Forestry Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

It is good to have the opportunity to talk on the Forestry Bill. The forestry industry is essential to the country and has massive potential to create extra jobs. Relative to some of the other things going on in the industry, what is covered in the Bill is basically moving the deckchairs around on the Titanic, sadly. We can move them around all we want but the Titanic is sinking. While the passengers might be sitting in a different place, it will not make any difference when they are drowning with water in their lungs.

As the Minister of State is aware, I, along with members of the industry, have been trying to get some sort of investigation into alleged weight volume irregularities at Coillte. By tomorrow this will have gone on for a year. I do not have much faith in the Fine Gael Party. I do not believe in much of what it stands for, nor do I believe much of what its members say. In line with what many people say about the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine, Deputy Coveney, I had some little bit of hope for him. That hope is fading fast. I hope he will prove me wrong. I have been trying to get him to respond for a year. I thought I had cynicism beaten into me at this stage, but it has gone up another level. My scepticism about whether the State is acting in the best interests of the people has increased further.

Nearly a year ago I asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine if he was aware that Coillte had been defrauded by certain sawmills, if he was aware that by interfering in the sampling system used to quantify deliveries to sawmills the country was systematically defrauded, if he would direct an investigation into the facts of this fraud - alleged fraud - and if he would make a statement on the matter.

On a point of clarification-----

If the Deputy accepts that.

I am happy with that.

This has nothing to do with the Forestry Bill.

The Minister of State will see how it does.

It does not.

We will respect the Chair. It might be a bit highfalutin to talk about how the country was systematically defrauded, but let us take it back to basics. My children, my neighbours' children and the future generations of this country are being defrauded and something needs to be done about it. I thought we had left the years of Haughey, Lawlor et al behind us. I hope we have.

As nothing had happened by February, I asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if there was a Garda investigation into ongoing systematic weight volume fraud at Coillte Teoranta, and if he would make a statement. His answer stated he had requested a report from the Garda authorities on the matter and would contact me directly when the report came to hand. Before I outline what he said, it is important to point out that the people in the industry asked the Garda Síochána directly, as I did, and we were told there was an investigation ongoing. Let us not dance around the issue. The fact is our children are having money robbed from them.

I received the following letter from the Minister:

Dear Luke,

I refer to Parliamentary Question No. 151 of 13 February 2013 asking if there is a Garda Síochána investigation ongoing into systemic weight to volume fraud at Coillte Teo, and if I would make a statement on the matter.

As you will recall, the information you requested could not be obtained in the time available, and I undertook to contact you again when a Garda report was to hand.

I have now received the Garda report and I am informed that the Garda authorities are not aware of any ongoing investigation into systematic weight volume fraud at Coillte Teo.

The Minister, who is the boss of the Garda Síochána, told us he is not aware of any investigation and a member of the Garda Síochána told us there is an investigation. I wonder why the Minister of State present is wary of me talking about this, because I understood the Minister of State in question was looking forward to me coming in to talk on the Forestry Bill. Anyway that is what the Minister told us.

One of the reasons the investigation would not be proceeding is that Coillte has not reported a problem. If someone came around to my house and robbed my television, I would certainly go to the Garda Síochána and report it. If someone robbed my forestry, I would certainly report it.

On foot of this, Coillte contacted me and said, further to my contribution to the debate in the Dáil during the week about weight volume fraud in Coillte it would be very interested in and grateful for any information that I might have regarding same. I find that remarkable given that it had all the evidence. I wrote back and said any information it needed regarding weight volume fraud in Coillte was available within the organisation, as it knew. I suggested that the officials talk to their colleagues in senior management at Coillte Forests, the forestry arm of Coillte, who were well aware of this issue and that they ask why this had never been investigated by the Garda Síochána. I have not heard from them in response to that e-mail.

Where did it go from there? I brought this matter up during a Private Members' debate on a motion tabled by Deputy Boyd Barrett. It was an excellent motion. I believe he played a very big part in stopping the sale of Coillte. In my speech I mentioned what the industry had brought to me. As a result, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, said he would try to do something about it. I wrote to him saying that during my contribution to the Private Members' debate tabled by the Technical Group on 26 and 27 February of this year I mentioned that Coillte had been systematically defrauded by certain sawmills. At the time the Minister commented that this was new information, although I had asked a Minister about it previously but we will let that slide, and that I should furnish him with the information. Given the complexity of this matter I told him that it would make far more sense to discuss this with him in person and also requested that he meet one of the affected parties, a particular sawmill.

In the reply, which I received on 24 April, the Minister thanked me for my request regarding Coillte and said that he was making inquiries into the matter and would contact me shortly. As a result I and the industry people who had contacted me met with the Department. Unfortunately, the Minister was not present. He was busy. I can understand that because it is a very busy job and I will not criticise him for that. We left with the officials, including the assistant secretary to the Minister and we met a Coillte liaison officer from the Department. I will not name the people as there would be no benefit in that and it would not be fair to them. It is the Minister's job to ensure accountability. We met with these people, as well as with a legal team representing the people who had come to me with this information and we were told that an investigation would take place. In July of that year Coillte requested that we provide it with further information. We went to Wexford and met with Coillte officials. Slowly but surely we were getting a bit of hope that something would be done. At that stage this had been going on for seven months. That is a long time to be looking for justice. We met with them and provided further information and waited, and waited, and waited.

A couple of weeks ago my office received a telephone call as a result of which my secretary wrote to the Minister to the effect that, further to a telephone conversation between my constituency office secretary and the Minister's office that morning, I looked forward to meeting the Minister the week after that to discuss the report on frauds in Coillte. I wished the Minister success in his trade mission because he had gone away. The industry representatives and I met with the Department. It was the most shocking meeting I have ever attended in my life. That is probably an understatement. It was probably the most shocking meeting anyone in politics could ever have attended in their life. GUBU would not describe it. We were met with stonewalling. People who have put decades of their life into developing this industry were shocked. One of those present said that until then he had been sorry to see people leave the country and pitied the families of those who were leaving but after that meeting he concluded that those who leave are right and that even more would leave because we live in a hellhole. That was the view of a very conservative, calm person after what he saw. We were looking for a serious investigation but we have not got it.

We were pleased that the Minister gave a commitment to investigate this thoroughly in the first case as all other attempts to get Coillte to act on this complaint had failed. We had expected that the Minister would use his position as a shareholder in Coillte on behalf of the citizens of Ireland to get to the bottom of this issue. We were told that one of the reasons for his not being able to get information was that Coillte fobbed off the investigators by saying that the information needed was commercially sensitive and could not be given to the Minister, who effectively owns Coillte on behalf of the people.

I could have been shocked by that but I had met a similar obstacle when I was chair of an environment group, and a member of the corporate policy group. I was one of the people who should have been running Roscommon but when I looked for information it was refused on the grounds that it was commercially sensitive. At a local level I was told that something was too commercially sensitive to tell the people who run an organisation about it. Now the Minister is told that he cannot get information because it is commercially sensitive. How on earth are we supposed to swallow that? How on earth can it be true? The investigators were also very reliably informed that CCTV evidence existed of the alleged fraud yet they chose to accept Coillte’s reply that no evidence existed. The investigators did not even talk to the CCTV company. The investigators said they did not need to talk to the CCTV company because it is employed by Coillte. If someone robbed my house and the gardaí found the person they thought did it and asked that person did he or she rob my house and that person said "No" would they accept that? They would not. It would be ridiculous to accept that but that is the level of the investigation yet we are talking about tens of millions of euro, not my €359 television. We are talking about my children's money and that of future generations.

To judge by the very lame investigation undertaken by Department officials there is a conflict of interest that can be remedied only by the Minister's appointing an independent third party outside the Civil Service, a senior counsel or equivalent, to conduct a proper investigation. The Department officials have even refused to report this to the AGS. People who have worked for years in the industry and have developed and driven it did not even have a report to take away from the meeting. That is an insult. These people, who should be running Coillte, not taking orders from it, are being told that they do not understand how it works. No civil servant could understand how the forestry industry should work better than those who work at the coalface.

There may be tens of millions of euro at stake here. Apparently it is a commercial company. This same commercial company is coming to the State with a begging bowl looking for tens of millions of euro to subsidise its board plant. I suggest that the Department carry out an independent investigation into what it is doing with our money and our resources and then there will be plenty of money to invest in the board plant. Something has to be done about this. The Minister of State might say this has nothing to do with the Forestry Bill but there will be no point in the Forestry Bill if the industry goes down the tubes because no industry can be sustained on the basis of the facts being wrong. Something must be done about this. The media has ignored it. Is that a surprise? No it is not because we know who owns them bugles and who they stand for. The media can ignore it but believe me they are chattering about it as we speak.

The anger is bubbling up about it. I ask the Minister to do something about it.

I have another two years left in the House, maybe no more. In the next two years I will do my damnedest every time the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, rises to his feet to make sure he does something about this issue. If I am given an opportunity to take part in Leaders' Questions next year, every week it will be mentioned. Why is this money being robbed from the State? Why is the right thing not being done? Why is the Government not accountable? Why is the Government not doing what it said it would do and why is it acting no better than former members Lawlor, Haughey, Burke et al?

I call Deputy Noel Harrington who is sharing time with Deputy Seán Kyne. The Deputies have ten minutes each.

I congratulate the Government on being able to remove Coillte from the list of State assets that the previous Government agreed were to be sold. This decision was not only welcomed by me but by the thousands of my constituents who wanted our forests and their lands to remain in the ownership of the State and its citizens. Our forests do not only provide wood but immense pleasure to millions of people. More than 18 million visits are made to our forests every year which, incidentally, is almost two thirds the number who take a Luas journey every year.

I welcome this long promised Bill which will replace the Forestry Act 1946 but I must express my concern that it has taken so long. I understand that consultation with the stakeholders first started on this Bill in 1998, 15 years ago. In 2005 a consultative group was set up to consider the 26 submissions made. After eight years of further consultation we now have this Bill before us. I hope that the new Oireachtas procedures for tabling a Bill can do better than this. I wish to acknowledge the efforts of our former colleague Shane McEntee in bringing the consultation process to a conclusion and I congratulate the current Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, on bringing his first Bill to the House.

Towards the end of the 19th century Ireland's forests had been reduced to about 1.5% of the total land cover or 125,000 ha. State involvement in forestry began in 1903 when the then Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction acquired Avondale Estate in County Wicklow and established a forestry training unit. Forestry growth has been a stop-start progression since with two world wars taking a heavy toll on our forests. The Forestry Act 1928 that empowered the Minister to compel the replanting of felled areas was a significant step in stopping the slide of forestry into oblivion. At that stage in the late 1920s there were only 89,000 ha, less than 1%, of forestry left. However, during the Second World War when timber and fuel were again scarce, planting levels fell and subsequent planting was mostly to replace trees felled during the war.

The Forestry Act 1946 remains the primary forestry legislation. To complement that Act the Government introduced an afforestation policy of planting 4,000 ha of trees per year and the first long-term afforestation programme was adopted in 1948. Happily, annual rates of afforestation continued to rise up to and through the 1970s but this level could not be maintained due to difficulties in acquiring suitable acreage. By the 1980s the rate of afforestation began to fall with the annual average rate of afforestation dropping to 5,700 ha.

In the late 1980s the Government changed the way it managed its land portfolios and the Forestry Act 1988 created Coillte Teoranta, the much-maligned Coillte as we have heard from the previous speaker. In his contribution in which he mentioned fraud, robbery, TVs being stolen and people breaking into houses I do not think he ever mention reporting it to the Garda. A commercial private body with a number of functions including timber production, provision of forestry amenities, protection of the forestry environment and community engagement, Coillte is the largest landowner in Ireland in that it now owns and manages more than a million acres. The purpose of setting up Coillte was to improve efficiency in the forestry industry while allowing for critical monitoring by Coillte.

The Forest Service is responsible for setting national forest policy, control of tree felling, protection of the national forest estate from pests and disease, promotion of forest research and development, promotion of private forestry and administration of the State forestry grant.

Under the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Forest Service promotes sustainable forest management, SFM, as a central principle of Irish forest policy, whereby forests are managed in a way which maximises their potential and which is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable for present and future generations. The Council for Forest Research and Development, COFORD, was established in 1992 and its role is to co-ordinate forest and forest-product research in Ireland. COFORD achieves this with financial support provided by the Forest Service.

Although an afforestation grant scheme has existed in Ireland since 1930, private afforestation was very limited until 1981 when the European Union set up and funded a special grant-aided afforestation programme. By the mid-1980s private afforestation started to increase. With financial assistance from the European Union, the State introduced further afforestation programmes and private afforestation increased rapidly to a peak of 17,353 ha planted in 1995 with a total of 23,710 ha of private and public forestry planted. Unfortunately, we have again witnessed a significant decline in new forest plantings since, with almost all new plantings being undertaken by private growers.

Ireland has a target of covering 17% of the land mass in forestry by 2030 but we need to move quickly and efficiently to reach that target given that we are not even reaching 50% of our annual targets. If we were on target we should have 870,000 ha of forestry but we have only 744,000 ha. We need to create an additional 20,000 ha per year while we are planting only about 6,500 ha which means we will not reach our 2030 target until 2070 or 2080.

We are all aware that the decision by the European Commission in 1999 and subsequently upheld by the European Court of Justice that debarred Coillte from claiming afforestation grants has stagnated growth in the forestry sector and that private landowners have been trying to make up the shortfall. We need a new impetus to promote growth in the forestry sector. To remedy the situation we must create a new investment vehicle that can attract European Union grants and match that with the management expertise of Coillte. Today I ask the Minister to examine the possibility of the State creating a special purpose vehicle or entity to allow citizens to invest in a forestry development company managed by Coillte. This could be a very productive partnership for all concerned in that it would allow for European funding through grant aid again to allow the expansion of the forestry land cover, increase employment and reduce carbon emissions.

I pay tribute to the work of Coillte in expanding the business by taking over some of the manufacturing plants for wood products and creating new markets for Irish wood products.

Much greater consideration needs to be given to the neighbours of our forests. We need to consult with those living beside forests particularly when areas are about to be planted or about to be felled. As I stated earlier over 18 million people visit our forests every year but I would like to see that figure multiply many times in the coming years. We need to encourage more people to visit these wonderful and spectacular areas and encourage a greater sense of ownership in order that our forests are never again under threat of being taken over by foreign investment cabals. We do not need to see those who caused many of our economic problems profiting by it.

We need to create more designated and signposted walks and cycleways. We should encourage and allow for more adventure parks to be created in our forests. They attract millions of extra visitors to the forests in England, Scotland and Wales. We should also ask the Forestry Service in conjunction with the National Parks and Wildlife Service to examine the facilities provided by the National Parks Service in the United States.

I call on people to consider visiting their millennium forests. These trees were planted in the 17 designated areas right around the country at the turn of the century. These trees are now taking shape. It would be a good idea if the Minister was to update the millennium trees website with up-to-date photographs of these now maturing forests and encourage all our citizens to visit their millennium forests and trees.

I hope the forestry sector will grow dramatically in the coming decades similar to our millennium forests. I believe the Bill is a step in the right direction.

I acknowledge the excellent publication received from the Irish Forestry and Forest Products Association which gave a very interesting overview of the forestry sector. It contains some facts and figures which are very valuable to the debate.

It is worth putting on record that in 2012, the forestry sector contributed some €2.2 billion to the Irish economy. Overall, afforestation levels are about 10.5%. While that is low compared to many of our European counterparts, it is increasing and is a good deal higher than it was before. This is important and positive. It is an indigenous commodity and a rural-based industry providing jobs for rural Ireland. It is an export-led industry with some 78% of products being exported. That is very positive.

Regarding my area, I acknowledge the role of ECC Timber Products Limited in Corr na Mona in Connemara in County Galway and the importance of that company to the local economy in bringing in and processing timber from long distances. The industry has good projections into the future, which is positive. Some 731,650 hectares of land are afforested. The State owns about 54% and private plantations own 46%. It contributes 1.3% of GDP and employs some 12,000 people. As Deputy Harrington said, some 18 million recreational visits are made to Irish forests, which is a huge industry in its own right and relates to the use people make of our forests in rural areas, particularly broad-leaf plantations. It is good to see that since the revised support scheme was put in place in 1996, broad-leaf plantations have increased and some 38% of new plantings in 2010 were broad leaf.

Forests play a huge role not just in respect of the industry and the importance of exports but also in terms of the landscape of our rural society. Our hedgerows also play a role. A treeless landscape would be a lesser landscape for locals and visitors alike. One of the most common landscape trees is our ash tree. It is also very important to the broad-leaf sector because it is the most important broad-leaf tree in Ireland. I commend the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Tom Hayes; the previous Minister of State, Shane McEntee; and Department officials on the very positive measures and engagement they have had on this issue, which can still have very serious consequences for our ash trees, indigenous industry and forestry industry. As an island, Ireland is possibly in a unique position regarding the ability to eradicate this disease where other countries only have the possibility of containing it. I commend those involved.

One issue that has been brought to my attention concerns the EU national renewable energy action plan. The welcome targets include one of 16% of Ireland's energy to be met from renewable sources and another that all peat-fired power generation stations would be 30% co-fired with wood biomass by 2020. Some concerns have been raised within the sector regarding its ability to meet this target without using some of the more valuable timber products as distinct from the biomass per se. It would be a matter of concern if in order to meet these targets in our peat-fired stations, they would have to burn timber that was more valuable as a commodity in terms of further processing. That is a something to keep an eye in the future as those targets are raised.

Section 6(a)(ii) refers to the aerial fertilisation of forests. I am not sure how much of that goes on anymore. To the best of my knowledge, it has ceased in my area in Connemara following much concern about the pollution of our streams, rivers and lakes. Obviously, the use of high levels of rock phosphate in forestry plantations can lead to it leaching into lakes following aerial application and cause eutrophication or algal blooms in our waterways. I am not sure how much of that is going on at the moment. If it is, I am sure there are stringent plans in terms of applications, rates, timing of applications, weather conditions when applications are made and proximity of applications to existing streams, rivers and lakes. I am sure that is in the plan and if not, it should be.

Section 6(b) talks about forest management plans and conditions that could be attached to these plans. It is a requirement that is laid down in the functions the Minister of State has in terms of the environmental responsibility that will ensue with this Bill and that is important. I hope the costs that might be associated with those will not be prohibitive.

Section 6(e) talks about powers regarding compulsory purchase of lands that would be deemed suitable. That could be contentious if those powers are pursued. I appreciate that there is much land that is very much suited to forestry. When I prepared REPS plans in the past, I was obliged to declare those plots which were most suited to forestry plantations. Powers as outlined in section 6(e) could be contentious.

Section 14 relates to the risk of fires from uncultivated land. It is somewhat similar to the discussion we had on other issues regarding land abandonment and under-utilisation of large tracts of land, particularly commonage land. Again, instead of penalising farmers, it would be better if the Department was more focused on making sure under-utilised and commonage lands were utilised to their full potential, which would reduce the possibility of fires coming from those areas. I agree that under-utilised and under-grazed land is a significant risk to our forests. Rather than penalising farmers, perhaps the way to go is for the Department to put in place policies to ensure those lands are better utilised.

I welcome the description of exempted trees in section 18 and definitions and understandings contained therein such as invasive trees, scrub trees or willow, which will be utilised for fuel. I have concerns about the plight of the native holly tree. Could any protection be put in place for this tree? I am not talking about people taking a sprig or branch of holly for decorations coming up to Christmas. Cutting the full tree and the full berries would be of concern to me in respect of rural Ireland because they are scarce and unfortunately, there have been cases of people cutting a full tree to sell on the markets in various places.

I could not find where it was stipulated in the Bill but I see in the explanatory memorandum that the Minister has discretion to set conditions for the felling licence which will include the waiving of the requirement to replant following clear felling. I understand the requirements to replant, which are based on the fact that the State is putting huge resources into forestry and that when land is forested and clear felled, it wants to mandate people to replant. However, we must take note of certain situations, particularly in SACs or forested lands in close proximity to SACs, which would be lakes and rivers in my area. Anglers have raised concerns with me about that and how it should be easier to receive a derogation in those cases. No more than aerial fertilisation, certain types of trees such as Sitka spruce and certain types of pine can be damaging to our waterways because of needles falling into the water and causing acidification. This is possibly under the management plans and I know there is certification that certain bodies have in respect of realistic mandatory riparian zones along lakes and waterways and that peatlands should not be planted down to the edge of lakes, streams or rivers. That was something that was looked for as well. There has been a change with regard to clear felling which is now more piecemeal than before. Again, there were concerns about large-scale clear felling on peatlands which would lead to leaching of nutrients into streams, rivers and lakes in high-rainfall areas in the west, which would have a negative impact. That is not to overemphasise those concerns.

Forestry has huge potential for our economy and is very important to the rural economy and job creation. I welcome the positive increases in broad-leaf tree planting over the years in terms of aesthetics and the very welcome and important environmental benefits that come from those types of trees. I commend the Minister and his officials for the work they have done on this Bill and hope it will lay the foundations for a further increase in levels and hectarage of commercial forestry planted in this country.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this legislation. I wish the Minister of State the best of luck with steering it through the House. This is his maiden legislation as an Aire Stáit and I am sure that it is the first of many Bills that he will handle. We all need to remember our former colleague in the House, Shane McEntee, particularly at this time of the year. Our thoughts are with the McEntee family on the difficult anniversary that is approaching and with the many families in similar circumstances.

I welcome the Government's decision earlier this year on the sale of Coillte. Quite a number of complex issues were raised on foot of the potential disposal of Coillte lands. I am glad that the Government listened to contributions made within and without the Houses, took those concerns on board and made its decision. It is important that we acknowledge this fact. Far too often, Ministers are not prepared to listen to other opinions and bull-headedly proceed with particular decisions. One of the main issues that arose was that of public access. It was also raised in the UK in respect of the potential disposal of its state forestry.

Now that a decision has been taken, we cannot ignore the forestry sector's considerable potential. Many of the contributions in the House have been focused on the forestry industry and the Minister of State's focus is on the commercial aspects, but there is considerable tourism and recreational potential. In fairness to Coillte, it has made efforts in this regard. The example that springs to mind is Lough Key Forest Park in my constituency. Ballyhoura is another great example of where Coillte has opened up forestry. That said, much more can be done to expand the tourism sector. According to a study conducted by the Irish Forestry and Forest Products Association, IFFPA, tourism activity in forests is valued at approximately €97 million and generates downstream activity of €268 million per annum. We have an ideal climate for this type of outdoor activity. Coillte owns a large landbank. While it has been proactive in developing some of its forest assets, others have been ignored. The sector needs additional focus.

I tabled a proposal to the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Deenihan, on establishing a national wetland park in the midlands. There will be greater co-ordination and co-operation between Coillte and Bord na Móna, which together have a massive landbank. Bord na Móna's large cutaway bog in the Mountdillon complex in west Longford-east Roscommon is surplus to requirements. If that bog of approximately 18,000 acres was allowed to be flooded naturally, it would make for a large bio-park in the midlands and would be a major amenity to a part of the country that did not see a significant amount of economic development during the boom except for housing developments. We have plenty of houses and no one to live in them.

There is no other purpose for the 18,000 acres of cutaway bog. One has not even been suggested. Many of the villages around that landbank have a large number of vacant houses that were developed under the Shannon tax corridor scheme. These could easily be marked as part of a tourism package involving outdoor activities, for example, walking, cycling, horse riding, etc. This would help to unlock many of the completed ghost estates while developing a major international tourism asset in the middle of the country on either side of the River Shannon.

I make this proposal in the context of our debate because Coillte's Slieve Bawn adjoins the 18,000 acres of cutaway bog. It is the only significant hill or mountain in the middle of County Roscommon. There has been a great deal of controversy recently, though, as Coillte has sought planning permission to develop wind turbines on Slieve Bawn. Since it is an exposed site in the middle of the country, there would be a visual impact on the entire region. We need greater co-operation between Coillte and Bord na Móna in the development of the site as a strategic tourism asset, one that could help to ensure that people occupy those vacant houses, at least on a seasonal basis. Walking tourism is a growing market internationally. We have a perfect climate to attract people. With a bit of co-ordination, we could also have plenty of accommodation for them.

It would not take a significant investment to open up the landbank, as there is a network of old roads and cart tracks across bogs, as the Leas-Cheann Comhairle knows well. There is also the old permanent rail track that was used to service the power station at Lanesborough. Interestingly, UCD worked with the local communities on both sides of the River Shannon to conduct a feasibility study. The proposal has the support of both local authorities. I hope that someone in government will take ownership of it and drive it forward, but no one seems to be prepared to do so. No other purpose is available to that landbank and it could act as a major tourism asset that would attract people to a part of the country that has not seen its tourism sector developed to its full potential. This would also be of significant benefit to the rest of the country, as people who visit the midlands also visit the north, south, east and west of the country.

I have encountered an issue. We have a fabulous asset in Mote Park outside Roscommon town, where Coillte has developed a number of walks. It is a great public amenity. However, I have a concern about obligatory replanting. I understand the Government's logic and the merit of including this provision in the legislation, particularly where people have private lands that they do not want to commit to a particular land use in perpetuity. Regarding State lands controlled by Coillte, though, I do not see why there should not continue to be obligatory replanting. There has been no effort to replant in my part of the country where clear felling took place a number of years ago.

My fear is that Coillte is looking at this as an opt-out clause in order that it does not have to undertake replanting. Coillte should at least ensure that where clear felling has taken place on State lands, they should be replanted without delay in the interests of developing such areas as public amenities and long-term strategic assets. There are economic benefits to be gained from forestry and it is to be hoped this legislation will provide an incentive for further plantation because we have hit less than 50% of our targets.

Many forest areas are in parts of the country that have been designated as disadvantaged areas where lands are marginal. Forestry can provide a guaranteed income stream to many farming families in such areas. We should encourage such developments to take place. Not only does forestry contribute directly to the economic survival of some rural families but it can stimulate employment. It is estimated that employment could be increased by about 38,000 by 2025 if the private forestry sector is supported in attaining the Government's afforestation and timber targets. It is imperative for us to ensure that happens.

Many farmers are wondering if funding will remain in place in the long term, which is a concern. Negotiations are taking place on how to allocate the cake for the single farm payment and Pillar 1 funding. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has made submissions concerning Pillar 2 funding to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin. I would be concerned if we were looking at anything less than an equal 50-50 split for the Government's co-financing of Pillar 2.

The Government is to be commended on the creation of new jobs. Yesterday's CEO figures show that of the 58,000 new jobs created, some 25,000 or 43% of them have been in the agricultural sector. No other economic sector provides a 3:1 return on investment. Because we are a small open economy, much expenditure is lost abroad, but the agri-sector creates an economic stimulus without any such leakage outside the country. In addition, such expenditure in the agrifood area remains largely in rural areas.

The vast bulk of jobs created outside the agricultural areas have been in the Dublin area. Dublin is a different world from the rest of the country at the moment because it is thriving, but many rural towns have been decimated. The ones that are surviving best are those based on a surrounding agricultural hinterland. If State funding is reduced in Pillar 2 and co-financing is on a 30% or 35% basis rather than 50%, we will be taking about €1 billion out of the rural economy over the next seven years. That will have a devastating impact on many rural businesses, including the agrifood trade that relies on such expenditure.

In my part of the country there is a lot of Pillar 2 funding from the rural environment protection and suckler cow welfare schemes. Many businesses rely on that money coming in. We have seen a significant fall-off in that funding this year and I fear that, in the longer term, we will see a levelling out of funding based on a 2013 benchmark rather than a maximising of the amount of money that could potentially be spent under Pillar 2 funding. There is a significant economic dividend involved in that process. I hope the Minister's proposal will be for 50-50 funding. Given yesterday's CSO figures, it is imperative to maximise this opportunity.

In my part of the country we do not have a large amount of tillage but where it does occur, bees are very important. There is a major problem with the decline of the bee population, not just in Ireland but elsewhere in Europe also. The economic significance of bees in the agricultural sphere cannot be underestimated. We are facing challenges from that decline but Coillte has a widespread land bank. Forests are ideal locations for beehives, so the Minister of State should actively encourage them throughout Coillte's land. This is not happening in the private sector and I cannot see us introducing grants for beehives. Perhaps in a few years time we will have a ten and 22-month premium for beehives. I would love to see the departmental officials punching the bees for that one.

Is the Deputy talking about a headage scheme?

Yes. There are a few inspectors I would like to see carrying out that inspection regime. We have a significant problem concerning our bee population, while there is a significant landbank. Therefore, the two sectors could dovetail with Coillte to establish beehives. I am not saying that in jest because this major issue needs to be addressed. Coillte could carry the can in that regard and it would improve the overall bee population.

We have not sufficiently examined the economic potential of biodiversity in our forests. It concerns not only the tourism aspect but the medical side as well. Multinational companies travel the world to identify rare botanical species in the Amazon that may be used to create new medicinal products, yet we have them on our doorstep. Those endeavours may be seen as somewhat airy-fairy but they are not because there is much economic advantage to be gained. Sometimes in this country we fail to see the potential available in mundane things that could create new industries.

The Bill provides for more authorised officers. We have seen a fall-off in funds that are being drawn down through the Department under various agricultural schemes, yet we still have a large number of inspectors. I suggest the special investigations unit should be seconded to the Revenue Commissioners to examine fuel laundering and other cross-Border black market activities.

There is huge potential for savings to the Exchequer of €40 million to €50 million per annum from unidentified black market trading. It would be far more useful to focus this skill set on identifying this type of trading rather than on prosecuting farmers who make over-declarations in relation to agricultural roads going through their farms.

I call Deputy Andrew Doyle, who is sharing time with Deputies Tony McLoughlin and Peter Fitzpatrick.

I welcome this Bill, which has been long awaited. I understand this is the first time the Minister of State, Deputy Hayes, has brought a Bill through the House. I wish him well. It is a good Bill to start with given its goal is the development of a modern forestry sector which reflects good forestry practices and protects the environment. At long last, we are starting to concentrate in this country on the things we do best and are part of our natural resources. In this regard, I welcome the tourism initiative of The Gathering which it is estimated resulted in an additional 250,000 people coming to Ireland this year.

Statistics released yesterday by the Central Statistics Office indicate a significant increase in the past two years in the number of people in primary production in agriculture, fisheries and forestry. We are back to basics. In the most recent two Budget Statements reference was made in the first and second paragraphs to agriculture and the agri-sector. The forestry sector is a hugely important part of who we are. As stated by others, Coillte owns 7% of the land mass here and almost 300,000 hectares are currently in private ownership. Thanks to the afforestation programme, this is increasing by 7,000 to 7,500 hectares per annum year on year. As this is a growing sector, it is only fitting that it would have legislation to reflect its current importance to the economy and environment and, in particular, rural communities.

A forest has many attributes and provides many assets for communities, including raw material for the timber processing sector. Coillte and the private processors have turned an industry previously 80% domestic based during the building boom years into a 20% domestic based industry, with 80% of all processed wood product now being exported. This took some effort and a lot of product development. The Department forest service and Coillte have an important role to play in the development with the private sector of new technology in this area.

I welcome the reversal of the decision to sell the harvest rights of Coillte. I note consideration is currently being given to a merger of Coillte with Bord na Móna. I urge that this be proceeded with cautiously and that all of the implications of a full or part merger be considered. I welcomed the Minister's statement some weeks ago that he proposed to engage with the stakeholders in regard to the Forestry Bill. It is important there is engagement with these stakeholders in respect of any proposed merger. If it goes ahead, it must be in the best interests of land use. Between them, Coillte and Bord na Móna own approximately 12% of total land in this country. This land is publicly owned and has a myriad of potential in terms of timber production, biofuel production, recreational use, carbon sink and so on. It is important all these factors, in terms of what is the best fit for the two entities, are taken into account. I would have preferred if that had been developed further at this stage. However, these things take time.

Perhaps the Minister of State will clarify when replying that this Bill has implications for forestry, in particular replanting and felling, in the public and private sector. There appears to be some doubt in this regard. I come from Wicklow, where more than 20% of the land is covered by forestry. It is the most afforested county in the country. The first forestry school was established at the home of Charles Stewart Parnell in 1903. My son is currently doing a degree in forestry. While forestry education is now mainstreamed in our universities, there is still a role for forest bases such as Avondale in the practical training of undergraduates. The practical experience gained by young students in working with foresters and forestry technicians, which students we need to develop this industry into the future, is invaluable. I have seen this work first-hand.

There are a couple of other issues that might be considered as part of this Bill, perhaps by way of amendment on Committee Stage. One such issue is that of fires and upland vegetation, in particular in Wicklow where the burning control regulations are stricter than in Northern Ireland and Scotland. This is leading to a greater risk of sporadic fire outbreaks. The topography of the land in Wicklow is such that Coillte and private operators often touch on national parks where these restrictive burning practices are currently in place. This does nothing for the vegetation, other than allow it to get to the stage whereby it is neither suitable for grazing, hill walking or proper fire containment.

Another issue is the definition of unenclosed land for the purposes of grant aid. I am not sure whether the forestry division of the Department has already looked at this. The definition of unenclosed land is too restrictive and grants in respect of this land are not good. I believe that land that is eminently suitable for plantation is being ruled out because it is too expensive to plant and because unenclosed land has a lower grant aid rate.

I agree with Deputy Naughten's remarks in regard to bio-diversity and the value of forests. We do not always calculate how important the trees and woodland are from a bio-diversity point of view. There are also a carbon sink. During the last Dáil I was rapporteur for the climate change and energy security and agriculture committees on research on the use of forestry as a carbon sink in meeting our climate change targets. There is no doubt that of the order of 80% of all the carbons sequestered over the lifetime of a forest plantation could be used as a saving with the other 20% being used in the establishment of harvesting. This is an important issue that should be considered in the context of our meeting our obligations. We are in the irreconcilable position of having to drive Food Harvest 2020 output targets at the same time as trying to meet our climate change obligations. Unless we make the case that we be allowed to meet those targets by counting every use of land, we face the imposition of a fine from Europe. It is important we make that case.

I am sure the Minister of State would not expect me to end my contribution without reference to deer. In this regard, I would like to raise two issues and will reference in a minute an article in the media yesterday.

I hope to plant more land and was not surprised to be told it would have to be fenced for deer. There has been a difficulty in obtaining approval for plantations in Wicklow because of the numbers of deer. Non-native invasive species such as the Sitka deer have become a scourge, as both private owners and Coillte will confirm. Part of the reason is that upland vegetation is not conducive to grazing. In addition, hybrid vigour has increased the population significantly. We need a management plan that will bring such species to sustainable levels.

It is important that we have a measured debate in the context of a broad-ranging review of these issues. I look forward to the Minister of State bringing the Bill to committee where we will have an opportunity for the finer tuning that is required. I commend the Government on its efforts thus far to open the issue up to further consultation.

As a Deputy representing Sligo-North Leitrim I am well aware of the importance of the forestry industry in Ireland. Our forests are a vital natural resource which, at the same time, can present a challenge within communities. Forestry accounts for 11% of Ireland's land use, which compares unfavourably with a figure of 30% globally and up to 40% in Europe. In Leitrim, 16% of land is under afforestation, with the figure for Sligo being 12%. These percentages are above the national average and are, in part, a reflection of the rural character of both counties.

The introduction of this Bill is timely. It includes several proposals dealing with existing inadequacies that require to be addressed. Issues regarding the felling of mature forests have implications under many headings. For example, the blight it causes on our scenic environment can be immense. More than three years ago an area of forestry was felled at a beautiful location just outside Drumshanbo in County Leitrim which was known locally as the Acres amenity. The forestry site overlooks Acres Lake, which sees cruise traffic along the Shannon-Erne navigation waterway and is beside an outdoor swimming pool and playground operated by Leitrim County Council. The tree felling was undertaken legally by the private owner and had to be done as the trees had matured. However, locals were perturbed at what they saw as the blight on the landscape when the trees were removed, leaving behind a barren landscape. This is a situation that will be addressed under the Bill.

Another key provision is the introduction of changes to the felling licence system. A single licence will now be required as opposed to the two separate licences required under the 1946 Act, namely, a general licence and a limited licence. In addition, applications will no longer have to go before the Garda Síochána and will instead go through the Minister of the day. In the past 30 years we have seen an enormous increase in the number of private forestry owners and a corresponding increase in the number of felling licence applications. The view among the private sector is that the current system is not fit for purpose. The proposals in the Bill will reduce the amount of red tape and expedite the processing of felling applications.

The protection of the environment is always an important consideration and I welcome measures contained within the Bill to address this issue. Section 11 provides that the Minister must consider whether specific impact assessments should be carried out, including a screening for an environmental impact assessment and the submission of an environmental impact statement. Such impact studies are common in respect of other planning applications and are necessary in a context where felling decisions can have a significant impact on communities. There have been several stand-offs in this regard with local authorities in recent years. Engineers representing county councils have expressed the view that the level of financial deposits or payment does not adequately compensate the local authority for the damage done to small local roads. That is a major issue. The Minister might address these concerns in his reply and outline the input of the Minister of the day in respect of the consideration of a felling licence by the relevant local authority. I understand some councils adopt different approaches to tree-felling contractors by insisting on more in the way of regulations such as a limitation on the size of vehicular access to a felling site, thus reducing the amount of timber that can be brought out at any one time. We must adopt universal regulations in consultation with the timber industry, haulage contractors and local authorities.

The decision of the Government not to proceed with the sale of Coillte is very welcome considering the work the company does and the resources it offers communities, such as Lough Key Forrest and Activity Park in Boyle, County Roscommon. Forest walks maintained by Coillte in my own county of Sligo are a wonderful amenity. There is work to be done, in tandem with Fáilte Ireland, Coillte and the local authorities, in examining how we can further develop our forests as walking and leisure trails.

I welcome the proposals on replanting and ask the Minister to enforce a timeframe of replanting within the felling licence to ensure the eyesore of recently harvested land can be quickly turned around, especially in the vicinity of lakes and other scenic areas. I take this opportunity to recall the important work of our late colleague and Minister of State, Shane McEntee, in preparing the ground for these proposals. Many of us remember him and his contribution to the betterment of the forestry industry in Ireland as we contribute to this debate.

This Bill updates existing forestry law in several ways. It gives the Minister the power to make regulations for the effective management of the forestry sector and the protection of trees. It introduces a revised felling licence system and assigns powers to authorised officers to enforce the Forestry Acts. The introduction of the legislation follows consultation and reviews of the forestry industry in recent years. The conclusion of this process was that the existing regulatory framework for forestry is inadequate to deal with the complexities of a modern and sustainable forestry sector which places greater emphasis on protection of the environment.

In 2012 a report by Teagasc entitled Situation and Outlook for Forestry 2011-2012 indicated that in 2010, the overall value of forestry to the Irish economy was €673 million. It also stated:

Direct output in the wood products sectors (i.e. panel board mills, sawmills and other wood products sector) was €1.3 billion. The total value (direct and indirect) to the economy of the three wood processing sectors was €2.2 billion. The aggregate employment figure for the forest sector as a whole is estimated at close to 12,000 persons, the majority of whom are employed in rural Ireland. The aggregate employment figure for the forest sector as a whole is estimated at close to 16,000, the majority of whom are employed in rural areas.

These jobs are provided across the sector, in activities such as growing, harvesting and processing of forest products. There is a significant demand for timber as a raw material at present, and that demand is expected to increase in the next 20 years where, in addition to the traditional outlets in the wood processing sectors, the wood energy sector is also developing into a substantial market.

Ireland predominantly exports wood products to the United Kingdom. In fact, we have a 5% share of the overall UK timber market. Irish saw mills also export limited volumes of mostly low-category timber, mainly to markets in France, Belgium and Holland. Overall timber demand is expected to increase. To avoid medium-term shortfalls in wood fibre and meet the demands of our export-driven timber processing sector, mobilisation of private timber resources is necessary. The State has made a significant investment in the development of forestry over the years in order to ensure there is a critical mass of timber coming on stream to sustain the timber and timber products sector.

Forest cover nationally stands at almost 11%. Privately owned forest accounts for some 46% of this, most of which is in the ownership of farmers. Forest cover is good for the environment. It has the capacity to enhance the rural landscape and, when managed sensitively, can play an important role in the protection of river catchment. Forestry-related tourism contributes to the economy and benefits society in general. More than 20 million visits are made annually to Irish forests, with over 200,000 people using forest trails for exercise. Trekking through forests is an important aspect of walking tourism, a sector which attracts 500,000 visitors who spend €128 million annually. These benefits represent a return on the investment by the State in the development of Irish forestry and the forestry industry in recent decades through the provision of forest grants and premiums to landowners.

Forestry is also an important aspect of national policies such as the climate change strategy.

Forests contribute to reducing Ireland's carbon emissions through the use of wood fuels and wood products that replace imported fossil fuels and energy intensive products such as steel, plastic and aluminium. The use of wood to produce heat and electricity in Ireland resulted in an estimated reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 560,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2012. The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the subsequent impact on global warming is clearly an important environmental benefit of forests and forest products. The Bill recognises the important contribution forests can make in mitigating the adverse effects of climate change.

My colleagues, Deputies Martin Ferris and Seán Crowe, have spoken previously on the Bill and have referred to many of the important aspects of the proposed legislation and to the general policy relating to forestry. I echo their welcome of the news that there is to be no sale of Coillte or its forestry assets. That is in the best interests of the forestry sector. Maintaining Coillte lands and forestry in State ownership provides the potential for the development of these assets in the public interest.

Perhaps the decision with regard to Coillte has set a precedent. I was pleased to welcome today the decision by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, to reject the offers received to date for Bord Gáis Energy. I hope the Government will forget about any sale and proceed with the development of the energy sector in public ownership and in the best interests of citizens. At the committee meeting today I offered to work actively with the Minister and the Department in that venture.

Last week I was pleased to meet representatives of Coillte and the Irish Wind Energy Association to discuss the future use of Coillte lands. It is clear the people in Coillte envisage the company as a significant operator in the wind energy area. That Coillte owns such a large proportion of the land area suitable for wind farms means this makes sense. I see merit in the proposal from the wind energy sector that the Bill be amended in Part 2, section 5 to refer specifically and directly to the encouragement of wind energy.

There are many issues relating to the use of forestry land for the purpose of developing wind energy. Some parts of the forestry estate are eminently suitable, especially where there are no trees or where the trees are of low value in terms of timber quality. At the same time, we have no wish for a situation resulting in the large-scale clearance of trees to build wind farms. Areas harvested ought to be replaced by replanted forests of the same area. Nor is it desirable that other uses of forests, including commercial harvesting, should be set aside in favour of wind farms. Striking the balance is of the utmost importance and can be furthered through the Bill, if necessary, by incorporating amendments reflecting the different interests involved.

Another issue regarding the possible expansion of Coillte's role in promoting wind energy is whether the company should retain a direct interest in wind farms or lease land to be used by private companies for that purpose. Where this has occurred, it has caused public disquiet because it is believed the process of leasing such lands and the people to whom it has been leased is not transparent. There is a suspicion that the ownership of proposed wind farms is not apparent when the projects are approved. It is important also that a caveat would be included in the legislation and title documents to the effect that the owners of Coillte lands are expressly forbidden to lease, sublet or sell land for activities connected with hydraulic fracturing.

Renewable energy, of which wind power will continue to be a significant contributor in this country, is highly desirable. It is all the more important, therefore, that local communities and individuals living in the vicinity of wind farms are not made hostile to the sector through the perception or the reality that the sector appears to take little cognisance of local concerns. This raises the issue of choices and options having been decided before consultation begins, an issue to which I referred at the committee meeting today. Addressing the concerns communities and bringing them along will be crucial if publicly owned lands are to be used and if Coillte, as a publicly owned body, is to be directly involved in the development of wind power. The preference of my party is that if public lands are used, the wind farms should either be leased to local community projects with the possibility of directly meeting local energy requirements or maintained in the ownership of Coillte and, therefore, of the public. Significant investment costs would arise in this case but, as I understand it, Coillte is well-financed and in a sound position.

Coillte lands are central to the current plans to develop extensive wind farms in the midlands, currently leased to Element Power. The energy generated is to be exported to Britain, some 3,000 MW by 2018. When one considers that the current capacity in the State is a little over two thirds of the proposed export, one can envisage the scale of what is proposed. While I agree that energy exports could realise a significant economic benefit to the country in future, especially when we begin to develop tidal and wave generation fully, I am concerned that such a large-scale project has been agreed prior to the State achieving its own targets and becoming self-sufficient in electricity generation from wind power. I suggest that until these targets are attained, we should not consider energy exports. We need a cohesive comprehensive strategy covering energy, natural resources and, crucially, landscape management, irrespective of whether the energy is for use at home or abroad.

We are considering the Bill with regard to the use of Coillte lands and the ownership of the energy to be generated with a view to determining whether these issues might be addressed in a certain way. Our aim is to ensure that if the forestry lands are used for renewable energy projects, it would be as part of a co-ordinated State strategy to push ahead with the achievement of electricity self-sufficiency and to balance the use of the public forestry with other commercial and public environmental issues.

There are concerns regarding felling licences and the thinning of forests and a belief among some stakeholders that extra delays and bureaucracy are being proposed. Again, these issues can be addressed through amendments. Another issue which might be addressed is the question of replanting. As the Bill stands, the Minister has discretion regarding replanting. Others argue that where an area of public forestry is harvested, it ought to be mandatory for a similar area to be replanted. This would apply to the commercial use of forestry for timber but it would also be relevant in situations where wind farms are installed on forestry lands.

I have received representations from constituents regarding the fact that a townland is currently 80% forestry but is proposed to be totally planted, that is, 100% forested, a change which would have an impact on the area. No consultation or planning occurred in that case. A local farmer in the same area was refused a loan to expand his farming operation but was offered a loan to plant trees. I realise this does not come under the legislation but it is something that should be considered. It is wrong to have inducements to plant trees in areas where it might be perfectly possible to carry out a decent agriculture industry.

I recognise the need to update the legislation governing forestry but I believe there are aspects of the use of the public forestry, including those to which I have referred, which are not fully, explicitly or sufficiently addressed in the proposed legislation. I hope these issues can be addressed through various amendments as the Bill proceeds, and I hope the Minister will take on board some of the issues involved.

When the Gas Regulation Bill was being debated in the Dáil today, an important meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications was taking place. The Minister had to rush from that meeting to address the Dáil on the Gas Regulation Bill.

It makes no sense that a committee meeting would be scheduled for the same time as an important debate in the Dáil. Important debates were scheduled both in the committee rooms and in the Chamber and I for one cannot be in two places at one time. Surely, it is not beyond the planners and diary managers in this place to ensure that if a committee meeting is scheduled in respect of communications, energy and natural resources, the debate on the Bill would be held in the Dáil Chamber at a different time, thereby avoiding conflicts. This made no sense.

Deputy Conway is next and has five minutes. I understood that Deputy McCarthy was to speak before the Deputy but I do not see him in the Chamber. Is Deputy Conway in a position to proceed?

Yes. I thank the Chair for the opportunity to speak on this Bill and wish the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, all the best on the passage through the House of his first Bill in his new portfolio.

As a people, we can take trees for granted and perhaps Members remember the poem by Joyce Kilmer from their school days that states:

I think I will never see

A poem as lovely as a tree.

This is true and highly apt for this debate. There of course is another side in respect of trees and forestry, which is that they are a valuable asset to us as a people. As a member of the Labour Party and a Government Member, I am glad that forestry has been held within the ownership of the country and for its people. As an industry, Irish forestry is estimated to be worth more than €673 million to the economy and in 2010, it is estimated that the industry employed 12,000 people throughout Ireland.

Forestry is extremely important in my native county of Waterford and at present, Coillte manages forests in Dungarvan, Kilmacthomas, Portlaw, Melleray, the beautiful Vee, Ballyduff, Knockanore and in Tramore, where I grew up. A total of 300 people are employed directly in forestry in the south-east area between the Port of Waterford and in Clonmel. A further 500 people are estimated to be employed indirectly by activities in these two sites alone between haulage, harvesting and logistics. Given my knowledge of employment and access thereto in Waterford and the south east, these are important statistics for my constituency and those who live and work there.

I recently visited SmartPly, a factory based in the Port of Waterford, which makes an alternative to plywood with which it is easy to work. It uses the trees from across the south east, which are brought to Waterford and used in the production process. I understand that SmartPly has sought and hopes to attract significant investment to further its future, thereby enhancing further people's employability and ensuring it is a sustainable business in Waterford and the south east. It is vital that companies such as SmartPly have a reliable and sustainable supply of good quality wood to ensure their future and I for one am glad this debate is being held and that the legislation before Members will do just that.

This is the reason that providing the requisite updating to legislation in respect of managing forestry and the plants it has produced are to be welcomed. As this Bill proposes to update legislation, will promote good practice and will protect and develop the forestry industry, it is to be hoped that no other arm of Government will try to do anything that would put forestry in harm's way through the erection of pylons across some of the most beautiful forestry - in particular across the Comeragh Mountains - to which I would object most vigorously.

Yesterday, the IFA held a conference in Athlone focusing on forestry and the message from it was that farmers in County Waterford and throughout Ireland must have the confidence in the sector they require to convert their land to forestry. I hope this Bill will assist in that and will go some way towards giving them such assurances. Only 11% of the country is under forest, whereas the national strategic target for forestry is to increase that coverage to approximately 17%. Therefore, it is clear we have some way to go in this regard. The various interest groups call for continued Government investment in the area, which I support.

The Bill also pertains to a matter that is in focus, namely, the environment. It is vital to protect both the trees and the wildlife that depends on them. At present, for example, there is a concern regarding the threat from ash dieback, which is of particular interest to County Waterford and its hurlers. Vigilance is required to make sure it does not take hold here and I acknowledge this is a matter of concern to everyone present, because it is an important sector for the economy. While I welcome the updates contained in this legislation, I must also stress it is important that the forests remain accessible to citizens. I recently encountered a situation in the Passage East area of County Waterford in which local residents were extremely concerned about the possibility of losing a right of way through Coillte's forestry. While the issue was resolved, the matter brought into focus for me how valued and important are local areas and local woodlands to citizens. They are important for recreation, for health and for communities and Members must keep a focus on this point. Although forestry is an important strategic and economic resource, trees have tourism value and woods have a recreational value. In this context, Members must welcome the decision to which I referred earlier not to sell Coillte. As a Labour Party Deputy, I welcome this move and commend the Minister, Deputy Howlin, on his work in this area. I again thank the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, for the opportunity to speak on this Bill and wish him well as it passes through the House.

I thank Deputy Conway. I should have pointed out at the outset that there is an agreement on the sharing of time on this issue, with five minutes each being allocated to Deputies Conway and McCarthy and ten minutes for Deputy Regina Doherty. Is that correct?

Yes, except that my name is McNamara.

I beg the Deputy's pardon. Deputy McNamara has five minutes.

I thank the Acting Chairman. I join with my colleague, Deputy Conway, in welcoming the decision not to sell Coillte. It was part of a large shopping list compiled by the previous Government to be put up for sale to whomsoever wished to buy it. Thankfully, the Government has not been obliged to resort to doing that. However, the question still remains as to what is to be done with Coillte and how will it be managed in a way that will provide a return for the State. It is a question the present Administration will be obliged to answer. The current model clearly has not worked and as a member of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, I have attended various meetings at which representatives of the timber industry in Ireland have spoken, as have representatives of Coillte. The acting chief executive officer of Coillte gave the joint committee a highly effective presentation last week, in which he indicated clearly they are finally getting a grip on an organisation that, in respect of management pay in particular, effectively had been out of control for some years under the previous Government. Thankfully, that has been reined in.

I will turn my focus to the Bill before Members. It is timely and certainly is not before its time, as if anything it is extremely late in being brought before Members. Nevertheless, it provides many of the protections called for by my colleague, Deputy Conway, with regard to protecting the forests and trees in particular and in ensuring they are not felled unnecessarily, while at the same time striking a balance and making sure farmers can fell individual small trees if they are less than ten years old, if they are in a hedgerow and if the trunk does not exceed 20 cm in diameter. Effectively, farmers can go about hedgerow cutting.

This, however, brings me to a particular matter, which is that about this time of year, every year, Clare County Council sends out a lot of warnings to farmers across the county but it primarily affects east County Clare, where most of the trees are situated. The council warns farmers, in a highly threatening letter, as Clare County Council generally is not in the habit of issuing non-threatening letters, that particular trees pose a danger. It is a county council that specialises in threatening letters and if one does not take seriously the threat, it follows up more quickly than do most county councils with legal action, as a result of which it has a very large legal bill each year. However, that is an issue on which I do not wish to dwell. I do wish to focus on the aforementioned letters, which in my view unnecessarily are sent to farmers, frightening them. As a result of this, a large number of trees from which a branch or something similar could be lopped off are felled instead. It is distressing to many people, farmers included, in County Clare, who drive down roads and see a whole row of beech trees cut down. For example, in Killaloe, which is a very scenic town, Waterways Ireland took it upon itself to fell an entire row of beech trees that were planted around the time of the foundation of the State. There was a housing estate behind them but they now are gone. I travel through other countries - I visited County Wicklow recently - and always take great pleasure in driving to Thurles. As one drives from Clare to Thurles, one travels along a road with a row of beautiful oak trees right beside the road and I think that were this road in County Clare, the county council would have had those trees down a long time ago.

I have raised this matter with Clare County Council and I have been informed it is motivated by concerns for the safety of road-users because the trees pose a risk. Do the trees of Clare pose a unique risk in Ireland or in the world? Is it that Clare County Council has a particular attitude to trees? The number of tree-felling notices issued by the council is alarming to farmers as much as to everyone else. I am very much in favour of devolving power to county councils but sometimes one wonders that if this is the result of devolving power, then maybe devolving power is not a very good thing. What is happening in Clare is in marked contrast to what is happening in the Minister of State's county or in other counties.

I am not against the felling of trees. Trees are sown for a purpose, they grow naturally for a purpose, and they are often felled for a purpose. However, I am against the needless felling of trees and, in particular, the threatening of landowners who then feel forced to cut trees unnecessarily. This is an issue of grave concern to me.

I wish to raise a second issue related to the felling of trees. A large part of County Clare is afforested and the county is the third most afforested county in Ireland in terms of the size of the forest estate and the proportion of the county afforested. Large tracts of land were afforested in good faith by Coillte in the 1950s and 1960s when experiments were being conducted in the development of a new industry. Areas which were unsuited to forestry were also afforested. If Coillte wishes to fell those areas and allow them to return to nature, it is obliged to reforest them. The felling of the trees is not economically viable, much less the reforestation. For that reason I welcome the proposal in this Bill that the Minister can vary from the requirement to reforest areas. This is very necessary in some areas. It is very useful to be able to consider individual tracts of lands on their own merits.

I join with my colleague, Deputy Conway, in congratulating the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, as this is the first occasion he has introduced a Bill as Minister of State. The Bill is timely, given that this is the first Forestry Bill since 1954. I acknowledge the Minister of State's interest in this legislation.

The main aim of the Bill is to support the development of a modern forestry sector while taking note of good forest practice and required environmental protection. The legislation takes into consideration the progress that has been achieved in the sector in the 67 years since the first Forestry Bill was introduced. The current working regulations are nearly 70 years old with the result that an understaffed forestry service is unable to cope with administering the rising tide of applications from a rapidly maturing private forestry sector. The current regulatory regime, underpinned by the Forestry Act 1946, has been in place for over 60 years. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is of the view that a new Forestry Bill is now required to update existing legislative provisions and to introduce a regulatory framework that will support the development of a modern, multi­functional, sustainable and high quality forestry sector which enshrines the principles of sustainable forest management and the protection of the environment.

There have been some attempts over the past 15 years to update the legislation. It must be noted that there have 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.

Consultation with key stakeholders has recognised the need to ensure there is an appropriate balance between the various interests. I am satisfied that the new Bill will provide a more flexible system for regulating forestry activities, including felling licences and will better serve the interests of all stakeholders.

The Bill provides for the promotion and facilitation of the growth and sustainability of forests while having regard to the protection of this precious resource. The Bill's provisions include enhanced ministerial functions in areas such as the promotion, regulation and monitoring of forest operations. The Bill also provides for the protection of the environment when any forestry activity is being planned. It caters for forestry protection specifically relating to forest fires and it allows the Minister to require a landowner to remove vegetation from uncultivated land that poses a threat to an adjoining forest or to authorise persons to enter the land to remove the vegetation. It is crucial to develop forestry to a scale and in a manner which maximises its contribution to national economic and social well-being on a sustainable basis and which is compatible with the protection of the environment. It will be necessary to have a series of long-term strategic actions for a wide range of forestry activities to define how the overall strategy can be achieved on a sustainable basis and in a manner compatible with the protection of the environment.

There are 20,000 private forest-owners - of whom more than 17,000 are farmers - who have invested heavily over the past 30 years. The private forestry sector now accounts for nearly 50% of the national forest estate. The Government must continue to directly invest in the sector to ensure it realises its full potential. The national forest estate is now just over 730,000 ha or nearly 11% of the total land area. While this has expanded significantly since the early 1980s, it is still relatively low compared with our EU counterparts, given that nearly 40% of total land in the EU is under forest cover. Over 54% of the national forest estate is in public ownership, mainly through Coillte, with the remaining 46% in private ownership. This contrasts with the position 20 years ago when 70% was in public ownership with 30% in private ownership. This proves the extent of the private sector in growing and developing this industry. The intention of the new Forestry Bill is not to add to the administrative burden on landowners or other stakeholders in the sector, but to streamline and simplify the various processes. The systems put in place will be as user-friendly as possible and no unreasonable demands will be placed on anyone. The Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, has also given assurances that there will be a period of consultation prior to the introduction of the legislation.

The introduction of this Bill has generated a renewed level of public debate on forestry. I drive from County Meath to Leinster House four days a week and I have been doing so for nearly three years. Today was the first day I noticed there is only one tree in D'Olier Street, even though I have been driving down that street for three years. The legislation has raised my awareness of forestry and trees. I also note a renewed public interest in our national asset. We all love the landscape of forests and it is good for our health to walk among trees.

The forestry sector is an important aspect of the economy and it has contributed more than €700 million. Exports of wood products in 2012 accounted for €303 million and the total employment in forestry is estimated at 12,000. The forestry sector is made up of growing, processing, harvesting and transporting forestry products. It generates considerable economic wealth. The sector benefits the wider economy and more so in rural areas. I welcome the announcement yesterday regarding better employment statistics. The Bill ensures the development of a forestry sector in a manner and to a scale that maximises its contribution to our national socioeconomic well-being with a sustainable basis compatible with the protection of the environment.

Time is now allocated to the Technical Group. I call Deputy Daly. I understand she is sharing time with Deputy Catherine Murphy.

Yes, who is at a Whips' meeting but I will waffle on until she joins us.

This is a hugely important issue and I am happy to contribute to the debate on it. The Bill is modest but it gives us the opportunity to discuss the importance of forestry to the economy currently but also in terms of its potential in the future. The Bill contains some worthwhile measures but we need to do much more.

Nine thousand years ago, before the first settlers came to Ireland, the entire island was practically covered in forests. That situation deteriorated dramatically to such an extent that 110 years ago our forestry coverage was reduced to approximately 1%, although we have built it up somewhat since then. In terms of the figures it depends on who one reads but it is between 7% and 10% or 11%, which is welcome. It is far better than 1% but it is a long way from where we should be and falls far short of sustainable and desirable levels that a country like Ireland could support. We need to examine some measures in that regard. We have acknowledged that our aim is to have 17% coverage by 2030 covering a land mass of about 1.2 million ha but the way we are going we will fall well short of that. There must be dramatic intervention to improve that situation but the Bill, on its own, does not do enough in that regard.

The idea of mandatory replanting is welcome. I note that the rates of planting and replanting have been falling. They rose in the mid-1990s but at a significantly lower rate than the target. In essence, we are falling behind on that even though the amount we are replanting is growing.

The levels of afforestation being conducted in the private sector is a matter of deep concern. Like the other Deputies and most citizens in the State, we very much welcome that Coillte was not sold off and that the forestry was kept in public ownership but that masks a situation where in recent years Coillte was responsible for selling off acres of our national forests to private hands. That is regrettable.

I support the measures on mandatory replanting in the Bill. I support also the measures increasing the fines on those who do not do that but we must examine how that will be implemented because we must see this against the backdrop of cutbacks in local authority recruitment, public sector recruitment and so on. Are the local authorities, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine or whoever inspecting this area? Can they be staffed to adequate levels to ensure that those who break the law will be punished and that those who do not replant will be made to do so? I am not sure that question has been answered fully, and it must be examined further.

I would be interested to know whether any analysis has been conducted into the area of fuel poverty, and the Minister's view on that. There is anecdotal evidence of people cutting down trees to heat their homes or whatever as a result of fuel poverty. Has the Department examined that? One can understand the reason people would do it in these times of austerity but if it were to catch on we would have a huge problem and our afforestation policy would be significantly undermined.

I am aware also that in a number of areas the local authorities have been engaged in cutting down trees, including in my area in Fingal, often without the permission of residents, which is another story. What happens to those trees? Timber is a valuable crop be it for fuel or other purposes. What happens to the trees cut down by the local authorities and where do they factor into our reforestation policies? Is that an issue the Minister can comment on? It is important to the overall debate.

We underachieve in terms of what could be possible with afforestation. My understanding is that in recent years we sold off harvesting rights on tens of thousands of acres and that the moneys from that sale were used to shore up bad pension fund decisions made by Coillte rather than reinvesting in a genuine way. I am aware that organisations such as the Woodland League and others have called for a public inquiry into Coillte regarding a number of its operations. It has been suggested also that Coillte should be prevented from holding any sales until the matter of it selling off our crop and reinvesting it poorly has been fully investigated. That is something I would support. We must remember that Coillte is a commercial semi-State company; it is not a private commercial company. The role of the chief executive and others in that organisation must be examined and the organisation held to account. The decision to sell off land or trees in counties like Donegal caused a great outcry.

We are underachieving in this area. I support the Bill. The measures are quite good but they do not go far enough. We have to harp back to the potential in this area. Switzerland, which is half the size of Ireland but has twice the area of our forests, employs ten times more people that we do here. We crow about the fact that we employ 12,000 people, which I believe is welcome, but a country half the size of Ireland employs 120,000 people. We must have a vision and a direction in that regard.

Over the weekend I had the privilege of travelling to Mayo to meet some of the people still battling against the Shell Corrib gas project. On the way we passed through many of the counties that are significantly under-populated and could do with a lot of tree growing, which would be a boost to the economy. It also brought home the fact that in the west of Ireland we handed over our natural resources to Shell without any dividend for the Irish population and undervalued our indigenous industry. We have an economic policy which is based solely on slavishly following multinationals and incentivising them to come to this country to the detriment of our indigenous industry. If we invested a fraction of the resources we give in handouts to multinationals in areas like forestry, which have huge potential to create employment and generate economic growth, the country would be far better off.

I have just come from a meeting with the Minister, Deputy Bruton, where companies that were enticed into this country and got years of loyal service from the aviation maintenance sector, including grants and benefits, are now talking about pulling out not because of anything the Irish workforce did, which is recognised internationally as one of the best and the leanest, but because in the overall scale of things, Ireland is too small to fit into the plans of that global multinational.

We need to come back to base and start looking at developing our own strengths, and key to that is our land mass and our potential growth areas in a country previously covered in forests. We must see areas of land that are completely underdeveloped as having the potential to make an enormous contribution to economic growth not just in terms of employment numbers, but also in terms of economic sustainability because forestry and so on negates the impacts of CO2 emissions and so on. It is a win-win scenario.

I welcome the minor measures in the Bill, which will help if we put in the resources to ensure they are implemented.

However, they do not go far enough in terms of scratching the surface of the potential that exists in this area.

I welcome the advancement of the Bill, which most speakers did. It is time the legislation was updated and modernised. We are very conscious that the work started under the Minister of State, Deputy Hayes's predecessor, the late Shane McEntee, who, along with his family, we all think about at this time. Recently, a decision was made not to proceed with the sale of Coillte's harvesting rights. That is an issue on which I campaigned. The sale would have done irreparable damage to a key public resource not only for this generation, but for future generations. Any income gained from that sale could never have been hoped to match the amount which would have been lost, so that certainty about the future is very welcome.

Now that it has been established that Coillte forests and harvesting rights will remain exclusively in State hands, we must look at the poor record in regard to how we have approached afforestation in this country. Despite the fact the island was completely covered by forests, we have had a poor record of afforestation for centuries. Current afforestation policy calls for 17% forestry coverage by 2035 and yearly afforestation rates of 20,000 ha per annum by 2048. Current afforestation coverage is 11% which does not compare favourably with the European average which is 35%. When one considers the population density of Ireland, one might wonder why it is so low but, of course, there are historical reasons for that. During the Industrial Revolution in Britain, a lot of timber was required. The Irish population has a very unique dispersal pattern, which continues today. Very often farmers with very small holdings wanted a quick return on crops because some of the farms were very marginal. There would also have been an element of short-term thinking in terms of returns.

I am happy to see there are a number of improvements in the Bill in regard to the responsible management of our forests within the ecosystem, which is welcome. However, the Bill only mildly touches on the area of carbon sequestration. I would like to see that further developed, although I know there are sectoral plans and that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine will have a really important role to play in those plans because that is where our targets for climate change will be set and this area will be vitally important in that regard. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht just completed a report, which involved a number of hearings over the summer on the proposed carbon legislation. It was a very useful forerunner to the Bill because much expertise was gained by committee members who will be involved in the legislation. It is clear there are substantial issues with which we must deal. There are three areas in particular, namely, transport, agriculture and the built environment.

We are not allowed to use carbon sinks towards the 2020 targets but that is almost certain to change by 2015, so we must think ahead. It is estimated that Coillte forests store 10.5 million tonnes of CO2 and that the current stock of trees can store up to 1.1 million extra tonnes per year. That represents a clear opportunity to use our natural resource wisely. When one considers that we might end up paying fines in hard cash if we do not meet our obligations, this whole sector is really important.

We need to encourage the use of our forests and wood industry by-products as a source of renewable energy. Wood biomass is underutilised. We must look at examples like Scandinavia, which has been referred to several times. We have the wood craft industry and we cannot ignore the role Coillte plays as an employer in rural areas. These are areas where alternative sources of employment might be found now and in the future. The forestry sector is one of the few indigenous industries and Coillte accounts for more than 80% of the timber sold on the market. It supplies a whole range of wood processing facilities and it is a significant employer outside the larger urban centres. This helps to address employment imbalances from region to region where there are no natural assets and where this would be a natural asset in rural areas. Saw mills and panel board mills employ approximately 1,800 people. If we consider Coillte's liabilities, we must really focus on making the sector generate a value for the State, whether through increased employment, income through tourism, forest amenities or through carbon off-setting, which will be quite important.

Another area where we need some direct ministerial intervention is the use of forests as a public amenity. This kind of tourism is well developed in other countries, in particular in the United States. The public amenity value of Coillte forests cannot be over-stated. Some 54% of Coillte forests are on public land - in fact, it has grown quite a bit in recent years. Projects like the Dublin Mountains partnership and Donadea forest park in my constituency demonstrate the popularity of Coillte lands and another area of diversification that could be encouraged. While Coillte operates an open forestry policy, there is not a similar policy in private forests. Substantial grants are often paid to landowners and if grant assistance is provided, there could be a new condition to provide reasonable access to those lands. That might be something about which the Minister might think.

In terms of the visual landscape, it is very noticeable that much of County Wicklow has been planted with Sitka spruce, which has matured. The landscape can often resemble a bit of a war zone when it is stripped away at the one time. Wicklow is the garden of Ireland and that is not the best way to present such a vital tourism resource. Broad leaves need to be planted in locations and these forests should be regulated primarily as amenity forests, in particular, where there is a high level of tourism, and they should be managed accordingly. I would go as far as to say that the National Parks and Wildlife Service should have a remit in that respect.

I wish to deal with sub-thresholds and the rules and regulations in regard to planting. There is a really serious problem here. For example, an environmental impact assessment, EIA, is required if it is more than 50 ha. If it is under 50 ha, essentially, an EIA is not required but the local authority might ask for an environmental impact statement, EIS. In all the years I have been looking at planning applications, I have never seen an EIS argue against a proposed development. They are supposed to be independent but I have never seen anything independent about them in that they find a way to argue for the development. What happens is one gets 49 ha, 49 ha beside that and another 49 ha beside that. What one has is a large area developed without the EIA.

We need to find a way of dealing with that. I would like to think we could do so in this legislation. It is a real frustration for local authorities that are trying to have a positive impact, visually and otherwise, on the landscape.

I would like to share time with Deputy Coffey and the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe.

I welcome the opportunity to speak. I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, who is responsible for this area. I wish him well with this legislation. It is the first Bill he has brought before the House. His remit covers a broad spectrum within the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I appreciate the level of engagement he has taken on, including in my constituency of Limerick, which borders the Minister of State's constituency of Tipperary South. The Minister of State comes from a rural background and has spent many years in the Dáil, which means he has a good grasp of the issues in areas like horticulture, food safety and forestry. I wish him well in dealing with those aspects of the Department's activities.

Consultation has been mentioned frequently during this debate. I have personal experience in this regard as I have met many people to discuss this issue. As late as last week, I discussed it with people who are actively engaged in creating real jobs in the real economy. Opposition Deputies who often rail about this are feeling a bit sore this week because of the Government's success in creating 58,000 real jobs in the real economy. It is not a good week for the Opposition to give out. The section of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine that we are discussing is making a real contribution to the creation of those real jobs.

It is nobody's fault that the journey of this legislation through the House has inadvertently been delayed. I welcome the Minister of State's statement that there will be further opportunities for consultation with the industry. That is very important. The Minister of State will be aware that timber of the finest quality is produced in the eastern and western ends of my constituency. Some of the largest forested areas in the State are to be found in County Limerick. Having spoken to people who are working with landowners and farmers on afforestation, I know there are legitimate concerns. The Minister of State represents a rural constituency. Places like the beautiful Glen of Aherlow and the eastern slopes of the Galtee Mountains are in his back yard. There is a considerable amount of forestry in his constituency. Those who have spoken to him know he is open to consultation and I welcome that. I am glad that positive consultation will take place when the Bill is considered on Committee Stage.

This industry has been untapped in recent years. For too long, when trees were felled there was a temptation to view the material that was left after the timber was taken by the sawmill as a substandard waste material that should be left there. This was especially true in my area of west Limerick. Having spoken last week to a company in County Limerick, the Minister of State will know there is no such thing as waste forestry material anymore. It is important that absolutely everything can be used. It helps to build confidence among people who are looking at afforestation as an alternative land use.

The previous two speakers do not understand this issue because they represent urban constituencies. They spoke about the amount of forestry in Ireland before the Ice Age or after the Ice Age or something like that. They kind of bemoaned the fact that it is no longer the case that 99% of the country is covered in forestry. They seem to have forgotten that most land is in private ownership. Deputy Clare Daly might be anxious to cover everywhere with forestry. She is on a journey to make sure the gas does not come ashore, which would lead to more fuel poverty. She might be anxious to scatter trees all over the place. She has failed to acknowledge that this land is in private ownership. Much of it is agricultural land that is used to produce food. I know the Deputy is removed from rural Ireland and from the agricultural base that some of us represent.

When we talk about afforestation, it is important to recognise that most, if not all, of the land we are talking about is in private ownership. One should not talk about the achievement of afforestation targets unless one has spoken to landowners individually. One must recognise that some land is not suitable for forestry. Some land is more suitable for growing crops that can be used in food products. There is a need for a proper overall land management use policy that encompasses all of our land and encourages farmers and landowners to go in particular directions. That is a critical aspect of how we look at this issue, which I have discussed with the Minister of State at length.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is to the fore in building the capability of people to grow biomass materials, energy crops and forestry. It needs to engage in joined-up thinking with other Departments, especially the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, on how those materials are used. If we are going to have an overall policy on forestry, biomass materials and energy crops, we must ensure all Departments and State agencies can buy into it.

My constituency is fortunate to have the only strategic port in the west of Ireland. I refer to Foynes Port, which is a real testament to the development of the forestry industry. The industry has the potential to create many more jobs in the counties served by this harbour, which is used to export timber and timber products out of this country. I am sure other Deputies heard this morning's debate on "Morning Ireland" about the potential for those who grow Christmas trees. This lucrative export business, which is creating many jobs in the real economy, might not have been mentioned in this debate up to now. Perhaps Opposition speakers are not in favour of it.

I have spoken to the Minister of State about land use management plans, with particular reference to the National Parks and Wildlife Service. He is aware that there are many special areas of conservation and Natura areas in west Limerick. Other Deputies have spoken about this aspect of the matter. We have a particular relationship with a bird - the hen harrier. I would like the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, which is designing the second pillar of the new rural development programme, to sit down and look at this in an holistic way. There is no doubt that there is an element of frustration out there.

The three bodies I have mentioned need to bang heads together to ensure a more strategic long-term plan is put in place for the use of special protection areas. Much of the land I am talking about might have potential for forestry to be grown on it. Perhaps it could be used much better than it is being used at the moment. Equally, it might not have this potential. We need an overall plan. I am aware that a threat response plan is being currently considered by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and the National Parks and Wildlife Service in respect of the hen harrier. I implore the Minister of State with responsibility for forestry to engage with his colleagues on this important issue.

I would like to mention two other aspects of this issue briefly. The two Deputies who spoke before me have left the Chamber. They might not understand this anyway. As a person who represents a part of the country where there is a great deal of forestry, I suggest that a greater level of engagement with local authorities is needed. The Minister of State will be aware that when trees are being felled and cultivation is taking place, many articulated lorries have to pass through small rural communities that are served by substandard roads. In some instances, this lends itself to damage being done. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine had a scheme in this respect in the past. If it could be enhanced, that would be great. The Minister of State is working with county councils as part of his efforts to achieve an overall level of afforestation. Perhaps he could provide direct financial assistance or grant aid to them so that they can repair the damage that is done to roads during the planting and harvesting processes. It would be very welcome if that could be considered.

The other aspect of this matter I want to discuss is its tourism and recreation potential. The Minister of State will be familiar with the Ballyhoura region of my county because it is not too far away from his local area. One of the finest forests in the country, in terms of mixing the commercial end of forestry with a tourism amenity, is located near Ardpatrick in that region. It has developed into a fantastic product. When the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport visited it recently, he was able to take a spin on one of the mountain bike trails. There is huge potential for rural-based initiatives which involve, for example, the production of biofuels, the creation of real jobs in tourism and the use of land in a credible way to develop an existing product.

I will go back to one of the original points I made.

We have a commitment under Food Harvest 2020 that we will become one of the largest milk and beef producers, and everything else. We need to be realistic in terms of our forestry targets. While we are exceptionally low at the moment, we must realise that not every acre in the country can be planted with forestry, nor should it. Some land is not suitable for it because it can be of much greater value to the overall economy by not planting trees on it. On the other hand, with some land that is being farmed at the moment it might be better if the farmer was encouraged to consider forestry as an alternative.

I welcome the tenet of the Bill. I wish the Minister of State well in the role he has taken on. I know that many previous speakers paid tribute to his predecessor in the Department. I know that at this time of year, in particular, we are all thinking of him.

I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, the very best with the forestry portfolio. It is a very important role to have and I know there is a considerable amount of forestry in his constituency, as there is in mine. It is an area of much interest to him and he will do exceptionally well in the Department. I also acknowledge and remember our late colleague, Shane McEntee, the former Minister of State, who had a deep commitment to Irish forestry. I have no doubt that the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, will carry on the work of our late colleague, Mr. McEntee.

Forestry is a great natural resource with 40% of the land covered with forestry. I welcome that 46% of that is privately owned because we should encourage as many forestry growers as possible. I acknowledge the Government's continued support for forestry schemes, which have not been cut in recent budgets despite the financial and economic pressure. I recognise the roles of the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, in protecting the forestry schemes for farmers and the many others who are involved in the private sector. This support shows the long-term commitment of farmers who set aside land to plant forestry and ensure it grows to maximise its full potential. This is a very labour-intensive industry. I am told that 16,000 are employed in the sector not only in the protection and growing of forests, but also in the related production sector such as the sawmills and other production plants.

Forestry is a wonderful natural and renewable resource that will contribute to us reaching our climate-change targets. The role of forestry cannot be underestimated in this regard. Most important are the income and revenue streams that forestry brings to the country. The Bill will provide a modernised regulatory framework to manage all the forestry related activities. As we have been operating under 1946 legislation up to now, the Bill is welcome and timely. It will streamline the whole felling and licensing area of forestry management, and will provide powers to the authorised officials who deal with any illegal activity that might threaten our forestry.

I acknowledge the role Coillte has played and continues to play in growing, protecting and maintaining our forestry and the lands under forestry. It plays an important role in commercial harvesting, protecting our environment and the new growing areas of amenity and recreation, which could be exploited even further by Coillte and private forests with the growing recreational activities such as orienteering, mountain biking and leisure walking. It is important that all those areas are open. One of the oldest oak forests is privately owned in the Curraghmore estate in Portlaw, County Waterford. That fabulous old oak forest has been preserved over many generations.

The export of timber and timber products, such as wood-based panels, sawn timber, pulp and paper, is valued at approximately €280 million. Medite in south Tipperary and SmartPly in Waterford Port are two subsidiaries of Coillte which employ almost 900 people between direct and indirect jobs. It is important that the Government continues to support these plants. There are 146 jobs in Medite and 160 in SmartPly. When all the associated growers and services are included, it is an incredibly important industry for the south east.

SmartPly needs to upgrade its plant and machinery. It is exporting versatile board for structural use to the UK, Norway, Germany and Russia. I know it has sought Government permission to renew its plant and machinery at an estimated cost of €60 million. While this is a very large investment, it would be worthwhile primarily because of the jobs. In addition, it is producing innovative wood products that will increase our export revenues and help us in our recovery. I understand the Government is recommending this investment, which I welcome. I have been involved with the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, the Minister, Deputy Hogan, and our colleagues in the south east. We saw at first hand the good work done in the SmartPly plant in Waterford Port. I welcome the investment, which will protect the existing jobs. It secures the future of the plant and will create new job opportunities as these new innovative wood products are exported throughout the world. I hope this investment can get under way as soon as possible. I understand it is conditional on some restructuring within Coillte. I know Coillte and SmartPly will meet those challenges.

It is essential the forestry management and associated assets of our country are sweated to the maximum of their potential. We need to maximise production and utilise the sector to create employment opportunities and bring in revenue through exports. I support the Bill and wish the Minister of State well with it.

I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, the best of luck in his new portfolio, even though he has had it for quite some time. I commend his predecessor as Minister of State, the late Shane McEntee. I have no doubt he would have greatly enjoyed bringing the Bill through the House. I commend the work of both Ministers of State.

I come from a background very much involved in the forestry sector, and was involved with it before my election to this House. I know and understand the importance of the industry. The previous speakers, Deputies Coffey and O'Donovan, spoke about the importance of the sector. I do not believe people understand the investment that goes into the forestry industry. I was very much involved in the nursery side. I was employed by the None-So-Hardy nursery forestry comprising 660 acres in County Wexford. I got to see the process from the seed being sown right up to the tree being planted on some hillside in places including Wexford, Donegal, Kerry and Cork. It is amazing to see the different stages in that process.

Some 16,000 people are involved in the niche forestry sector with considerable additional indirect employment. During the housing boom from the late 1990s up to 2008, we did not have enough timber products in Ireland to keep the construction industry going. I would have thought we would have learned from that. A number of years ago, a farmer who set aside ten, 15 or 20 acres of his land for forestry was frowned upon by his farming counterparts. We have seen a sea change in that in recent years because we have seen the importance of the forestry sector for greenhouse gas reduction to assist the climate as well as what it contributes to the economy.

Today, I heard a farmer from County Wicklow speak on "Morning Ireland" about the export of Christmas trees from Ireland to Britain, France and other European markets.

Little did that small farmer think when he was planting those Christmas trees 15 or 20 years ago that he would export them to Britain or France or some other European market. That shows the high regard in which the Irish forestry sector is held in Europe and its importance to the local economy in Wicklow or wherever. It provides a significant amount of intensive employment.

I commend the former Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the late Deputy Shane McEntee, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the current Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes. I have sat at the Cabinet table for the past three years when every budget has brought in cuts and every Minister has been under real pressure to hold budgets in his or her Department and I have seen this sector hold its budget. That shows its potential.

None-So-Hardy in Wexford has 660 acres between Ballymurn outside Enniscorthy and outside Carnew in Wicklow. The Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, has seen it from start to finish and was very impressed. Deputy Coffey spoke about SmartPly. I was brought on a tour of SmartPly approximately 18 months ago. It is very important to Waterford and in Clonmel too. Ire-Wel Pallets outside Kilmuckridge exports pallets not alone in Europe, but to Coca-Cola and Pfizer and so on. The pallets are delivered worldwide. When one sees a company in Wexford so dependent on wood products, manufacturing pallets, and there are many other pallet manufacturers around the country, one sees the indirect opportunities offered by this sector. I encourage the Minister of State and other farmers to get involved in the forestry industry and consider it differently from how it was considered in the past.

I, too, am delighted to have some time to speak on this very important Bill this evening. Ar an gcéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom mo chomhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Tom Hayes, a thagann ón Dáilcheantar Tiobraid Árann Theas. I congratulate Deputy Tom Hayes and wish him well as a Minister of State. I have done so many times but must keep reiterating it in case he worries about me. I do wish him well with his portfolio. I am delighted that a man from South Tipperary is in charge of that portfolio because it is a very important industry to South Tipperary for many reasons on which I will expand later. I also join many colleagues in complimenting the work of his immediate predecessor, the late Deputy Shane McEntee, who so sadly left us, and who threw his full weight and enthusiasm into that sector too. He toured South Tipperary and Kerry where he had a peculiar incident on a forestry road in my colleague Deputy Healy Rae's car, but sin scéal eile. He looked forward to introducing this Bill and probably did much of the earlier work as did the former Minister of State, Deputy Connick, in the last Government. We all acknowledge that these things do not happen overnight. I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, well.

I cannot talk about forestry and the Minister of State without thinking of Dundrum, his home, and Dundrum Sawmills, and his colleague, Councillor Jack Crowe, who is soon to retire. The Crowe family has given a great deal of employment. One thinks too of the unique setting of the wooded environs of Dundrum House Hotel where there are some fine specimens of trees. Dundrum Sawmills gives employment, as do many other smaller sawmills such as Sheehan's in Burncourt. I could name half a dozen in that area which have survived over the decades, have given valuable employment and worked very hard in a tough business in tough conditions.

It is no mean achievement that 46% of planting in Ireland is privately owned. I was not aware that the figure was so high. In the past I have supported small farming communities when the finest of land was taken over for plantation. I may be speaking out of both sides of my mouth when I say that any good land planted with forestry never becomes reasonable farmland again. I support forestry and planting and accept the farmer's right to do what he likes with the land, but it is a pity to see really good land that can grow wheat or the finest of any crop, potatoes or sugar beet in the Golden Vale under plantation, all the more so if it is not maintained or nurtured and used to its full potential. When we think of the Famine and other times when there have been food shortages, we realise that good land is needed. There is potential in forestry too. It is a question of balance. The Minister of State, Deputy Hayes faces the challenge of balancing the productive farm land and growing timber for construction, fuel, green energy and to reduce our carbon footprint. It is a very fine balance and difficult to achieve. I, too, am delighted that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, protected the budget this year, as did his predecessor.

In recent years forestry has encompassed much more than trees. One can see what has been done in the majestic Aherlow House nestling in a mature wood and the Minister of State knows better than I do the work done by Aherlow Fáilte with walks, cycle paths, recreation, tours and the co-operation it gets. These are mainly Coillte forests, although some are private. The same is true of Lake Muskry and the other lakes in the Galtees which receive help from their partners, mainly in Coillte. They have recreational and amenity value and there is potential there for more development and exploitation. The Minister of State will be open to that suggestion and to the work of voluntary groups such as Aherlow Fáilte and Knockmealdown Active in South Tipperary, and Tipperary Tourism. If one wants a quiet place to reflect before or after the budget, there is no better place to go than into the woods where one meets no one other than the odd deer or other wildlife, not that one would not see the wood for the trees. It is a nice place to reflect in one's own space and time, especially when the woods are well maintained.

There are between 15,000 and 16,000 people employed in this sector and that is not to be sniffed at in these challenging times. We are operating under very old legislation that goes back 50 or 60 years. It needs to be brought forward and updated. The continued support of successive governments for the sector needs to be maintained. Medite is a technically advanced MDF plant that I toured in the company of the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, two years ago. I knew what it did but did not realise the finesse and sheer size and quality of its product which now features in hotel receptions, theatres and other areas. When Medite was first set up, it produced 8ft. x 4ft. sheets. Now it produces the finest veneer and has a magnificent processing plant employing 150 or 160 people and does a tremendous job. It needs a continuous supply and our support, which it will have. It is amazing what can be done with ply board, which was once used only for attics and partitions but now has many and varied uses. Transition year students and others have done projects to show the kind of creative work and quality product that comes from Medite and that can be used and adapted to many situations such as front-of-house furniture that we see in the queerest of places. One would never imagine it was MDF because it is so well finished.

It was so well manufactured in the first place and then developed and used by craftsmen. It is so pliable and so adaptable.

In Waterford, we have SmartPly Limited and many smaller sawmills. There were some in my area, in Lismore and Patrick Sheehan Sawmills, Burncourt. It is wonderful to see the skills and the craft work, which may not be in the bigger sawmills, of people such as Pat Sheehan. It is wonderful to see the old mill wheels that had rotted in certain old bakeries, including the bakery in Cahir, the works in Tullamore and different distilleries, and the pride the people have in their work.

When we see trees bending during a storm, we regard them as a threat as they might fall or may be too near a house or building. I have happy memories of seeing people with two horses pulling out the logs. Nowadays they have massive equipment such as the forwarders and the harvesters which are very expensive. In the past the horse and the chainsaw was used, although the chainsaw is still used. Certainly, it is dangerous and risky work but health and safety regulations ensure that the number of accidents has been minimised. That raw material is growing in Ireland and it provides an opportunity to crafts people such as Pat Sheehan to maintain our links with the past and our heritage and to ensure we have water mills or water wheels nestling and driven by water. If we did not have the raw material and the expertise to make and develop those, they would have long since gone, rusted and fallen into the water. It is wonderful to witness that type of work. I salute the Tipperary Development Company and other groups that have supported such projects. This is part of our heritage that if let slip we would not see again. It would be something we would only read about and not have the living experiences of those places as they work.

The Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Paul Kehoe, mentioned the nursery industry. The Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, will be aware more than others that it is huge in south Tipperary. I would go so far as to say, without fear of contradiction, the nursery in south Tipperary is probably the largest in the country. The Minister of State knows the nursery I am speaking about which has created many landscapes. With fertile land - I do not want to boast too much about it - specimen trees can be grown to a certain length. We can see much of it when travelling home on the N8 and now the M8. Those nurseries provide a huge amount of employment. While they have had a couple of lean years and are hanging in by the skin of their teeth, I hope the position will improve from an export point of view.

I know the Ceann Comhairle will soon light the Christmas tree here. For many years a Wexford man, Joe O'Flynn, living in Tipperary for many years, supplied the Christmas tree for this august building. I am proud of that because where Tipperary leads, Ireland follows. I note that the Ceann Comhairle came down to Tipperary for his wife some years ago. I admire his taste.

I did not go down there; she came to Dublin.

Whatever way the twain shall meet, I am delighted he enjoyed his time in Cashel at the weekend. That is not to say I am keeping tabs on him but Tipperary is a small place. He knows a bit about Tipperary also. We make our mark on places.

I did not mention the ash trees and the use to which we put them. In the main I am speaking to the Bill. I remember as a buachaill óg - I was about nine years of age - I had two neighbours who were brilliant carpenters. As I wanted a hurley, we got an ash butt out of the ditch. They had to cut it, take it home and cure it like a side of bacon. It had to be cured for a particular period of time. It was a work in progress for about two years. When I got it, we hit some balls with it and used it on more things than the ball. There were no penalty points or yellow cards at that time. In terms of the clash of ash, we have gone back a little but the Kilkenny lads are there now. It goes around, thank God, and I salute the men of Clare. Its sawmill in Scarriff has diminished somewhat, which is a pity.

I will return to the Bill rather than ramble through the woods like Patrick Kavanagh and his poetry. In regard to the export of Christmas trees, I heard the report on the radio this morning. I have witnessed it and have been involved in the removal of Christmas trees from the land in my own business, but one does not think of the impact and that they are going to far away places in Europe. Many private Christmas tree growers, including some from Coillte, export Christmas trees. I thank Coillte which usually provides two or three trees for our village, a community house and our school. We have always got them courtesy of Coillte. We got them legitimately in the past from the foresters for community gain.

I am delighted Coillte was not sold off, although in recent years it has been run down. I recall the Irish Forestry Service and the men who worked in it and the pride they had in their work. While driving on the road one could see its entrances, timber railings, styles and gates, all of which were painted. In due course it was transferred to Coillte. Like everything else, the fences have become run down. It is impossible to be a sheep farmer adjacent to a Coillte plantation. As with any plantation, whether a private plantation or a Coillte plantation, one has to depend on one's neighbours. Good neighbours are better than family. If one does not have good neighbours in terms of fencing, one is in trouble. Some years ago Coillte appeared to have adopted the attitude of just fencing until such time as the plant was established and then letting the place go to hell. If a farmer's sheep strayed, it was tough. In some cases they have been taken to the pound. That is not necessary and is not good for spirits. Farmers are needed to keep watch in the event of people wandering in and dropping a substance that might light and set fire to the forest. We have seen too many forest fires.

We need good relationships and Coillte must be reminded to go back to its base. I know it is all about money but we must never forget that it is a community initiative and people have to live alongside forestry. It should respect that and keep back from the road and watercourses. We have had instances in the past where local authority watercourses were damaged by the carelessness of contractors operating for Coillte. Respect is a two-way street. While I have praised Coillte for what it does in engaging with communities, in some areas they do not and just go in and out. There are some contractors who work for Coillte - I have met this in this building and elsewhere - who have very sad tales of not getting their pound of flesh and not being properly dealt with over the years.

I saw the document, serving those who serve the public, in which a merger of Coillte and Bord na Móna has been mooted. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, is more au fait with this than me. Following a merger, pressure will immediately fall on Coillte to provide wood biomass for Bord na Móna's electricity generation operation, which is required by regulation to guarantee that biomass products make up 30% of 300,000 tonnes of its fuel by 2015. It would be impossible to meet the demands for biomass in Bord na Móna's peat burning power station without compromising more than 100 jobs in two Coillte panel board processing plants, one in Clonmel and one in Waterford. Timber from Coillte forests also supports many jobs in the private and wood products sectors and fulfil an ever increasing demand for firewood. We have to make haste slowly. Far be from me to lecture the Minister of State, but we have to be very careful that what we might do to meet our greener obligations does not adversely impact on supply to the other people I mentioned in my own county and elsewhere. There is no point in a merger of two large companies if it has a devastating impact on the town of Clonmel and Waterford City. Goodness know Waterford has suffered enough in the past. We must be mindful of that.

The Bill is a reasonably modest attempt to regulate the area but as with all Bills we need to be mindful of the small print. The Minister of State would be well aware of flooding and, in fairness, flood defences have been put in place in Clonmel at enormous cost. They have not been tested but we think they are successful.

With the change to heavy machinery, roads can be impacted when private or Coillte harvesting takes place, but mainly Coillte.

Whereas the horse could cross lines along the side of the hill, the tracks made by this machinery go up and down and when heavy rain occurs, there is enormous flooding onto the roads. Sector guidelines must be in place for the felling of large areas because it is doing untold damage to country roads and bridges. There is always lots of debris left in the wood after the extraction of trees and this debris flows along and blocks bridges. It has blocked bridges and done severe damage. In some case it has swept away bridges. I know we are expecting a new treatment plant any day. I hope the Minister of State will announce it for Burncourt which faces significant issues at the moment because it flows off the river, bushes and brambles. We must be very careful with the sprays that can be used and even the dyes with which they mark the trees because they are all going into the water courses. I am not apportioning blame to anyone. We must be very careful about the different types of contamination that may result from forestry products.

I welcome the Bill. I want good land and marginal land to be treated sensibly and for more to be planted on marginal land. The neighbours, and by that I mean the people in the community regardless of whether they live in cottages or ordinary houses or are landowners, must be respected. It is a two-way street. The environment and heritage projects must be front-loaded as being necessary for tourism. We must handle this with care. Implementation is the key. It must be sensitive and cater for all the needs of rural and urban Ireland in order that when urban people wish to use these amenities, they can do so, leave them as they found them and get valuable recreational opportunities from them, while those of us who must live with them can appreciate them and have the respect of the forest owners, be they private or public.

I call Deputy O'Reilly who is sharing his time with Deputy John Paul Phelan.

I congratulate the Minister of State on bringing forward his first piece of legislation as Minister of State. I congratulate him not only on it being his first piece of legislation, but also on its contents. I acknowledge, as we all do today, the input into this legislation and the great background work of the former Minister of State, Shane McEntee, work that is being continued by the Minister of State. I wish the Minister of State many happy and fruitful years in that role.

I applaud the decision of the Government not to sell Coillte. It is among the myriad achievements of this Government in breaking free from the shackles of the initial bailout deal agreed by the previous Government. One of the most important ways in which we have broken free from the shackles of that deal was the decision not to sell Coillte. Our forestry and woodlands are a huge resource from tourism, recreational, quality of life, climate change and, notably, commercial perspectives. For many landowners, forestry is an attractive option, providing a steady annual income and from a practical point of view, making very good use of marginal land. That is the important issue.

Many farms have ten, 15 or 20 acres of marginal land which should be planted. That is happening to a greater extent than was previously the case. There are many young farmers in my constituency who work outside the farm and, for them, forestry is a cost-effective and less stressful way to continue farming than intensive cattle farming. It is worth noting that more than 19,000 farmers are private forest owners, covering 10% of Ireland in woodland. I congratulate the Minister of State and the Government on the fact we have managed, in the most straitened of circumstances, to preserve the forestry premia and the income of those farmers involved in private forestry. That is a great achievement that merits applause and I strongly recommend that this remains the case.

Approximately 12,000 people are employed either directly or indirectly through the forestry sector amounting to an annual return of €673 million to the Exchequer. This is an extraordinary contribution. We have a 5% share of the UK timber market and every indication shows that demand for timber is set to rise over the next ten years, especially as we are beginning to see a move towards renewable indigenous sources of energy such as biomass. Wood harvesting for energy purposes is driving the production end of forestry and this is a trend that can only increase as time goes on. Energy demand increases by approximately 5% per year in this country while we continue to import more than 90% of our energy. This cannot be a healthy balance and it is for that reason we must work on our forestry among other things. Wood energy is seen as a sustainable, carbon-neutral and secure source of heat, electricity and biofuel. We have excellent wood growing conditions in this country as our soil and climatic conditions are satisfactory.

This legislation is very welcome, especially in the context of the need to increase wood mobility and encourage future afforestation. The importance of forestry in the context of the climate change agenda cannot be emphasised enough. The fact that trees absorb carbon dioxide and are involved in the sequestration of, and are a sink for, carbon makes them critical infrastructure. Even if other countries offend in these areas, it is important that Ireland, which has always played a very important moral role at an international level, continues to perform at this level. That is an added attraction and achieves our objectives in terms of carbon emissions control from an economic perspective.

As it stands, 11% of our country is covered by forest, which is 24% short of the EU recommendation of 35%. We have great potential to develop this. This is also the first time in 67 years that the current forestry regulatory regime has been updated and reformed. We have come a long way from 1946 when the majority of our forests were under State ownership. There is an almost 50-50 split between privately owned forests and State-owned forests, and I am glad to see the legislation is responsive to this change. I know of many beautiful forests in my constituency which play their part in the generation of tourism related revenue. I invite Members of the House to visit any of these very beautiful and scenic places. We have Bellamont in Cootehill, which is a beautiful and historic location that contains many elements of our heritage, built and otherwise, in Bellamont Castle on the forest grounds around the lake. It is an extraordinarily beautiful place. We also have Dun a Rí in Kingscourt and Killykeen in west Cavan. In Bailieborough, where I live, we have the forest at Castle Lake which is a great resource for the quality of life of people and is extensively used by walkers. I commend the work done in recent years by Coillte in developing these forest areas, walks and amenities.

I urge the Minister of State to prioritise the continuing development of our forests for tourism because the modern tourist wants to walk, to have a healthy experience and to have the heritage experience. Invariably they are coming from an urban environment and want to get out into the wild.

For this reason, increasing the development of forest amenities, walks, seating around lakes, picnic areas, entryways to lakes and platforms for fishing is crucial. I hope that the Minister of State continues this important work, as it matters. The forests that I cited in my constituency, including a beautiful area in Virginia, attract a high volume of tourists and revenue to the county.

I welcome section 10 in Part 2, which ensures the proper regulation and monitoring of the management of forests. There will be rules for forest owners about harmful pests, diseases and invasive species. The Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, has been working hard to deal with the ash dieback disease. It is important that the wrong type of tree not be imported and placed alongside our trees to the detriment of our forests. In light of the lessons that we are learning as a result of our experience with ash dieback, it is important that we safeguard our existing and future forests.

This Part of the Bill introduces the concept of the farm management plan. It is a good principle. The Minister of State is connected to people and will understand what I am saying - we must not make this an administrative albatross around the necks of forest owners. The plan should contain simple objectives, for example, on when to fell, what will be done to maintain forests and what will be planted. It should not contain anything nasty. The last thing we need is a large, cumbersome form to be filled, a complex plan or the introduction of middle people, all of which will cost forest owners a great deal of money. I appeal to the Minister of State to keep these factors to a minimum and to ensure there are no difficulties, as they could act as a disincentive to afforestation. He is well aware of these issues and I hope that he will respond to them. I am sure that my concerns in this regard are shared by others.

I thank the Minister of State. I understand that issues pertaining to section 24 in Part 5 have arisen. Under this Part, the Minister of the day has the power to charge and recover fees for licensing approval and registration purposes. My understanding is that this is only a declaration in principle, in that, while it can happen, the Minister has no plans to make it happen in the short term. A ministerial reassurance on the record of the House would help the industry. It is important that the Minister be able to do what is necessary in the interests of forestry policy, but it should not be a disincentive to converting land into forestry, particularly for smaller producers, as that would be a worst case scenario and would impact on our EU target of 35% afforestation. There is no charge currently and the Minister has explained that it will not be done, but that merits repeating.

In terms of felling licences, a vital exemption clause is built into section 18. Landowners and-or farmers will be allowed to use up to 15 cu. m of wood deemed to be outside of forest or historical fort per year for personal use. It is important that farmers be allowed to do this. In my experience, which I suspect is also the Minister of State's experience, farmers generally do the right thing, be it with their livestock or forestry, and have a great sense of responsibility and ownership and a consciousness of the fact that they are preserving something important for future generations. Those who do the wrong thing are rare, sad exceptions who sometimes cause the need for unnecessary legislation.

The wood that farmers may use for personal purposes can be used for fencing and the maintenance of the natural landscape. Where there is evidence that illegal felling has occurred, it is important that the Minister of the day have the power necessary to impose an order on the offender. Section 25 in Part 6 gives the Minister the power to compel such a forest owner to replant the area or an equivalent area within his or her ownership and makes it an offence if the offender fails to do so. In extreme situations, the fines range up to a maximum of €1 million or imprisonment of five years. This type of penalty may seem excessive at first glance. From a conservation point of view, however, I have no doubt but that it will be a dissuasive and necessary inclusion. A minority make such measures necessary.

We need to strike a balance between promoting afforestation, ensuring that we reap the financial benefits generated and maintaining our collective responsibility for environmental protection. It is a tough balance to strike, but I am convinced that the Minister of State has introduced comprehensive and responsive legislation to the House. It ensures that the heritage of which we are proud is protected for future generations. The multifaceted benefit of our forests to the tourism industry, climate change, health and quality of life is incalculable. Their potential commercial value is also incalculable, given the fact that the sector's output is already €673 million per year.

All in all, this is an important element of Irish life and the economy and a vital debate. I am honoured to be a part of it. I wish the Minister of State and the legislation well. I hope that we will look back on this as a good day's work.

I am unsure as to whether I have had the opportunity to do so in the House since the Minister of State was appointed, but I wish him the best in his job.

I will make a couple of points. I come from a part of the world where there is a great deal of forestry. In south Kilkenny in particular, there has traditionally been a large amount of State forestry. In recent years, much private woodland has joined that. The Minister of State visited some of those areas recently. The importance of the sector to the local economy is significant.

I was interested in the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe's reference to SmartPly being in Waterford. Of course, it is not - it is in Kilkenny. It plays an obvious employment role that I hope will continue. As we all know, demand for timber will increase during the coming years.

This Bill is primarily designed to update current legislation. Under its provisions, the two separate felling licence processes that can be followed today will be streamlined into a single process. This makes sense. I am interested in the exemptions from felling licences. Perhaps the Minister of State will refer to them in his closing remarks. Under one exemption that does not make much sense to me - perhaps there is a simple explanation - all woodland in urban areas will be exempted from requiring a felling licence. Perhaps I am misreading the legislation. Why has this provision been included? If trees needed to be removed for safety reasons, etc., I would have no issue, but people would be concerned if a blanket exemption for felling were applied to the pockets of woodland in various urban centres around the country.

While I do not wish to go into specific cases, I want to mention the requirement for replanting which involves a large degree of bureaucracy. In particular, where people are felling small areas of private woodland there is an existing requirement for them to replant. However, if it is under five acres it is often difficult to get a quote from contractors to replant. I have come across one instance where an individual undertook to do the replanting himself. That was because it was impossible for him to get a quotation to replant such a small area which he felled due to farm consolidation. The individual was a dairy farmer who had no problem with replanting but he could not get anyone to quote for the work. It dragged on for a long time and eventually common sense prevailed.

I am glad that the Bill allows for more discretion in this regard, because the existing system was somewhat cumbersome. The forestry sector is important across the country. I grew up in a rural part of Kilkenny when there were over 1,000 acres of State forest at the back of the house in which I was reared. By and large, Coillte has done a good job in managing that area. However, Coillte faces many difficult issues, including indiscriminate dumping in some woodland areas. The company has endeavoured to do its best over the years to protect such areas.

The Woodstock Gardens in Inistioge has been a great development involving the local authority and Coillte, as well as others who live on the grounds of the old estate. Therefore, there are good examples of how our forests are being managed. On balance, I welcome the legislation and, hopefully, the Minister of State will have some news for me.

I wish to join with others in congratulating the Minister of State on his elevation to his new position. I wish him every success in the future. I now call on him to respond to the Second Stage debate.

At the outset, I would like to thank the many Deputies, including the Ceann Comhairle, who wished me well. All one needs in life is luck and, hopefully, things will go well in carrying out my tasks on behalf of the public.

I also thank the many Deputies on both sides of the House for their contributions to the Second Stage debate on this significant Bill. Their contributions have been both useful and informed. The range and extent of the comments provide evidence of the huge interest that forestry generates for so many people. The comments of the Deputies focused not just on the economic value of the forest industry, but also the importance of forestry from the environmental and recreational perspectives.

Tourism was mentioned in the context of forest walkways and roadways. I was struck by the link between tourism and forestry, and the importance of forest walkways in bringing overseas visitors to our country. As we emerge from our economic difficulties, we must try to encourage more tourists to come here. The forest sector will play a major role in that respect.

It is important that a legislative framework be put in place for the future development of this important economic resource that recognises and reflects the objective of ensuring that such development is consistent with protecting the environment. I am confident that the Bill will make a significant contribution to that process.

As I said in my opening remarks, this Bill is about forestry and good forest practices. Many people have spoken about Coillte but this Bill is not about that company. I acknowledge the many speakers who have praised the Government for making a difficult decision on the future of Coillte, which was good for the country. The Bill's provisions are applicable both to public and private forestry owners, which is important.

I appreciate that this legislation has been a long time in preparation and I am conscious of the gap between the completion of the initial consultation process some time ago and the presentation of the Bill to the House. To address this, several meetings have taken place recently with interested parties. In addition, we have received a number of written submissions.

In his contribution to the debate, Deputy Boyd Barrett made a strong call for further consultation on the Bill, as did my colleague Deputy Michael Creed. I noted their concerns and since the commencement of the Second Stage debate in early October, my officials and I have met with a number of stakeholder and representative groups spanning the range of forestry interests, including forest owners, forest companies, farm organisations, agricultural consultants and environmental groups. Even yesterday, at the IFA conference in Athlone I met with a group of forestry producers. In recent weeks, my door has been open for meaningful discussions on the Bill. I acknowledge the contribution of those who helped us to steer the Bill through the House.

I am satisfied that the Bill will provide a more flexible system for regulating forestry activities, including felling licensing and will better serve the interests of all stakeholders. Where regulations are to be introduced, I will also facilitate prior consultation with relevant stakeholders.

I wish to acknowledge the contribution of the late Shane McEntee who began the work on this legislation. As I go around the country to meet with various groups, Shane McEntee's name has come up every time due to his input and commitment to the legislation. Like everyone else, I think of him today and I also think of his widow and family as they face into the first anniversary of his death.

Deputies O'Reilly, Ferris, Ó Cuív and Halligan referred to the administrative burden associated with forestry. In my opening address I stressed that the intention of the Bill is not to add to the administrative burden on landowners or other stakeholders in the forest sector. It is important to repeat that message now. The intention is to streamline and simplify the various processes. The issue of red tape has been mentioned by many contributors, including one of my predecessors Deputy John Browne. I can reassure Deputies that the systems to be put in place by my Department will be as user-friendly as possible. It is neither in the Department's nor the applicant's interest that processes should be overly complex or difficult to deliver.

I acknowledge that people are considering working in the forestry sector, but there is also competition in the dairy industry where huge potential is developing following the developments regarding the quota. In addition, beef markets are opening up. With more profitability coming back into agriculture, forestry must be placed on a level playing field. It is in nobody's interest, therefore, to have a complex process operating in the sector. I look forward to working with everyone on Committee Stage to ensure that no administrative obstacles are placed in anyone's way.

Deputy Browne mentioned that the Bill does not set targets for the supply of wood to the industry.

The setting of such targets is a matter of ongoing policy. It is not a matter appropriate to primary legislation dealing with regulation of the industry.

I remind the House of the Government's continued commitment to forestry, as evidenced by the maintenance of funding for the forestry sector in the recent budget. As acknowledged today, the maintenance of funding in this area over the past few years and, in particular, the past year was a difficult task. The Government has in this regard, to use an old phrase, "put its money where its mouth is". I hope it can continue to maintain this funding into the future. The argument that the investment has been already made by the taxpayer will support this. I am pleased to reiterate that commitment as announced in the recent budget.

Deputies Creed, Ferris and others raised the issue of the Minister's ability to acquire land for afforestation. I am happy to clarify for the Deputies, farming organisations and forest owners concerned about this issue that based on the legal advice I have received on the matter, section 6(e) does not provide the Minister with the power to purchase land by compulsory order.

Another issue raised by Deputy Andrew Doyle and others is that of land availability. The Department has set up a working group comprising a wide range of stakeholders to examine the wide range of issues affecting existing afforestation levels, on which matter it will report to the Department. I hope this process will be successful and will result in the provision of a guideline or roadmap in this regard. One has only to drive the roads of Ireland to see the vast amount of marginal land that could potentially be used for forestry. It is important more land is made available. If this does not happen, the industry may run into trouble.

A number of Deputies, including Deputy Bannon, raised the issue of the requirement for felling licences and, in particular, for thinning operations. Thinning licences are needed to ensure protection of the environment, to prevent illegal deforestation and to facilitate timber certification and other traceability systems. This will provide forest owners with the necessary documentary evidence that trees have been felled and legally sourced. I have spoken to numerous forest owners and I acknowledge that thinning is good forest practice which needs to be encouraged. I also recognise that there is a need for thinning licences and that the licensing process needs to be user-friendly.

One of the advantages of a forest management plan is that it allows forest owners to have a medium to long-term vision for the woodlands they manage. The submission of such plans will allow all scheduled felling, including thinning, to be licensed for a period of up to ten years. It will also allow greater flexibility for forest owners scheduling harvesting activities. I propose on Committee Stage to introduce a provision dealing with turnaround times for the processing of these licences, which I hope will clarify the situation for the many people and Deputies who raised this issue with me. I am committed to making the process as easy as possible.

A number of Deputies also raised the issue of replanting following felling. The Bill allows the Minister to set conditions and includes the replanting of trees. Unlike the 1946 Act under which replanting is mandatory in the case of a general felling licence, this Bill provides for an element of discretion in relation to the felling regime proposed therein. This is important. Forests provide a wide range of benefits and play an essential role in protecting our environment. They also provide a sustainable supply of timber and fuel for industry, act as an essential store of carbon and are important for mitigation against climate change. The State has invested heavily in the afforestation programme through payment of grants and premiums and generous tax arrangements to encourage land-use change.

On the charging of fees, section 24 of the Bill gives the Minister the option to charge for the services of the Department into the future. This provision has given rise to some concerns among farmer and industry representatives and was also articulated by Deputy Joe Carey in the course of his contribution. It is a matter of policy whether the Minister should charge for such services. The inclusion of this provision in the Bill should not be interpreted as a statement of intent. I remind Deputies that the Department does not currently charge for forestry licences or scheme applications and this will remain the position.

On the powers of authorised officers, concern was expressed by a number of Deputies about the powers afforded in the Bill to authorised officers, primarily forestry inspectors, in the exercise of their functions. These powers are essential to enable the Department and its officers to fully investigate the range of issues in relation to alleged illegal activities encountered by it in the exercise of its forestry remit. Authorised officers of the Department working in areas such as plant health, marketing of forest reproductive material and direct payments already have a wide range of powers under various Acts and regulations, which are in line with those listed in the Bill. These powers will be exercised within the law and in a proportionate and fair manner. It is my intention to ensure fairness in this regard.

On the issue of penalties for offences such as illegal felling, forgery, etc., Deputies will be aware of the need for penalties to be dissuasive and proportionate. It is important to note that the penalties imposed will be a matter for the courts to decide following a conviction. The Bill also provides for fixed payment notices for minor offences relating to unlicensed felling, similar to those issued in respect of a speeding fine. These offences can be dealt with without the expense and utilisation of scarce resources that recourse to the courts entails. This is a very welcome development. It will ensure that illegally felled areas are replanted under the protection of the law without the offender being taken to court. It is a provision that should be made use of in other areas.

On the power of the Minister under section 20 to register felling conditions or replanting orders as a burden on the land, this power already exists in current legislation and is not new. It is a discretionary power which will serve to protect the interests of a potential purchaser of forestry land where, for example, there is a replanting condition. I will look again at the scope of this provision in the context of Committee Stage.

Several speakers expressed concern regarding the provisions setting out the responsibilities of committee members appointed under the Bill and, in particular, the penalties for breaches of confidentiality. Again, I will review this provision on Committee Stage.

The power of the Minister to request further information was also raised. This power is important in order to collect statistics and information on the national forest estate, which will complement national and EU reporting requirements. Collection of information on forests will also provide information to the Minister on how forests are being managed and may determine the direction of future policy. I have listened to the concerns expressed by Deputies in this regard and will consider the matter further on Committee Stage. I assure Members that the intention under this provision is nothing other than the compiling of information.

The issue of the damage caused by deer and vermin was raised by Deputy Andrew Doyle and others. I recognise that this is a serious problem in certain parts of the country, particularly in Wicklow. The Bill provides for the carrying out of deer control measures and the making of regulations in the areas of forest protection. Such regulations will be provided subject to consultation with all relevant stakeholders. I intend to commence that consultation process as soon as possible.

Deputies Mattie McGrath, Patrick O'Donovan, Tony McLoughlin and others referred to the impact of timber haulage on local roads. It is an issue that is raised regularly with local authorities throughout the country and is a matter of serious concern for local residents. The Forest Industry Transport Group, which includes representatives of local authorities, the haulage industry and relevant State bodies, is currently developing a good practice guide to managing timber transport. I am hopeful this will address some of the issues that have arisen and alleviate people's concerns.

I reiterate my appreciation of the contributions made by Deputies on this important issue. The debate has been very useful in providing clarity on key provisions of the Bill and putting to rest a number of misunderstandings. It was put to me more than once by certain parties that the Bill should be torn up, but I was never going to do that. When I came to office I knew this legislation had to be dealt with and, moreover, I knew it was needed. The democratic consultation process was very helpful to our endeavours to produce the best possible legislation. I take this opportunity to commend my officials on their commitment to making the Bill amenable both to people in rural areas and the forestry industry. It is an exciting sector and one that is very important from an economic and tourism point of view. It is also hugely important in terms of the environment. Anybody associated with forestry will have enjoyed the beautiful colours of the trees and leaves in recent weeks. I look forward to working with Deputies on Committee Stage to move the Bill forward.

Question put and agreed to.