“There is a timber crisis in the country, which is threatening the entire forestry sector, the haulage sector that relies heavily on it, the sawmills who process it and the end-users of timber, such as people in the construction industry.”
Those were the words of Independent TD, Michael Healy-Rae, who recently raised the issues in the forestry sector during leaders’ questions.
“Unless the Government acts quickly, Ireland will soon run out of essential construction products, such as pallets [and] timber for the construction industry and our supply chains, forcing timber production lines to shut.”
Managing directors of top sawmills in Ireland, he added, say that only for the pandemic and the shutdown in Ireland, they would have run out of timber by now.
“We are facing a nightmare scenario whereby stock has gone down and shut down and lay-offs might be only weeks away. These people have been given notice that there is the potential for lay-offs in the very near future.”
He said the reason for the crisis is that the permit system for planting and harvesting trees and making forestry roads has been “overwhelmed” because close to 2,000 applications and 400 approved permits are being appealed.
He stressed that the forestry appeals committee has been “inundated” with objections to most licences, intended to prevent the planting of conifers and block the felling of commercial forests.
“This is a ridiculous situation and it is extremely unfair on farmers who have planted their land thinking they would be able to sell their thinnings and clear-fell their timber when the time would be right.”
He said it is reported widely that over 1 million cu. m of timber, which is one-third of the sawmills’ annual consumption, is tied up in appeals.
“The timber that this economy needs right now is still in the ground and it is in a two-year queue cycle.”
He called on the Government to amend the Agriculture Appeals Act quickly to give the forestry appeals committee enough resources and the authority to clear this backlog.
“Hardware merchants throughout the country, who rely on sawmills for much of their timber, are struggling to bring in timber from overseas, which, of course, is escalating costs.”
“Bringing in timber from abroad is ridiculous, as prices have reached record peaks in the US, driven by the pandemic crisis, which has resulted in a DIY boom.”
“In other parts of the world such as China, European producers are preferring to service those very large lucrative markets, putting Ireland at the end of the line as to who they wish to provide timber to.”
“We, instead, are looking to Russia and Scandinavian countries to try to meet the demand. Where is the environmental sense in us not being able to use our farmers’ trees but instead we have to go to Russia to bring here the timber we need for our construction industry?” the TD concluded.
In response, An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, said, “It is no exaggeration to say that of course the forestry sector is in crisis.”
“It is in crisis because the planning system as it exists has been overwhelmed by a very high volume of appeals to decisions taken by the forestry appeals committee.”
“The response has to be through resources and legislation. The Government published legislation to deal with this by streamlining the appeals process to make it fit for purpose, environmentally sustainable and administratively efficient to deal with the backlog and the system in future.”
He said it is no exaggeration to say that thousands of jobs are at risk if this is not dealt with firmly and resolutely by the Oireachtas and the Government will bring forward this legislation.
“We published it in July, and it went out to consultation. There were approximately 8,000 submissions. During the consultation period, the volume of objections or appeals went up dramatically, perhaps in anticipation of the legislation that was about to come in.”
“The rate of appeals on Coillte’s licences increased from 30% to 80% in August and it is likely to be 100% in September. These are not just appeals on commercial felling. Some of Coillte Nature’s new non-profit tree planting proposals, for example, such as the Dublin mountains transformation, have also been appealed.”
“Huge amounts of trees in the ground cannot be felled and it is very serious. We have to deal with it, and we will deal with it.”
Acknowledging there is a significant backlog, he concluded by saying: “The industry will be short of timber by November if the legislation is not passed and a new system is not brought in. The Government is committed to introducing the legislation.”
‘Horrible scourge of serial objectors’
In response, Healy-Rae said: “I ask the Taoiseach to do something to get rid of the horrible scourge of serial objectors for once and for all, ideally by putting in place a charge of €2,000 for every horrible objection and every horrible observation that would be put on any type of permit or licence sought, whether it is to plant ground, to make a forestry road or to get a clear-fell licence.”
“I ask this of the Taoiseach in the most genuine way on behalf of farmers, haulage people and people involved in the production of timber,” he concluded.