How long, the American farmer-poet Wendell Berry asked, does it take to make the woods?
As long, he answered himself, as it takes to make the world.
But Berry warned that woodlands can be unmade overnight, and that it then takes generations to remake them. The Government should remember this, before it proceeds to sell off the harvesting rights in our national forests, currently vested in Coillte.
There are many reasons – economic, cultural and environmental – for valuing our woodlands. Until recently, however, we have not been very good at exploiting them intelligently and enjoying them fully.
We often fool ourselves about this. The familiar nationalist narrative, telling us that our cherished virgin forests were ravaged by the foreign foe, is more than a little exaggerated. The author of the great lament Cill Chais identified the "end of the woods", deireadh na gcoillte, with the end of the Gaelic world. He was partly right – but he ignored the inconvenient truth that we natives had also been busy clearing forests for millennia.
We didn’t exactly rush to restore them after independence, either. And the “social forestry” finally rolled out in the 1950s was a last-ditch effort to stem rural emigration, not a comprehensive policy for the sector.
From the late 1980s, however, we have seen a steadily more progressive – and profitable – engagement with forestry. This has happened through the high certification and environmental standards espoused (despite early lapses) by Coillte, a State-owned company with a commercial mandate; through successful tree-planting incentives for private landowners; and through NGO activism.
Forestry and the wood-processing industries directly support thousands of jobs, and many more indirectly. Native tree species are being re-established through impressive restoration programmes undertaken by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, by Coillte, and by NGOs such as Woodlands of Ireland. The recreational value of public forests is confirmed by 18 million annual visits nationwide.
Multiple additional benefits from woodlands, from carbon storage to flood control to enhanced human health, are being rediscovered or recognised for the first time. A forthcoming Woodlands of Ireland report will argue that our national accounts critically undervalue the natural capital and ecosystems services flowing from environmentally responsible forestry.
Yet just at this hopeful moment, the Government is proposing to sell Coillte’s harvesting rights, for almost a century to come, to the highest bidder. This would almost certainly be a foreign company, with no stake in local communities dependent on forestry jobs, or in the long-term health of our landscapes.
The reason? Selling public assets – to pay off privately generatedState debt – ticks another box on the EU-ECB-IMF troika’s must-do list.
Why lament for our forests, you may well ask, when this Government repeatedly reneges on commitments to the most disadvantaged in our midst? But if this proposed sell-off will cost the State dear, in financial and many other senses, then the disadvantaged will be even bigger losers if it goes ahead.
Critics of the proposal include unlikely bedfellows: sawmill owners on the Irish Timber Council, Coillte workers in Impact, conservation NGOs, recreational groups such as Mountaineering Ireland, and a mixed bag of TDs.
Impact and the timber council have made their cases well, in cogent position papers. Happily, neither group argues only from its sectoral self-interest, but takes on board broader environmental and cultural benefits accruing from a well-managed national forest.
The British government has recently abandoned a similar sell-off plan, due to similar counter-arguments – but also and especially due to the one thing the Irish Government has yet to encounter on the issue – a massive public outcry.
Economist Peter Bacon, in a report for Impact, calculates that the State could make a substantial loss of ¤1.3 billion on the sell-off over time, unless the price of timber almost doubles. He estimates the short-term gain at a maximum of ¤774 million – others say as little as ¤400 million – to pay off debt.
There are some signs that the Government is rowing back. In particular, Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney has attempted to address concerns that sawmills would close, with big job losses, due to higher prices imposed by a buyer. He insists that a condition of sale would oblige the buyer to supply timber locally at affordable rates. But such a condition would depress the sale price, thus further undermining the case for a sell-off.
The conservation and recreation lobbies’ critique of the proposed sale takes us down a similar road. At present, Coillte is involved in numerous top-drawer conservation schemes, restoring native woodland and bogs on its properties.
Likewise, the company maintains 23,000km of public access roads, an “open gate” policy benefitting communities all over the country.
Unlike the parks and wildlife service, Coillte carries out these public-interest functions without any subsidy. If a private buyer were obliged to carry them out, this condition would again severely depress the sale price. And if a remnant of Coillte were somehow to remain in charge of these responsibilities, it would then require State funding to do so, as it would enjoy no future profits from timber. Once again, the State, and the public, lose out.
The current strategic plan for the sector dates from 1996. It has recently been reviewed, in extensive consultation with stakeholders, by the Forest Service. Inexplicably, this review has not been published.
The Government could restore some faith in democratic, strategic planning by shelving the sell-off plan, at least until this review is subject to extensive public discussion. Our forestry model is far from perfect, but Coillte has been a key player in developing commercial yet environmentally and socially responsible State forestry, alongside a growing private sector. Does anyone really believe we are going to fix this country by breaking one of the few things that is still working?
Paddy Woodworth 's book , Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century , will be published by University of Chicago Press in October