All forestry licences issued by the Department undergo a legal consent process. This involves the assessment of the proposed operation regarding its likely effect on the surrounding environment, particularly any sites designated for conservation in the area. Since 2017, all forestry licence applications received have been subject to a statutory public notification system and are subject to a statutory appeal system operated by the independent Forestry Appeals Committee (FAC).
Most appeals have been in connection with our Appropriate Assessment (AA) procedures. The Habitats Directive (Article 6.3) requires that where a plan or project is likely to have a significant effect on a Natura site (i.e. a Special Area for Conservation, or Special Protection Area) , either individually or in-combination with other plans or projects, it must undergo an Appropriate Assessment of its implications for that Natura site.
My Department has made changes to the Appropriate Assessment procedures (AAP) used to examine forestry licence applications. These changes are required following important Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) decisions and their subsequent interpretation by the Forestry Appeals Committee (FAC) and others.
AA procedures have been amended to introduce a robust and workable system which will address the issues now faced. Introducing this system involved the recruitment of additional ecological expertise and changes in procedures for the forestry inspectorate. Interviews are taking place for additional ecologists under a recently advertised competition. I expect the successful candidates will be deployed early in the new year. My Department currently has the support of additional ecological services, with further supports planned for deployment early in 2020.
Forestry district inspectors have undergone training and are continuing to receive support in delivering the new procedures. A categorisation of files affected by these requirements is underway, in order to best assess further action needed and by whom. Officials of my Department have met bilaterally with forestry companies, to examine the applications on hand and to assess their backlogs with a view to moving applications forward.
There are currently 950 files requiring ecological input. These files are being worked on by both internal and external ecologists who have been contracted to assist in the screening process. They are also supporting the development of a template for Appropriate Assessment Reports and Determinations. My Department has also concluded a recruitment competition for two new ecologists who are expected to start work within the Department shortly.