Sale of Coillte harvesting rights will cost State dear
Forestry policy is one of the few things that are actually working here. Why change it?
Native tree species are being re-established through impressive restoration programmes undertaken by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, by Coillte, and by NGOs such as Woodlands of Ireland
How long, the American farmer-poet Wendell Berry asked, does it take to make the woods?
As long, he answered himself, as it takes to make the world.
But Berry warned that woodlands can be unmade overnight, and that it then takes generations to remake them. The Government should remember this, before it proceeds to sell off the harvesting rights in our national forests, currently vested in Coillte.
There are many reasons – economic, cultural and environmental – for valuing our woodlands. Until recently, however, we have not been very good at exploiting them intelligently and enjoying them fully.
We often fool ourselves about this. The familiar nationalist narrative, telling us that our cherished virgin forests were ravaged by the foreign foe, is more than a little exaggerated. The author of the great lament Cill Chais identified the “end of the woods”, deireadh na gcoillte, with the end of the Gaelic world. He was partly right – but he ignored the inconvenient truth that we natives had also been busy clearing forests for millennia.
We didn’t exactly rush to restore them after independence, either. And the “social forestry” finally rolled out in the 1950s was a last-ditch effort to stem rural emigration, not a comprehensive policy for the sector.
From the late 1980s, however, we have seen a steadily more progressive – and profitable – engagement with forestry. This has happened through the high certification and environmental standards espoused (despite early lapses) by Coillte, a State-owned company with a commercial mandate; through successful tree-planting incentives for private landowners; and through NGO activism.
Forestry and the wood-processing industries directly support thousands of jobs, and many more indirectly. Native tree species are being re-established through impressive restoration programmes undertaken by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, by Coillte, and by NGOs such as Woodlands of Ireland. The recreational value of public forests is confirmed by 18 million annual visits nationwide.
Multiple additional benefits from woodlands, from carbon storage to flood control to enhanced human health, are being rediscovered or recognised for the first time. A forthcoming Woodlands of Ireland report will argue that our national accounts critically undervalue the natural capital and ecosystems services flowing from environmentally responsible forestry.
Yet just at this hopeful moment, the Government is proposing to sell Coillte’s harvesting rights, for almost a century to come, to the highest bidder. This would almost certainly be a foreign company, with no stake in local communities dependent on forestry jobs, or in the long-term health of our landscapes.
The reason? Selling public assets – to pay off privately generatedState debt – ticks another box on the EU-ECB-IMF troika’s must-do list.
Why lament for our forests, you may well ask, when this Government repeatedly reneges on commitments to the most disadvantaged in our midst? But if this proposed sell-off will cost the State dear, in financial and many other senses, then the disadvantaged will be even bigger losers if it goes ahead.
Critics of the proposal include unlikely bedfellows: sawmill owners on the Irish Timber Council, Coillte workers in Impact, conservation NGOs, recreational groups such as Mountaineering Ireland, and a mixed bag of TDs.