Irish law requires the Department of Agriculture to license all forestry activity, including tree felling, planting and road building for log transport. It also gives a broad right of appeal against the issuing of these licences, that allows virtually anyone to challenge such a decision.
Unsurprisingly, people are excercising this right. However, the department's Forestry Appeals Committee cannot keep up with the number of challenges, creating a two-year backlog that industry figures say has stalled the production of enough timber to build 50,000 new homes.Bodies such as Forestry Industry Ireland warn that the situation threatens timber supplies and the 12,500 jobs that its businesses support. The organisation is frustrated at the department for failing to deal speedily with the appeals.
The department has pledged to hire more staff to do this work. Also, a proposed amendment to the Forestry Act, 2014, could introduce a charge for each appeal. The industry wants some narrowing of the number of people who can make them in the first place.
Charging for appeals could be reasonable, but reducing the number of people who can make them raises difficult questions. This is a statutory right, given by the Oireachtas, that recognises that in a democracy people should be able to challenge state bodies' planning decisions.
Limiting the right of appeal to those directly affected by licences seems sensible at one level. But forestry and the policies influencing it raise broader environmental issues, so excluding those with concerns on this front might not be fair or even wise.
The current delay in dealing with appeals also affects those taking them in the first place, which could include foresters challenging the refusal or terms of a licence. They also have a right to expect officials to deal efficiently with their concerns.
The bottom line is that the Oireachtas passed legislation, introduced by the government, giving a right to appeal forestry licences. The government’s job was then to put in place a system that could handle appeals efficiently. It failed to do this, with the result that everyone is losing out.