Who would you like to leave in charge of our forests?
ANOTHER LIFE:Simon Coveney faces mounting resistance to plans for the 4,500sq km of public woodland
The drive to Louisburgh these evenings, eight miles door to door, offers a scatter of lights in near-total darkness, unless the moon is up over Mweelrea or all the stars are out. Only at the crossroads and the church does a flare of orange street lamps scorch the night, leaving Our Lady starkly spotlit in white among the graves. Otherwise, for most of winter, the journey is a sparse peep show of domesticity: glimpses in amber, shot with telly blue.
Now, however, in darker reaches towards the shore, windows are aglow with gloriously jewelled triangles, icons of the Christmas tree even where bringing in the real thing might have passed its best years of festive promise.
In the early Christmases, still with a trailer for the car, we made an expedition to prune a tree-shaped branch from the wind-blown casualties of the forest over the hill. Today it’s a far smaller, slimline version, severed from the prostrate yew in the garden. This has quite enough branches to give us a few more years, and at least it doesn’t drop its needles.
Outside of arboreta and big-house estates, the non-shed noble firs of Christmas, Abies procera, are held to a juvenile, shapely stature, their plantations under guard against hackers, or whatever the rustlers of trees should be called. (“Rustlers” is actually quite good.) But how do we feel, now, about the workaday Sitka spruce and Lodgepole pine of the 4,500sq km of public forest? How much would we care if the rights to fell and sell them, now with the semi-State Coillte, were auctioned off to private companies or consortia?
Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney hasn’t quite decided on this, but he reckons the deal might be worth up to €1.8 billion once the standing timber is valued.
Some of this, he soothes, would go to a programme of further afforestation. In selling off harvesting rights for terms of 50 to 80 years, he has said, he would keep the legal obligation to replant forestry land that has been harvested and do his best to leave “high amenity areas” alone.
He faces mounting resistance, not least from Coillte’s branch of Impact, the public-service union, and the Society of Irish Foresters. Planters, loggers, road-builders and silviculturists are unanimously appalled.
The Impact manifesto, Save Our Forests, is a beautifully leafy production, with forest views shared judiciously between workaday conifers and seductive glades of the many great broadleaf trees that Coillte has under its wing. Its language, too, can be uplifting: “The intergenerational commitment implicit in the creation and stewardship of forests means they are best owned by altruistic and long-surviving institutions like the great land owning families, monasteries or nation states. Ceding their control to quick-buck (or even slow-buck) harvesters would diminish Ireland as a progressive nation.”
Who, it demands, would trust them to look after Coillte’s 23,000km of forest roads or guarantee the public’s right to walk them; who would police company promises about caring for forest streams, biodiversity, species mix, landscape design? (For Impact’s own text and pictures, go to saveourforests.ie.)