I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes.
Forestry Bill 2013: Second Stage
I am pleased to present the Forestry Bill 2013 to this House and look forward to Members' constructive contributions on its provisions.
Since the beginning of its passage through the legislative process, the Bill has been the subject of much discussion with stakeholders and Oireachtas Members. I am pleased to announce that as a consequence of these consultations I propose to introduce a number of amendments to the Bill on Committee and Report Stages, which amendments I believe go a considerable way towards addressing the concerns expressed to me by a range of stakeholder interests. I believe a good balance has now been struck in the Bill that not only meets the needs of a flourishing industry but also serves the greater public good and protects the environment.
The purpose of the Bill is to reform and update the legislative framework for forestry. This will support the development of a modern forest sector which operates in accordance with the principles of good forest practice. The current regulatory regime, underpinned by the Forestry Act 1946 has been in place for almost 70 years. Considerable changes have occurred within the forestry sector during that time. There have also been many technological, scientific and regulatory developments in the intervening period. Key among these has been the recognition that forests are a multi-functional resource that provide significant economic, social and environmental benefits. As Minister of State with responsibility for forestry, I must ensure the governing legislation for forestry is flexible and facilitates rather than restricts the sustainable use and development of this important national and natural resource.
Before elaborating on the provisions of the Bill, it would be useful to put into context Irish forestry in terms of size and contribution to the economy of the country. By the early 1900s, forest cover in Ireland had been reduced to 1% of the land area of the country. This contributed to the need to regulate felling through the introduction of the Forestry Acts 1928 and 1946, which ensured that forest cover was maintained. The area of the national forest estate in Ireland is now over 730,000 hectares or almost 11% of the total land area. While this has expanded significantly since the early 1980s with the introduction of grant schemes aimed at encouraging private landowners, mainly farmers, to become involved in forestry, it is still relatively low compared to our EU counterparts given that almost 40% of total land in the European Union is under forest cover.
More than 54% of the national forest estate is in public ownership, mainly through Coillte Teoranta, with the remaining 46% in private ownership. This contrasts with the position 20 years ago when 70% was in public ownership and only 30% was in private ownership. There are more than 19,000 private forest owners throughout Ireland, the majority of whom are farmers. Ireland's forest sector comprises a growing sector, a vibrant processing sector and a modern harvesting and transport sector, with total employment in the region of 12,000. These jobs are mainly in rural areas and make a significant contribution to the local economies in which they are based. Exports of wood products in 2012 were just over €300 million, with wood-energy and processing also expanding as forests enter the production phase. Ireland's forests are widely used by the public for amenity and recreation, with an estimated 18 million recreational visits to Irish forests each year. The number of visits continues to increase, making this area a huge part of our tourism resource.
Since my appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for forestry, I have visited forest plantations, nurseries and timber processing facilities to see first-hand the actual work involved. I have also met with a number of representative groups, including timber processors, forestry companies, forest owner groups - a new grouping established to protect the interests of the now many private forest owners - and environmental organisations. My door is open to all involved in this sector. During my travels around the country in the past 12 months I met many people who are committed to this industry and who are interested in working with the forest service and my Department to build it into the future, thus creating a huge number of jobs across rural areas.
I will now address the main provisions of the Bill and give a general outline of its scope and how the proposed system of regulation will work in practice. Members will appreciate that many of the provisions are standard, technical or legal provisions and do not require any further clarification.
Part 1 contains a number of general provisions including the Short Title, rules governing the laying of documents before the Houses of the Oireachtas, service of documents and expenses of the Minister.
Section 2 contains the important definitions which determine the scope of the Bill. It is of necessity an extensive list that draws on many aspects of forest operations and practices.
Part 2 outlines in some detail the functions of the Minister, both general and specific. The general functions in section 5 include a range of promotional responsibilities relating to forestry, including afforestation, good forest practice that maintains the biological diversity of forests, the promotion of knowledge and awareness of forestry through education and training, and the development and marketing of a quality based processing sector. The Minister's general functions also include the regulation and monitoring of forest operations to ensure that forests are properly managed and protected from harmful pests, diseases and invasive species. The specific functions of the Minister are set down in section 6. These primary functions include the granting of licences for felling, afforestation, forest road works and approval of forest management plans, and the attaching of conditions to such licences and approvals. Regulation of forestry activities is essential both to avoid environmental damage and to maintain the existing forest estate so as to protect the investment by the State in the afforestation programme. An important feature of this section is the granting of powers to the Minister to give legislative effect to guidelines and standards covering a range of environmental considerations, from water quality to the protection of species such as the red squirrel and the freshwater pearl mussel.
Section 7 elaborates on the technical aspects of the Minister's powers relating to the granting of licences and approvals, including the setting of conditions, the extension of such licences and approvals and their suspension or revocation. Section 8 allows the Minister to appoint committees to assist and advise in the performance of his or her functions. Where advantageous, this may include the delegation to a committee of certain functions, subject to the Minister retaining overall responsibility and accountability. Issues concerning the confidentiality of the work of the committee and the responsibility of members are set down in section 9.
Section 10 enables the Minister to require forest owners to submit a forest management plan in support of applications for consented activities. Such plans would cover felling, including thinning, reforestation, forest road works and other forestry-related activities such as amenity and recreational use of forests. The forest management plan will also provide a mechanism whereby an application for a felling licence may be incorporated within the plan thus allowing for a flexible, responsive and timely system for dealing with activities such as thinning.
Part 3 provides for protection of the environment when any forestry activity is being planned. The licensing of forestry activities must have regard to the continued protection of the environment. There are consultation processes in place with a range of stakeholders, including the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Inland Fisheries Ireland, An Taisce, local authorities and the public. There are also guidelines on matters such as water quality, landscape, biodiversity, archaeology, and protected flora and fauna. Approximately 18% of the land area of Ireland is designated under European law as special areas of conservation or special protection areas. There are also additional national designations, such as natural heritage areas and national parks. Forest activities may be restricted in these designated areas.
Section 11 requires the Minister to have regard to the social, economic and environmental functions of forestry; and to follow good forest practice and to take particular account of the potential impact of forestry activities on different habitats and species in forests. Activities occurring within designated areas or affecting protected species, or activities that have the potential to impact on such areas or species, must be assessed for any adverse impact. Where it is considered that the activity has the potential to adversely impact on the designated area or protected species, the Minister will require the completion of an assessment of the impact of the forestry activity on the habitat, plant life, birds or animals so affected. Such assessments could also include proposals to avoid, mitigate or ameliorate any potential impact and if acceptable, these would then allow the proposed activity to proceed in an appropriately controlled and measured fashion.
Sections 12 and 13 are technical provisions that place an onus on forest owners to notify the Minister if their forest is damaged or destroyed, and also give the Minister the power to require information from forest owners and wood processing businesses for statistical or investigative purposes. Section 14 is important in the context of forest protection. Both 2010 and 2011 were among the worst years on record for land and forest fires in Ireland with many forest fires being caused by the uncontrolled burning of vegetation which spread to nearby forests. The forest estate suffered over 3,000 hectares of damage during those two years. This provision allows the Minister to serve a notice on a landowner to remove vegetation from uncultivated land that is posing a threat to an adjoining forest or to authorise persons to enter the land and remove the vegetation.
Section 15 deals with the control of species such as grey squirrels and rabbits where they pose a threat to forests. It allows the Minister to serve a notice on a landowner requiring him or her to take specified action to protect neighbouring forests from damage. Where land is unoccupied, or the owner fails to comply with such notice, the Minister may authorise a person to enter the land and deal with the particular species.
Part 4 deals with felling licences. The current licence system operated under the Forestry Act 1946 is now considered cumbersome in the context of the needs of a modern forest sector and wider society. The Bill proposes to simplify the process by replacing the two existing licences with a single felling licence. There will no longer be a requirement for a person to lodge an application for a felling licence at the nearest Garda station. The licence will be valid for a period of up to ten years with the possibility of an extension for a further five years, that is, 15 years in all. When the Minister grants a licence, he or she may impose conditions, including whether or not the land should be replanted. One of the primary purposes of the afforestation programme is to maintain and increase the national forest area, and replanting will continue to be required in all but exceptional circumstances. Unlicensed felling will continue to be an offence with penalties, on summary conviction, of €200 for every tree removed and-or imprisonment for six months.
On conviction on indictment, penalties ranging to a maximum of €1 million may be imposed and-or imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years. These penalties are at the higher end of the scale reflecting the seriousness of the offence and the need for dissuasive measures to ensure that the forest estate is protected.
In response to submissions from industry sources, I introduced amendments on Committee and Report Stages in the Dáil and a new section 18 now provides for fixed timelines for the processing of felling licence applications. Many people wanted to know when their applications would arrive back on their desks.
Section 19 provides for exemptions to the requirement for a felling licence. These include all trees within an urban area; trees that must be removed for public safety reasons or to prevent the spread of fire, pests or disease; and trees outside a forest that are within 10 m of a public road which the owner considers to be posing a danger to road users. An important exemption from the licensing requirement is that landowners will be able to remove trees on their own holdings for their own use, up to a limit of 15 m3 of wood in any period of 12 months, provided the trees are outside a forest and do not form part of a decorative avenue or ring of trees on the holding. Concern was expressed in a number of quarters about the need for the protection of larger established trees in hedgerows and individual old or veteran trees in the context of this provision. In response, I introduced an amendment on Report Stage that extends protection for such trees within the environs of national monuments or archaeological sites, trees within designated European sites and trees which are more than 150 years old. Notwithstanding the exemptions, the Bill in section 20 also enables the Minister to issue an order prohibiting the felling or removing of any tree, with penalties for those who do not comply.
Section 21 allows the Minister to notify the Property Registration Authority of the imposition of a replanting order on land where trees have been felled without a licence or in contravention of a condition of a licence so that these can be registered as a burden on the land until the replanting order has been complied with. This is to ensure that trees which have been illegally cut down are replaced and also to protect prospective purchasers of forestry land. Once the conditions of the licence or the order are satisfied, the Minister, on such notification by the owner, will inform the registering authority of the discharge of the burden or compliance with the conditions.
Part 5, section 22, sets out the requirements for licensing of afforestation and forest roadwork projects and aerial fertilisation of forests. This is a technical provision which expands on the application process. It empowers the Minister to impose conditions on the grant of licences, provides for the imposition of penalties where unlicensed development, or development that does not comply with the conditions of a licence, takes place and also provides for the making of regulations governing the issuing of licences.
Many of the provisions of the Bill impose obligations on owners and other parties engaged in forestry activities and the enforcement provisions in Part 6 are vital to ensure compliance with these requirements. Section 23 allows the Minister to appoint authorised officers to enforce the various statutory provisions. These officers are normally departmental forestry inspectors but members of An Garda Síochána are also authorised officers for the purposes of the Bill. The powers of authorised officers are listed in detail in section 24. They include the power of entry onto lands to inspect and remove, if necessary, any material considered a risk to trees and to remove records or other information relevant to the inspection or investigation.
Section 25 empowers the Minister to charge for licences and other services provided by the legislation. It is a matter of policy as to whether there should be charges for such services and its inclusion in the Bill should not be interpreted as a statement of intent at this point. During the consideration of this section in the Dáil, I introduced an amendment on Report Stage that provides for an element of parliamentary scrutiny of any proposal to impose charges.
One of the important tenets of sustainable forest management is the regeneration of forests following felling. The licensing system outlined in this Bill is built on the premise that, save in exceptional circumstances, forests that are felled must be replanted. Where illegal felling has occurred, it is important, therefore, that the Minister has the power to impose an order on the offender compelling him or her to replant the area or an equivalent area within his or her ownership. Part 7, section 26, provides the Minister with such powers and also makes it an offence if the offender fails to comply with the order.
Part 8 of the Bill deals with offences and penalties and encompasses an extensive list of such offences in section 27. Offences range from submitting false or misleading information in support of an application for approval or a licence to failure to comply with notices or other conditions or requirements. Important provisions include causing irremediable damage to a tree and, as referred to already, intentional or reckless setting fire to trees.
The penalties in section 27 range from €200 for damaging or removing a tree to fines of up to €1,000,000 and-or five years imprisonment for conviction on indictment of felling or removing trees without a licence. The penalties applicable, which are ranked according to the seriousness of the offence, are of necessity severe so as to act as a deterrent against wrongdoing or failure to comply with conditions set down in the legislation. Where the offence is committed by a body corporate, section 29 enables the Minister to prosecute both the body corporate and officers of the body corporate.
Part 9, section 30, enables the Minister to make regulations relating to the range of forestry activities, including afforestation, forest protection, forest roads, training and education. Importantly, the regulations also include provisions to prevent the entry into the State, or the control or extermination within the State, of insects, pests or invasive species that might threaten trees, an important provision having regard to the recent outbreak of ash dieback disease.
In Part 10, section 32, provision is included for payment of compensation in certain limited circumstances where applications for licences are refused.
The Bill includes an amendment to the Agriculture Appeals Act 2001 to extend its remit to a number of forestry activities and to provide for the establishment of a forestry appeals committee.
I thank Senators for their attention and look forward to hearing their contributions to the debate. This is a really important area.
The potential for the forestry sector to deliver jobs and exports is underestimated. Many hectares of land across the country that are not viable for dairying or other agricultural uses could be considered for forestry. Many Governments have committed taxpayers’ money to progress the forestry industry but I believe there is still more potential for job creation in rural areas, as well as in tourism and forestry linkages. I have met many landowners who have invested in forestry because their lands were not viable for dairying. They got much information from Teagasc and the forestry service on how to switch to forestry. It is a good story that can be built upon.
I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive and detailed report on this important Bill. I agree with him on the importance of our afforestation programme and publicly and privately-owned forests which play an important role in biodiversity and recreation.
At one time the island of Ireland was completely covered by forests. By the turn of the 20th century, the forests had been reduced to 1.5% of total landmass, coming to 135,000 hectares. In 1903, the then Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction acquired the Avondale estate in County Wicklow, along with woodland areas of some other estates, which saw the initiation of State intervention to provide forestry cover. In 1928, when the Forestry Bill 1928 was taken in the Seanad, there was a heated debate between the Minister for Lands and Agriculture, Mr. Patrick J. Hogan, and Members on the future of State-owned forestry and who would benefit from it, as well as who would suffer as a consequence. The intervention by the State and those early steps in the 1920s proved to be successful, albeit until the 1970s. The 1946 Forestry Act brought about increased State intervention along with other Acts in the 1950s and 1980s. With EU grants becoming available in the 1980s through the agriculture Department, the private forestry sector began to develop. Coillte, established in 1988, also proved instrumental in developing this sector. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has targets for increasing forest cover from 10.9% by 2030, proving the success of State intervention along with the influence of the European Commission.
What are the Minister’s views on the concerns brought forward by forest growers on taxation issues affecting their industry? How will the new Common Agricultural Policy affect the continuing of grant aid and growers’ investment? As the Minister stated, with the forthcoming milk quota changes, it may not be economically viable for some farmers to continue dairy farming. For other farmers, their lands might not be suitable for sheep farming or tillage. Afforestation could prove to be the answer for these farmers. As it will involve capital expenditure, it is important the banks are aware of the afforestation programme.
It is important Coillte is kept in State ownership so as to drive the industry’s development. Publicly-owned forests are a tremendous resource, attracting 18 million visitors, along with €360 million in direct revenues to the State. Coillte is committed to the development of walkways and cycle routes in our forests. With the increasing challenge of rising obesity levels, there is a need for people to be more physically active and our children to engage more with outdoor living. Coillte’s forests would provide an excellent resource in this regard, particularly for those children growing up in cities. A tailor-made schools programme could be developed in conjunction with the Minister’s Department to allow those children not growing up in rural Ireland but deserve its benefits to go on nature walks and learn more about nature.
I acknowledge that when this Bill was going through the other House, the Minister of State was willing to take on amendments. We will probably table amendments too, but I see no reason the Bill should not be supported in general. There are issues for the industry, as a whole, such as the public good for Coillte and the grant aid and taxation issues for private growers, which can be addressed.
The purpose of the Forestry Bill 2013 is to reform and update the legislative framework relating to forestry. It will support the development of a modern forestry sector to operate in accordance with good forestry practice and with a view to protecting the environment. The forestry industry is of great importance as it affects so many different sectors of the economy. National forest cover stands at 11%, of which private-owned forests account for 46%. These are mainly owned by farmers and it is important they are becoming more involved in this industry.
Governments have made a significant investment in the development of forestry during the years to ensure a critical mass of timber to sustain the timber processing and products sector. Forestry provides significant benefits including rural employment, valuable exports, climate change remediation, social and recreational benefits, as well as environmental value. Forestry also makes a considerable contribution to the economy. The direct output from the sector, excluding the processing sector, was €378 million. For every €1 million of expenditure in the sector, a further €780 million in expenditure is generated in the rest of the economy.
Hence, the overall value of the forest sector to the Irish economy was €673 million. Direct output in the processing sector, including mills, sawmills and other wood processors, was €1.3 billion. The total value of the forest industry to the economy of the processing sector, direct and indirect, was €2.2 billion. On forest recreation, there are more than 20 million visits annually to Irish forests, with 200,000 people using forest trails for exercise. Trekking through forests is an important part of walking tourism, which attracts 500,000 visitors who spend €138 million annually.
Forestry also has an important role to play in climate change. Forests contribute to reducing Ireland's carbon emissions through the replacement of wood fuels and products with 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 560,000 tonne reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 2012. This Bill recognises the important contribution which forests do and can make in mitigating the adverse affects of climate change.
The Forestry Act 1946 is the primary legislation underpinning the current forestry regulatory framework. Aspects of the 1946 legislation relate to land acquisition, research and development. flora and fauna, vermin control and a felling licence system which provides for limited and general tree felling. The Forestry Act 1946 is replaced by this Bill. Much has changed in the Irish forestry sector since the enactment of the 1946 Act. Forestry has transformed into a different industry, thus there is a need for the Bill update the legislation governing forestry.
The objective of the Bill is to promote and facilitate the growth and sustainability of our forestry sector while at the same time having regard to the protection of the environment and maintenance of the social benefits of other public goods provided by forestry. The Bill is about forestry and good forest practice. It is necessary to streamline and simplify the various processes. It will benefit not only the forest sector but the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine which is responsible for the administration and regulation of forestry. The Bill provides for a comprehensive statutory framework for the regulation of forestry-related activities into the future. It provides among other things for the streamlining of the felling licence process, greater flexibility within the licensing system and the placing on a statutory basis of the various forest guidelines, including those relating to plant health, and forest management plans. It also expands the power of the Minister and appointed authorised officers in relation to the control and prosecution of illegal or dangerous acts that threaten the forest estate. It provides for significant and dissuasive penalties for those prosecuted of such offences.
It is not envisaged that this legislation will result in any significant additional cost to the Exchequer or business. It will have positive effects on the environment by providing a greater emphasis on the compliance with sustainable forest management, SFM, and the environmental guidelines published by the Forest Service. This will help to conserve biological diversity within forests and ensure that we continue to gain from the other ecosystems and services that forests provide. The Bill will also have a solid impact on rural communities by way of its encouragement of employment in these areas.
I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, and thank him for his opening contribution. I agree with Thomas Pakenham that we live with trees and that they are our neighbours. I would propose greater protection of them than is provided for in particular parts of this Bill. For example, section 19 provides for the felling of trees and section 20 provides for the powers of the Minister in this regard in respect of persons caught doing so. I would provide greater powers under section 20 than section 19. However, I will come back to this issue.
I am concerned about ash dieback disease, which was a major issue for the Minister of State's predecessor, the late Shane McEntee. The problems we experienced in this regard were in part the result of our importing ash into this country because we did not have enough of it here, which imported ash was contaminated. I would have expected the GAA and forestry authorities to have made a better job of anticipating the demand for ash in this country. As I recall it, according to the late Minister of State, Shane McEntee, the ash dieback problem here originated from imported ash products. Perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy Hayes, would update us on progress in this area. In my view, the late Minister of State, Shane McEntee, had more hope than confidence that future such problems could be averted. The late Sir Horace Plunkett was a Senator and first secretary of the Minister of State's Department prior to the setting of the State, at which time there was much interest in development issues.
I am concerned also about the amount of sitka spruce that we have been growing for a long time. Will it ever realise much in the way of value added? If we had planted much more valuable varieties in the late 1940s when the late Sean McBride was moving on the big forestry targets, would we now have a much better resource? We seem to grow a lot of low value trees. I regard leylandii as a tree species that should be banned in this country. It is a blot on the landscape everywhere. I am concerned, too, about the rhododendrons in Killarney. I am sure that like me the Minister of State has received e-mails from botanists expressing the view that if we do not address the spread of rhododendrons, indigenous trees such as the arbutus and the oak will be destroyed.
Some cleared forests are like a lunar landscape. I welcome the provisions in this regard in the legislation. However, during a visit to Wicklow I noted that there are many tree stumps there. When harvesting a crop farmers prepare the land for the next year. Why, at a time when we are trying to promote tourism into the country, is there a delay between taking the first crop and planting the second crop, which results in an unattractive landscape?
In terms of the Minister of State's plan for this area, there is a need for consideration of the educational aspects of this sector. We used to have relevant educational facilities in Kinnity, Avondale and the John Kells-Ingram farm near Slane, which was attached to the agriculture school in Trinity College where previously Professor Lawrence Roche worked and where Frank Confrey is currently doing work. Are the necessary educational facilities to provide the required labour force in respect of the Minister of State's development plans available? The Minister of State might also address the media concern around the issue of pay in respect of the chief executive of Coillte. On recreation, reference has been already made to the 18 million visits. People who live near Donadea would like to pass on to the forester in charge their appreciation of that valued amenity.
The Minister of State said that under Part 2, section 5, forests are properly managed and protected from harmful pests, diseases and invasive species, which begs the question of how the ash dieback disease got from central Europe to Ireland, why we did not have measures in place to prevent that happening and how much it will cost to address that issue. On section 10 and forest management plans, is it the intention to impose such plans on the managers of private forests or will exemptions be granted to those who can prove that they have been managing their forests well up to now? Perhaps the Minister of State might elaborate on how it is proposed to progress this section.
The Minister of State also said forest activities may be restricted in designated areas such as national parks. We need to urgently address the rhododendron issue, which is of concern to many botanists. This issue is also covered by section 10.
On section 14 which deals with vegetation and fires, is it not possible to impose fines on the people who cause the fires, which, as stated by the Minister of State, cause millions of euro of damage? Is there a liability in law in respect of a person who starts a fire which results in substantial damage to other people's property? If not, that is a moral hazard problem. While I acknowledge the need to provide for tidying up afterwards, providing in law that a person who sets fire to another person's property will have to meet the cost of putting things right, would be the correct thing to do.
On the single felling licence and that unlicensed felling is to be an offence with penalties of €200 for every tree removed, I wonder is that €200 enough. If one removes a tree, it will take 20 or 30 years to replace. There is no point in planting a few saplings. One destroys a view or amenity, and it could take 20 or 30 years before it is restored. Should there be a lasting penalty, not only the replacement of a tree with a sapling.
We paid tribute to the late former Senator Edward Haughey earlier. In his village, Kilcurry, a 200 year old sycamore was defended by the locals against Louth County Council and it is now a valuable part of that amenity. In this regard, it might be a model. Is the forest estate protected?
Section 19 removes exemptions to the requirement for a felling licence and it is draconian. The Minister should look where we are, in Merrion Square. The section removes exemptions from all trees in an urban area. I refer to cities such as Brussels where the forest goes right into the city. If section 19 were implemented without the controls in section 20, the Phoenix Park, St. Stephen's Green and trees along roads all would be endangered. I would not like to give any consolation to those who knock down trees that they have carte blanche to do so under section 19. The exemptions to the felling licence requirement include all trees within an urban area. Trees are part of the urban environment. They enhance it. Not to protect trees brings me to the kind of building there was in the boom era in Ireland where the landscape was completely flattened. Let us keep trees because they enhance the value of the environment for the children who will eventually live in those houses.
The exemption also includes trees within 10 m of a public road posing a danger to road users. Such trees also insulate properties against noise from roads. I seek a balance in that regard, and not to give carte blanche to engineers to start knocking them.
The Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, has stated the Bill enables some prohibitions but it is not good enough the way in suburban estates in the Dublin area old houses are bought and everything is levelled to fit in as many houses as possible with the developers stating they will plant a few saplings and in 20 or 30 years nobody will know the difference. The inherited trees are part of our heritage and we should protect them. I would hate to see any threat to the Botanic Gardens, old estates, urban areas, amenity areas, etc.
A replanting order is not good enough. One will never replant adequately, for example, when one knocks down an old oak. As I stated, it will take 20 or 30 years before one would restore the amenity. I would look hard on that. Can the Department google to see where all the trees are and then protect them and make it difficult under section 20 to get these exemptions?
I mentioned replanting the areas. The €200 fine for damaging or removing a tree is too low.
The measures to prevent the entry into the State and to control pests are important and I support the Minister of State on them.
I thank the Acting Chairman, Senator Jillian van Turnhout, for her indulgence and thank the Minister of State for listening. This is major legislation. I note, as other Senators stated, that the Minister of State took in lots of suggestions from the Dáil. I wish him good luck. When I pass Dundrum, between Dublin and Cork, I know there is a Tipperary man in charge of the forest and that is reassuring.
I am amazed only five days after the all-Ireland final that nobody has put a jibe across the Minister of State regarding the result. As a fellow Tipperary man, I can assure him I am not going to do so. All I can say is that the ash was certainly tested on Saturday last. As anybody who saw the slow-motion shots on RTE will confirm, they literally showed the hurleys bending as proof positive that that ash is in good condition anyway and is probably not the imported stuff.
On a more serious note, I welcome the Minister of State. I listened intently to his opening remarks where he covered in great detail the terms of the Bill. I have a few issues to raise, more for clarity than anything else.
I am thrilled at the decision of the Government a number of months ago to retain Coillte in State ownership. That was a major issue in rural areas, where the Minister of State and I live. Many from urban Ireland were concerned because of the facility, resource and amenity that the Irish forest is to the people of Ireland. That was a good decision by the Government. Despite the financial and other difficulties, there are certain assets that cannot be sold off. In my view, forestry is one of these. I commend the Minister of State for his input at the time.
I welcome the Bill. As the Minister of State said in his opening remarks, this is to replace legislation some of which is 70 years old. That was a time when workers went into the forest with horse and bow saw, knocked trees in that fashion and drew them out onto the road, and then they were moved, in some cases by river and canal. We have moved a long way since then in Ireland and have modernised.
Senator Michael Comiskey is probably one of the foremost experts in this area even though many may not know that. I would say he has more knowledge on the subject than all of us here in this room combined.
I welcome that there are so many jobs in the sector in this country, but I see massive potential, and the Minister of State finished his closing remarks on that issue. We have an 11% afforestation figure in Ireland and the European average is 35%. We have, therefore, a long way to go.
One of the quandaries to which the Minister of State might respond is that he will never see trees planted on his land or any land in the Golden Vale-----
It is a contentious issue.
-----because it is not profitable and it will destroy much of the amenity, such as the scenery, that is the Golden Vale. Where do we marry the incentive for the profit line for land that is not currently afforested and how do we provide a greater incentive for farmers and landowners to get into planting? No doubt more jobs will grow from extra planting. In our constituency, Medite, which is one of the best employers in the country, has a massive timber plant in Clonmel. We see what that can mean to a local community, for example, with spin-off jobs. We need more such companies around the country.
I welcome the section on environmental protection and matters such as walking rights. I also welcome the section on pest control. When one sees this as a full section, it might seem unimportant. However, it is vital for the survival of saplings and young trees that pest control can be introduced.
On the incentives for afforestation that exist currently, does the Minister of State foresee anything in the coming budget that will provide further incentives? This is extremely important, as Senator Sean D. Barrett stated The difficulty is that when forest trees are taken out, for some reason there is a gap and that gap is too long. The expert on my right tells me that, in fact, when they are being cut, there is an acid put down into what is left of the roots of the tree which kills them over a quick period. At one time, that was not possible and it took a long time to get rid of the roots and introduce the new system as the roots clogged up the soil. That is now not the reason and we need to provide greater incentives to landowners and farmers. Is there anything coming down the track in order that we can grow it?
On the felling licence issue, I am glad that commonsense has prevailed. I have two acres of land on which I have trees. It is not a holding for which I was envisaging I would have to get a licence to knock down the few trees for myself, but the Minister of State has clarified that matter. One can knock what one needs for one's own firewood.
The Senator will be warm this winter.
We will be warm this winter. I hope we will not need to buy too much coal.
The timescale of the felling licences is something that has concerned those in the sector. Will the Minister of State clarify whether the Bill will reduce that timescale? Currently, it takes up to 12 months to get a licence. That is too long, if somebody is trying to organise to bring in machinery and to agree contracts with the suppliers, etc.
The Minister of State mentioned the regeneration of forest land that has been felled and under the Bill there will be a compulsion on those who have felled illegally. Does the same apply to those who legally fell? In other words, if somebody plans to fell their trees and he or she has the licence, is there a legal obligation on him or her to regenerate and replant within a period of time? I would like clarity on that issue.
The levels of expansion in the sector need to be clarified. I read the transcript of suggestions from other parties in the Dáil.
Some suggest we should plant 20,000 ha per year up to 2020 which would replace what is being felled. What are the Minister of State’s and the Department’s thoughts on that suggestion? How do we reach a point where we not only maintain the status quo at 11% but also expand? If we stand still everything will be knocked eventually. There will be nothing left.
As Senator Sean D. Barrett said we seem to allow ash to come in willy-nilly from elsewhere Europe, not just eastern Europe. This brought in ash dieback disease. I am glad to report that the GAA is already involved in ash planting projects across the country but they will not come to fruition for another ten years. I am concerned that if one tree is identified as having ash dieback, all the ash planted around it must be taken out. Is that necessary or can we control it without knocking everything? It is like a bulldozer effect, if there are a couple of trees with ash dieback we might take out ten acres of good ash which could be used to make hurleys. If nothing is being done about that the Minister of State might highlight it in the Department and reconsider the policy adopted.
Uair ar bith a fheicim foraoiseacht ar an gclár anseo sa Seanad, caithfidh mé a rá go dtéann mo chuimhne siar go dtí an iar-Aire, Shane McEntee, a bhí linn anseo go minic ag caint faoi chúrsaí foraoiseachta. Every time I see forestry come up on our schedule my mind goes back to the last debate we had with the former Minister of State, Shane MacEntee. I think of him because he was the last person to speak in here about ash dieback and he was very concerned about it.
I share the concerns of other Senators. Will the Minister of State give us an update on the national position of ash dieback because we have not heard much about it recently?
Sinn Féin has supported this Bill despite our constructive amendments having been voted down by the Government parties on Committee Stage in the Dáil. What party with the best interests of this nation at heart could not support further and better forestry provision to maximise the economic, environmental and social value of forests? The natural resource of our forests and woodlands must be regulated and used in the interests of the Irish people. There is economic potential for forestry but that too must be regulated so that our indigenous growers and processors will reap the benefits. The idea of selling off harvesting rights to foreign interests must be rejected when investment at home would ensure that the monetary benefit would stay in Ireland, but would also ensure the ecological security of our woodlands. We had several concerns which the Bill goes some way to address, but not far enough. It is not difficult to see the challenges being created for people who are trying to marry environmental concerns with generating an economic benefit. It is a question of the happy medium. No one involved in the industry is trying to damage the environment but something must be in place to help people when making decisions. When they go out of their way to protect the environment it should not be at a loss to their incomes. This is a major problem for those in the private forestry sector.
I am also concerned by the powers that the Bill gives to the as yet unspecified people who will police it. They will enter people's property and land without warrants. They can walk in off the road and make a determination that will have considerable financial implications for people in the industry.
One of the amendments we will bring forward on Committee Stage will seek to oblige the present or any future Minister to provide information to ensure the public and other authorities are regularly informed of the role and condition of forests as well as of all forestry activities. Our support for the Bill is based on two factors, namely, the development of the industry and the wish to protect our natural resources. The land of Ireland for the people of Ireland is a principle we take seriously. This is not just for purely economic benefit but for the enrichment of all our lives and the protection of our national ecological heritage.
I sit on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions which has heard quite a few petitions on the suburban issue of trees overhanging people's gardens. I am from a rural area but this appears to be a major issue in some suburban areas. I am not sure if this Bill addresses that problem, or if it falls within the remit of the Minister of State. It appears to be a substantial issue where there is a hiatus in the legislation. I would also welcome any further support that could be given to forestry-based tourism. There is an excellent mountain bike trail in Derroura in Connemara, which would benefit from further investment through Coillte. More work on that kind of tourism and linking it to the Wild Atlantic Way would be quite welcome. There are some fantastic woods which are under threat, for example in Galway, the Merlin Park Woods, which have not yet been developed as a full public amenit. Certain people have plans to drive a bus route through these woods. I call on the Minister of State and his Department to examine that issue and do what they can to support the people who want to preserve it as a community forest that can be used for generations to come. Go ginearálta, táimid ag tacú go láidir leis an mBille seo. Beimid ag teacht chun cinn le leasuithe, ach fáiltímid roimh an reachtaíocht. Tá súil againn go mbeidh an tAire Stáit in ann na leasuithe sin a thógáil ar bord.
I welcome the Minister of State. The Council for Forest Research and Development, COFORD, all-Ireland roundwood production forecast 2011-2028 illustrates the increasing production potential from Irish forests, which will almost double to 7 million cu. m from the current 3.79 million cu. m. The harvest from private forests is forecast to increase tenfold within this timeframe. It is therefore right and proper that the Minister and the State should ensure that the conditions are right to promote and properly regulate the forestry industry.
Some within the private sector have been less than welcoming to the Bill. There are several issues on which I would welcome the Minister of State's views. Irish forests are among the healthiest in Europe. We have comparatively little in the way of forest pests and diseases but we import vast quantities of firewood in the form of logs, along with pellets, pressed sawdust and other sawmill by-products from other European countries and further afield, which can be subject to infestation and disease not seen here. Disease and infestation would have huge implications for the forestry industry here. This could be addressed by increasing our own production and becoming more self-reliant. In that regard there are no specific objectives in terms of reducing our imports, and we all know that targets concentrate the mind. There are reports available, such as the one I have mentioned, indicating that we can increase production drastically. The Minister of State might consider my constructive suggestions in that regard.
I compliment the Minister of State on amending the period for which a felling licence can be issued, to ten years with the potential for a further five years. The point has already been made that the current felling licence regime is prone to delay. I welcome the removal of the dual licence process and the involvement of the Garda in the process.
I compliment the Minister of State and the departmental officials on committing to legislation the granting of a licence within four months. In section 18(2), however, one of the reasons stipulated for delaying the issuing of a felling licence could be due to the number of applications submitted to the Minister.
Serious consideration should be given to mending that section as it seems to raise a concern about potential licensing inefficiency. Will the Minister of State assure the House that he will commit sufficient resources to the forestry service to ensure that present delays are eliminated and that future ones will not occur? There are industry suggestions that the service does not have sufficient resources and I would welcome the Minister of State's views on that suggestion. Another problem is the onus on private foresters to destroy vegetation or vermin. While I see the logic of that, for example, the associated fire risks, vermin eradication is far more complicated and is not easy or cheap. The forester might have to dedicate considerable time and moneys to this matter.
What exactly is envisaged in respect of section 15(1) where the Minister directs that certain specific steps be taken to prevent such damage within such time as the Minister may specify? I am concerned that these steps would be either prohibitively expensive or time consuming. Privately-owned forests account for almost half of our forest cover and are mainly owned by farmers who are already subject to rigorous inspection regimes of their day-to-day operations. The industry is concerned that this legislation would needlessly add to that burden. I hope the Minister of State will be able to allay these fears.
The provision of an appeals mechanism is welcome. No administrative action should be above review and the appeals structure will create confidence in the new system. I welcome the Bill and suggest the Minister of State and the officials reconsider the issues I have raised with a view to making the warranted licensing regime and ancillary matters less onerous.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, back to the Seanad. This is the House in which he started his political career in the Oireachtas. It is great to see that he has ascended to the heights of ministerial office, which is well deserved. I offer my sympathy to him on last Sunday's performance.
The Senator was doing great until he started that craic.
Whatever ash the Tipperary team was using -----
I ask the Senator to stick to the Bill.
----- it did not come from the same forest as the Kilkenny ash. There is always next year.
I welcome this legislation. I come from a part of the country where there is very little forestry. Cromwell once described the area of north County Clare from which I come as not having enough water to drown a man, enough earth to bury a man or enough wood to hang a man. We could do with more trees, therefore. Trees breath air and energy into our society. They are a natural beauty and a fundamental and wonderful part of nature.
The system of planting trees needs to be fundamentally reformed. If one wishes to build a house, thereby putting an object on the landscape, one applies for planning permission, posts a site notice and places an advertisement in the newspaper. A five-week period is provided in order that people can make submissions on the application. The planner will analyse the submissions and both the applicant and the people who make submissions have the right to appeal a decision. Unfortunately, that process does not apply to people who wish to plant trees. Like houses, trees are objects that can be very destructive and dangerous if they are not planned properly. Houses that are properly built can be beautiful and provide homes for people. Forests that are planted properly are also beautiful and can provide great leisure opportunities and a valuable natural resource. However, forestry has to be done properly.
The Minister of State has a duty of care to ensure that proper procedures are put in place in respect of people who apply to plant trees. Unfortunately, the only obligation currently is to publish applications on a website. There is no obligation to post a site notice of the intention to plant the land or to put an advertisement in the paper. People who may find themselves living near a new plantation have no proper procedure through which to make objections. If a decision is made to permit a plantation, there is no avenue of appeal.
I have dealt with a number of constituents who found themselves in a situation whereby forestry projects proceed without any consideration for the impact on them, apart from a very basic level. Some inspector will attach special conditions but as a rule this does not happen. People can find that a forest effectively surrounds their houses beyond the statutory 50 m space in which trees cannot be planted. People who were previously living in open countryside have found themselves living in the middle of a forest. This is not good enough.
We are living in a period when transparency and accountability are demanded on a regular basis. Unfortunately, however, there is no such openness in regard to forestry plantation. When it comes to making representations as Members of the Oireachtas, depending on the officials with whom we engage, we get co-operation in some cases but no co-operation whatsoever in many others because, unlike officials in planning authorities, they have no legal obligation to engage with us.
We have a lot of work to do if we are to be fair to those who wish to plant their land, the environment, those of us who are tree huggers and love trees, and the people who find themselves living beside plantations. I am interested in hearing the Minister of State's thoughts on this issue. He will have ample opportunity on Committee and Report Stages to introduce amendments that reflect the concerns I have raised.
I thank Senators for their constructive contributions, which follow on from what their party representatives did in the Dáil during a similarly constructive debate. Opposition Members have been very helpful in steering this Bill in a helpful direction. It is all about timber and trees. There is something very special about trees and their connection to the environment. When I took over this position a little more than 12 months ago, my knowledge of forestry came from the area in which I lived. Growing up in a rural area, I saw trees being planted and felled for mills like Dundrum, where 20 people worked. While the mill in Dundrum has since closed, forestry is now a vibrant industry with huge potential. Therein lie some of the issues, which I will raise in a general manner rather than respond to individual Senators because we will be able to discuss these issues in more depth on Committee and Report Stages. Senator Sean D. Barrett raised specific issues which I hope to be able to discuss in detail on later Stages.
The importance of forestry to the economy has been outlined by several speakers. Senator Denis Landy spoke about Coillte and the Government decision not to sell it. I was delighted that the Government took that decision and it was widely supported by the Irish public for many reasons. One of the issues that tends to escape commentators' notice is the huge potential for tourism and recreation. One speaker raised the issues of obesity and amenities for children. The Department is forthright in encouraging this use of forests. Coillte and everybody else who is engaged in the industry want to make the land available in order that people can enjoy fresh air and learn about trees. As Minister of State with responsibility for forestry, I encourage schools to get involved with us in terms of visiting their local forests.
Senator Martin Conway spoke about Kilkenny's victory in the all-Ireland last Sunday. Big and small occasions could be marked by planting a tree. We should be more forthright in using trees and the environment in this way. I am the oldest of a family of ten. My father planted a beech tree when each of us were born. He is dead and gone but the trees are still there and they will be there when I am dead and gone. There is a special story in trees and in our environment and we should encourage this at every level.
We should encourage it at every level. I will encourage it while I remain in this position.
I wish to address some general issues such as ash dieback and land availability. Senator Denis Landy spoke about good land, but the reality is there are large amounts of marginal land across the country. A land availability committee has been set up under Nuala Ní Fhlatharta from Teagasc, which is currently examining what land can be made available for forestry in the future. There are reasons one cannot plant forestry on certain types of land. Last night I attended a meeting with the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Heather Humphreys, and departmental officials, on hen harriers. Last week Nuala Ní Fhlatharta reported to us on the land that could be made available. The figure is astonishing. A total of 180,000 ha of land could be made available if we changed practices. The report is not fully complete, but I hope to have it by Christmas in order to make extra land available, to lift some restrictions and to encourage people who own land to consider forestry.
The hen harrier is a problem that must be addressed. The extra land that could be made available is significant when one considers that we plant in the region of 66,500 ha of forestry each year. I expect some movement in terms of potential land availability in the coming months, certainly by early next year, in particular when the new forestry programme that is out for consultation has concluded. We received many views on the issue. We must go to Europe with the programme in the coming months.
We must be able to reassure people who commit to forestry because it is a significant commitment. One does not just make up one’s mind to get involved in forestry over night; it involves a 20-year or 30-year commitment and then one must replant. It is a decision that impacts on future generations, which is not easy, because it is possible to change from dairy to beef production in a year. Land owners are used to such change. The reason for the introduction of the Bill is to make it easier and more accessible to get involved in forestry and to reassure those who make the decision to get involved that they are protected. We will try to deal with land availability in the coming months.
Taxation is an issue. There is no doubt people were encouraged to go into forestry for tax reasons. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, is carrying out a review. Submissions have been made to him and I hope we will come to a conclusion that will help forestry. The approach on taxation was designed to encourage participation and I wish that to remain the case. However, change is required. There must be a levelling of the playing field over a period when clearfell takes place and money has been received for one year. I have written to the Minister for Finance on the matter and spoken to him personally and I hope the issue will be resolved. That might happen given the improved economic climate.
Another concern raised by many speakers is ash dieback. I acknowledge the work of my late predecessor, Shane McEntee, who was most committed to resolving the issue. Such was his concern that the problem appeared to affect him. We constantly monitor the situation. The disease has been dealt with on plants where it was identified. That approach will continue. Dieback is removed where it is found in a plantation. I agree with what Senator Denis Landy said, namely, that it might not be possible to clearfell all forestry and that the focus will be on removing the affected plants. Older plants are not affected by ash dieback. The disease is confined to imported stock. We encourage people to use native-grown species not imported plants. Ongoing work is carried out in conjunction with the GAA. Last Saturday I met an official in Croke Park and it is intended to have more meetings with him to deal with the matter. The problem could become a major one but we continue to monitor the situation.
Senator Hildegarde Naughton referred to licences. Extensive discussions were held with the farming organisations. I put significant effort, in conjunction with spokespersons in the Dáil, into trying to come to an agreement that felling licences would be processed within four months. It was a considerable job, not least in terms of convincing officials, because of the lack of resources in the Forest Service due to the economic climate. I well understand the situation. However, we did set a timeframe for it, and in the same way as planning permission is dealt with, felling licences are to be processed within four months. I welcome the measure, which is included in the Bill.
I wish to work with the Seanad on the details raised in connection with the Bill. We received much support in the other House from spokespersons. I also acknowledge the support and help of farming organisations, the forest owners association, mill owners and everyone involved in the healthy and lively discussions that were most worthwhile. Ultimately, when the Bill is passed by both Houses and signed into law, we will be in a far better position. As a Parliament we will have made our mark in terms of forestry in the future. I wish to see the forestry sector develop and grow. There is potential for that all over the country. Commitment to forestry is evident.
I agree with what a speaker said about education. There are many ways in which to reach young people. Two weeks ago when I was launching a product in County Laois I met young people who were training to be foresters. They hope jobs will be available in the Forest Service or in a private company involved in planting land. There is also great potential in the milling industry. We have a most efficient milling industry. There are numerous opportunities given the many items one can make with or carve out of wood. The forestry industry is a good news story. I sincerely thank all those who have helped to progress the Bill to date. I look forward to working with the Seanad on the remaining Stages of the Bill. The proposed change will be for the good of those involved in the industry.
When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?
Is that agreed? Agreed.