Objectors have, over the past week, stalled production of enough timber to build about 5,000 homes, it has emerged.
It now looks increasingly likely that a red-tape logjam will force State forestry company, Coillte, to cancel a key autumn auction of timber, leaving sawmills around the State without about half their supplies for the coming year.
Appellants have challenged 29 tree-felling licences issued by the Department of Agriculture since August 4th, putting a block on the supply of 100,000 cubic metres of timber, enough to build 5,000 homes, industry estimates say.
Coillte and sawmillers have been warning since last month that the failure of the department's Forestry Appeals Committee to deal speedily with appeals threatens timber supplies in the Republic and endangers thousands of jobs.
The delays mean that Coillte, supplier of much of the State’s timber, could have to cancel its regular autumn auction, at which sawmills bid for up to half the supplies they will need for next year.
Last week’s spate of challenges leaves the total number of appeals against felling licences before the committee at more than 400. Officials are processing them at a rate of about 20 a month.
Industry figures say the slow progress in dealing with appeals delays timber production for up to two years, leaving the Republic facing a shortage of the material at a time when it is needed for housebuilding.
Legislation requires that the Department of Agriculture license all forestry activity, including felling and planting. Since 2017, anyone in the Republic has been able to appeal any forestry licence issued by the department, opening the door to a growing number of challenges.
Mark McCauley, director of Forest Industries Ireland (FII), said on Tuesday the problem could force the Republic to buy expensive imports from Europe.
“Timber on the continent is very expensive at the moment because the sawmills there are operating at full capacity,” he said.
“This has been going on for a year now and the department has failed to get on top of it, they are still failing to produce the number of licences we need.
“We still have a crazy appeals system where anybody in the country, at the click of a mouse, can stop forestry licensing anywhere else in the country. It’s madness,” Mr McCauley added.
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine said officials were fully aware of the problem and were focused on resolving it while preserving the licensing process's environmental integrity.
At the end of July, it published a draft Bill to bring the forestry licence appeals system in line with similar processes and sought public comment on the proposals. The draft law will go before the Oireachtas after the summer holiday.
“A detailed project plan has been developed to significantly increase licensing output backed by the recruitment of significant additional resources in the department, particularly new ecologists,” a statement said.
“This, accompanied by proposed legislative reform, will help to improve the system and meet the needs of all stakeholders.”