Minister of State for Heritage Malcolm Noonan has confirmed a strategic action plan for the future of the National Parks & Wildlife Service (NWPS) is go to Cabinet in coming weeks, with the intention to implement it "in the lifetime of this Government".
In addition, a separate report by external consultants – the ecologist Prof Jane Stout of Trinity College Dublin and consultant Dr Micheál Ó Cinneide – which is highly critical of how the NPWS operates, will be published at that point, Mr Noonan has confirmed.
Their report – with 26 recommendations to overhaul the organisation, which is under the remit of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage – was submitted in mid-2021. Mr Noonan has been under sustained pressure from wildlife experts and environment NGOs to publish it.
The issue was raised in the Seanad by Independent Senator Victor Boyhan on Thursday, who highlighted its reported findings – notably that it "is unable to fulfil its current obligations due to limited resources and major structural problems".
His understanding was “it sets alarm bells going in relation to a number of issues” and Mr Boyhan requested the report including recommendations be made public.
Mr Noonan insisted his top priority “was to restore heritage funding, placing nature, heritage and biodiversity at the heart of what this Government does well”.
“The NPWS is a crucial and important service that is mandated with the protection, conservation and presentation of our natural heritage,” he acknowledged.
In 2019, when it was established “many of our protected habitats were of poor or inadequate status and that almost half were declining, it was clear “NPWS resourcing was not sufficient to address the challenge with the level of urgency that was required”, Mr Noonan accepted.
He underlined the programme for government had committed “to strengthen the NPWS, improve its effectiveness and make it the voice for nature that we need it to be”.
The critical issue was resourcing, which he noted had resulted in a 64 per cent increase in funding since he was appointed - bringing it back up to what it as at before the financial crisis.
Approved staffing at the NPWS was back to pre-2008 levels. This enabled establishment of a new team working on the protection of our Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas; a wildlife crime unit, a cohort of new conservation rangers, and recruitment of ecological and scientific expertise, field staff, guides and administrative staff, Mr Noonan added.
He believed further transformative action “that acknowledges the past, reflects the present and renews for the future was needed. “I’m now leading on a comprehensive phased process: ‘Review, Reflect, Renew: A Strategic Action Plan for the Future of the NPWS’.”
The orientation or stakeholder engagement part in the review process was conducted by Prof Stout and Dr O Cinnéide. "These independent reviewers heard from over 3,000 people and groups, providing an external perspective on some specific aspects of the NPWS and conducting an analysis of comparable organisations across Europe in order to inform a suite of recommendations."
The ongoing reflect phase was being led by Gerry Kearney a former secretary general of the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht affairs and is taking into their findings. He was synthesising resourcing gains of the past 18 months with a detailed, expert analysis of governance, organisational structures, communications, data systems and future resourcing".
The final renew phase, he said, would detail how the NPWS will deliver on ambitious goals, objectives and targets emerging from the programme for government, the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2030, Heritage Ireland 2030 and a new national biodiversity action plan.
Mr Noonan said the process had taken longer than expected and he thanked people for their patience.
“I have listened to our many stakeholders, both internal and external,” he underlined, “I am reflecting on the findings, in the context of significant resource increases since I became Minister, to define exactly what’s needed, and developing an action plan to renew the NPWS and ensure it’s equipped to respond to Ireland’s biodiversity emergency now, and in the decades to come.”