Forestry policy appears as thick as two short planks

 

OPINION:The environment and economy both suffer from the way forestry, a key natural resource, is being developed here, writes Fintan O'Toole

NOW THAT the boom is over, we have to reflect on two questions. What resources do we have? And how can we use them in a way that is both economically and environmentally sustainable?

These are pretty basic questions - but in the euphoria of the last decade, we've pretty much ignored them. The madness that has resulted is probably best illustrated by the example of forestry.

Here's a simple fact: the State is refusing to take EU money for forestry. Under the EU's Rural Development Fund, member states can apply for 80 per cent grants for afforestation. With just 10 per cent of its land under forest - the lowest percentage in the EU - Ireland has the most obvious need for this funding.

Sure enough, Ireland's draft submission to the development fund contained a proposal for a large-scale afforestation programme. But, bizarrely, this proposal was entirely dropped when the final submission was made. The decision was taken that, instead of getting 80 per cent of the cost from the EU, the State would provide Irish farmers with 100 per cent grants for forestry.

Why on earth would we be doing this? There are two probable answers. One is that the 100 per cent grant scheme delivers larger subsidies to farmers, with less need to justify spending. Since no one has to come up with the other 20 per cent of the cost, there's no need to ask about the long-term viability or sustainability of what's being done.

But the other reason is that the EU money would come with some strings attached. There would have to be proper standards of environmental management and accountability.

If you get EU money to plant trees, you have to submit to annual independent monitoring of the effects on, for example, the quality of water in lakes and rivers. (Inappropriate planting acidifies water courses and leads to the overuse of polluting chemicals.)

The names of those receiving grants have to be placed in the public domain. And the State is supposed to have a set of published standards for the proper management of the forests.

And why would the Government not want all of these worthy things? Because it has failed to apply any serious notion of either sustainability or accountability to the development of forestry policy. It established Coillte 20 years ago as the largest landowner in Ireland, but gave it a purely short-term commercial mandate.

Bizarrely, Coillte (whose only shareholders are the ministers for finance and agriculture) proclaims itself a private company, with no obligations under, for example, the Freedom of Information Act. Coillte's policy has been to cover the 1.1 million acres it owns with cheap, low-grade, non-native sitka spruce which, with other imported conifers, make up 77 per cent of its stock.

According to its last published annual report, for 2006, it planted 8,621 hectares, just 117 of them with native trees.

In economic terms, this means that Ireland, which has some of the world's best conditions for growing trees, is locked in to the mass production of very basic timber.

In environmental terms, the consequences are even worse. The landscape is covered with an ugly and unnatural monoculture that has disastrous effects on biodiversity. These forests are then clear-felled - an industrial process that leaves acidic soil, stripped of nutrients and subject to the kind of erosion and landslides that are becoming semi-regular events.

And if the profit margins are too low, Coillte simply sells off forested land to private companies - Shell in Co Mayo, for example. In 2006, it sold 373 hectares of forest to private developers, mostly for housing and other commercial activities. It further declared its intention to step up the sale of its lands to "key industry participants" for quarrying.

So while the State is giving farmers grants to turn farmland into forests, the State forestry agency is balancing its books by turning forestry into development land.

Coillte will reply to all of this by pointing out that it has a certificate of good forestry management, valid until 2011, issued by the Forestry Stewardship Council. The problem is that, under EU agreements to which Ireland is a party, stewardship council certification is supposed to be conducted according to a written set of standards.

In 1999, the government created a working group to establish these standards. Almost a decade on, they still don't exist. If they did, and if they were being applied, the State wouldn't be afraid to take EU money for fear that the EU might expect it to be spent on sustainable projects.

A decade ago, in Economics of Irish Forestry, Prof Peter Clinch questioned the whole logic of investing large-scale public funds in a forestry development project characterised by "poor quality of information", "the lack of an effective monitoring procedure of the location and extent of the afforestation", and "the lack of any ex-post evaluation to ascertain the effectiveness" of environmental guidelines.

Over the summer, Brian Cowen appointed Peter Clinch as his adviser on the economy. As an example of what's gone wrong, the professor could do worse than tell the Taoiseach a bit about trees.