consultation and liaison, would ensure the forestry industry and the tourism authorities would recognise that together their respective industries are crucial to the delivery of sustainable growth of the Irish economy, especially in rural Ireland.
Under section 8, the Minister can establish one or more committees to advise and assist him in his functions. I encourage the Minister to examine the setting up of a cross-departmental group to promote forestry tourism. This would have manifold benefits for tourism in rural Ireland.
As a Labour Party Deputy, I am pleased to speak to this Bill on forestry after the contribution of my party in government in ensuring that Coillte remains in public ownership. I am convinced that this outcome would have been less certain without the Labour Party in government. I acknowledge the campaign conducted by the IMPACT trade union in the achievement of this outcome. The irrefutable economic argument for the retention of harvesting rights made by IMPACT and the economist Peter Bacon was supported by the Labour Party and our partners, Fine Gael, in government in a palpable example of what we are achieving. Against this backdrop we can look forward to improving our forestry industry, investing energy into expanding our afforestation programmes and, in turn, creating improved benefits for our economy and with this in mind I welcome the Bill.
Deputy Damien English has approximately five minutes as we must conclude shortly.
The Acting Chairman is cutting me short.
You can pick up your time when it comes back.
Forestry is an important contributor to our economy and exports. Too often, it is regarded as the Cinderella industry of our agricultural sector and rural way of life and that must change. In this context I welcome the Forestry Bill 2013 and the opportunity to contribute to it. The Bill is the start of a change which, I believe, is needed in the industry.
I remember being told in secondary school about the green gold of forestry in Norway, Sweden and Finland. It was often cited as a major contributor to the wealth of those Scandinavian nations. As students we never fully understood how Ireland could not capitalise on its green gold, given the more favourable growing climate for forestry here and the fact that this was a naturally afforested island prior to Cromwell and the various plantations.
There is still great potential for our island in the forestry sector if we make the right decisions. As a small open economy with a strong services dimension, our economic fortunes are closely tied to the consumer influences of taste elsewhere and economic performance in America, the EU and further afield. The difference between GNP and GDP highlights the challenge. Therefore, in developing our economy and export offering, natural resources of a renewable and sustainable nature, such as forestry, are very important. With this in mind, I note the research of UCD and UCC in 2010 which highlighted that when the processing sector, for example, panel board mills, sawmills and other wood products, was included in estimates the forest industry was worth €2.2 billion to our economy annually.
It is a native natural source of wealth worth protecting and expanding. It is a source of wealth in a sector in which global demand is expected to increase in the coming 20 years. As a country, we should be clever in how we position ourselves to meet this challenge and opportunity and the Bill is a start in this regard.
This country has shown leadership as a small nation in respect of its environmental commitments and adherence to international treaties and other protocols.
While some may query the speed and depth of our compliance, other larger industrial powers have failed to sign up to them at all. Forestry can and will play further a significant role in meeting national greenhouse gas emission reduction targets and in fighting climate change. It also is worth noting that wood fuels are the second largest contributor, after wind, to the growing renewable energy sector in Ireland. This has helped to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 560,000 tonnes of CO2 in 2012.
Forest cover stands at almost 11% nationally, with privately owned forests accounting for 46% of this total. There have been many attractive economic incentives to bring people into private forestry. However, a major public relations battle remains to be won in rural Ireland in respect of increasing the forestry footprint. The planting of land is still met with great suspicion in rural Ireland even if the land concerned is of little use for anything else. One point that should be further developed is that communities which engage in forestry activity should benefit more from the employment opportunities the industry presents. This would be of real benefit to such rural communities by contributing in real terms to the social and economic rural development of such areas.
Half a century ago, the forestry sector was highly labour intensive. In recent years, however, the majority of forestry operations have been mechanised to a dramatic extent, particularly in respect of harvesting. These operations involve the employment of specialist roving workers who do not necessarily reside in the rural community in which they are working and planting. To a large extent, the same is true in respect of planting, which historically was carried out by residents in the rural communities. It now largely is carried out by contractors who do not necessarily draw their workforce from the rural communities in which they are planting. Changes in work practices, such as the abandonment of thinning in favour of earlier clear-felling, also reduce the dependence on rural-based labour.