Many people had hoped that our new Government, with its Green Party Ministers, might make some immediate gesture, committing to managing our natural heritage more wisely than its predecessors.
Yet its first move has been widely read as dashing such hopes, appearing to relegate this key national responsibility to even greater neglect than usual.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is tasked with protecting and enhancing the natural wealth of our landscapes – our biodiversity – under national and EU legislation. But the service has long languished, crippled by underfunding and structurally dysfunctional, in various versions of the Department for Arts and Heritage.
Advocates for better environmental management argue that biodiversity issues should be brought under one ministerial umbrella with climate, water management and recycling.
So environmental NGOs responded with angry dismay when they learned that the NPWS was being shuffled off in isolation to a most unnatural new home – the Department of Housing.
Pádraic Fogarty, author of the best account of the chronic mismanagement of our natural heritage, Whittled Away, and Irish Wildlife Trust spokesman, was scathing:
“The fragmentation of environmental responsibility has long hindered the successful restoration and protection of our natural environment. We had hoped with this Government we would finally see a strategic approach to nature conservation and environmental protection, but sadly . . . the green wave has failed to keep nature afloat.”
If ministers for justice had treated An Garda as shabbily as ministers have treated the NPWS, the drug gangs would run our cities
Fogarty's indictment may, in fairness, be premature. Housing is indeed likely to provide a cold bed for the NPWS. But the service may still be fostered by the Green Party junior minister responsible there, the highly qualified Malcolm Noonan.
The appointment of the Greens’ equally impressive Pippa Hackett as Minister of State with responsibility for Land Use and Biodiversity within the Department of Agriculture, is also welcome, though this new role needs clarification.
But the challenges biodiversity-friendly Ministers face were starkly highlighted just last week. The European Commission referred Ireland to the European Court of Justice for long-standing infringement of our legally binding environmental responsibilities. The commission alleges that we have not established the necessary conservation measures for a single one of 423 supposed "Special Areas of Conservation" across the country.
Establishing such measures is the job of the NPWS. This dismal failure is indicative of the service’s poor record, despite the expertise and commitment of many of its hard-pressed staff. It has never had the political support to do its job even minimally well.
With the exception of Michael D Higgins, ministers responsible for the NPWS have paid unctuous lip service to the beauties of Irish natural landscapes, while presiding over their continuing degradation. They have not provided the resources, structure and muscle the NPWS patently needs.
If ministers for justice had treated An Garda as shabbily as these ministers have treated the NPWS, the drug gangs would run our cities. There is a strong argument for creating an autonomous biodiversity agency, similar to the EPA, not subject to political whims.
Some may say these ministers were only reflecting the general blindness of our society towards the true value of nature.
However, the public vision has become much clearer recently. We have directly experienced critical tipping points: floods, droughts, fires, erosion, accelerating extinctions, pandemics, and the climate emergency. Many now realise that biodiverse ecosystems are not luxuries or minority interests. They provide our society with essential services: clean air and water, pollination, sustainably fertile soil, and carbon sequestration. They are priceless resources for our physical and mental wellbeing.
It has also become evident, during the Covid-19 crisis, that more people are looking to nature for the nurture that our consumer society cannot offer.
So there is now a growing constituency, well beyond the Green Party, that demands good environmental management.
However, the NPWS, as currently constituted, is hardly fit for this great purpose. Its reports to Brussels on the poor and declining condition of most of our key habitats are – or should be – a national embarrassment. The service not only often fails to secure landowner compliance with environmental laws. Its dysfunctional structures sometimes engender degradation on lands the service itself controls in our name.
Most notoriously, Groundwork volunteers have repeatedly presented meticulous evidence, supported by independent experts, that their exemplary clearance of rhododendron from the country’s most ecologically valuable oak woods, in Killarney National Park, has been reversed by NPWS management there since 2005. These national biodiversity jewels are again gravely endangered.
The NPWS Science Director, Ciaran O'Keeffe, fully accepted Groundwork's evidence of the return of rhododendron to these woods, in an interview with this reporter last year. He also made the extraordinary disclosure that his science section can only intervene in national parks when requested to do so by management. It has no oversight role.
Nevertheless, senior management and departmental bureaucrats closed ranks, in a refusal to reconsider a manifestly disastrous policy.
The European Commission is still considering a well-documented complaint from Groundwork that Ireland is violating the EU Habitats Directive in Killarney National Park.
Responding adequately to the biodiversity crisis in Ireland requires radical reform, and probably reinvention, of the NPWS – and much more besides. It remains to be seen if this Government has the appetite and vision for these very tricky tasks.
Paddy Woodworth is the author of Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century (Chicago 2013)