Future of forests

A Government decision not to sell harvesting rights in State forests at this time is to be welcomed. Public opinion was firmly opposed because of the likely impact on recreational access while trade unions and the wood processing industry spoke of plant closures and lost jobs. The most compelling objection came, however, when economist Peter Bacon found the process would actually cost the State money. Ministers have now reverted to plan B, involving the merger of Coillte with Bord na Mona to create a company called Bio Energy Ireland which, according to Fine Gael's election manifesto, would exploit biomass, plant new woodlands and develop combined heat and power technology. The proposal appeared in the Programme for Government but did not find favour with Troika members who insisted on the disposal of State assets to pay down debt. Mr Bacon's economic analysis may have changed that situation.

Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney expects the merger of Coillte with Bord na Mona to be completed within eighteen months. A restructuring of both organisations with an increased emphasis on profit is required. Of over-riding importance, however, will be the functions and commercial responsibilities delegated to the new company. This commercial State body will control 1.2 million acres, or one-twelfth of the State's landmass, and the public should be told about the Government's long-term plans.

Will Bord na Mona’s cutaway bogs be used to grow biomass for new power stations and will Coillte provide the necessary expertise? What about the development of wind farms on bogs and in the mountains? Apart from their commercial activities, both companies have important responsibilities in terms of water quality protection and landscape management. Tourism has overlapping demands. The financial value of carbon sequestration through woodland development and bog restoration is rising. These and other matters should be addressed.