Tuesday, 18 December 2012
State Forestry Sector
Various organisations have written to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to express their concern that the proposed sale of the Coillte Teoranta forest crop will impact negatively on public access to and recreational usage of State forests. These organisations include Mountaineering Ireland, BirdWatch Ireland, An Óige, An Taisce, the Irish Wildlife Trust, and CELT, an environmental education organisation based in Scariff in east Clare which the Minister of State, Deputy Shane McEntee, visited earlier this year. These concerned bodies have pointed out that the Coillte estate covers more than 7% of Ireland's landmass and includes 11 forest parks and more than 150 recreation sites. It is estimated that 18 million individual visits are made to the Coillte estate each year, making it one of the most significant recreational and environmental resources in the State. The forests are used by orienteerers, hill walkers, runners and bird watchers as well as local people and family groups. The public can access miles of walking, hiking and long-distance trails as well as the new cycle trails that are being developed by Coillte. This is a particularly important resource at a time when we are promoting good health, fighting obesity and striving to keep people out of hospital. Indeed, at a time when people have less disposable income to holiday abroad, it is even more important to protect our tourism resources.
My understanding is that the Government, at the behest of the troika and as part of the agreed programme for Government, has undertaken to sell the Coillte forest crop but not the land on which the trees grow. It is important to bear in mind that much of the Coillte crop was sown to be harvested as a commercial venture. However, ownership in itself will not protect the recreational use of forests. It is the management of the estate that will determine how public access will be maintained and amenities developed in the public interest. The use of State forests by the people of Ireland has been made possible by an open access policy by Coillte. It is very important that the recreational facility the crop provides is ring-fenced into the future if the crop is sold.
We are discussing this issue against the backdrop of Coillte's decision to sell 1,000 acres of public forestry with the approval of the Minister, which is in addition to the 40,000 acres of public forest lands that have already been transferred into private ownership by Coillte. It is time for a rigorous public inquiry into the activities of this organisation. In the past three years it has amassed profits of more than €400 million, paid virtually no dividends to the State and paid its own chief executive officer a salary of just short of €500,000 despite the cap on semi-State salaries. Furthermore, more than €1 million of the moneys accruing to the body from the privatisation of public lands was used to plug a pension fund deficit in the organisation.
What is the Government doing to protect this vital amenity and asset belonging to the people of this country? A geological survey has been commissioned to analyse the mineral wealth that exists under these lands. Will that survey be published and who will have access to that wealth in the event of the lands or crop being sold off? What will the Government do to protect the jobs in that industry and, crucially, to develop other jobs in the sector? We compare very poorly with other European countries in this regard, many of which use forestry as a resource for job creation. In this country, on the other hand, Coillte has apparently been given carte blanche to sell these assets off for a quick buck in contravention of the best interests of the State and its taxpayers.
During the general election campaign, spokespeople from both Fine Gael and the Labour Party vehemently denied there would be any sale of Coillte forestry under their watch. That, however, is exactly what is happening. We are all aware of the latest statement regarding the privatisation by stealth of lands in Donegal. Since 2009, Coillte has sold off publicly owned lands worth €108 million without any public accountability or scrutiny and without any dividends being returned to the State. I have tabled countless parliamentary questions over the years on this issue, the response in each case being to point out that Coillte is a private company. Nothing could be further from the truth. Coillte is owned by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Finance, both of which are shareholders, but we cannot get any answers regarding the company's activities.
Only Coillte lands that are viable for forestry will interest prospective foreign investors. We were told at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine that a sizeable portion of lands under Coillte control are not viable. What will happen to these non-viable, unsaleable lands when the profitable ones have been sold off? Regarding mineral rights, I was told that Coillte has compiled a detailed account of the mineral deposits that may exist on the lands under its control. What happens to those rights when land is sold to private interests? One of those interested international businesses is chaired by a former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. What happens in the case of a 100 year lease, for example?
Will the mineral rights be protected?
I thank the Deputies for raising this matter. As Deputy Ferris said, he might not get many more answers from me on this, but I will provide an update on the matter.
Further to the Government decision that a concession for the harvesting rights to Coillte's forests be considered for sale, Coillte's board and management have been actively engaged in recent months with NewERA, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and my Department to examine the financial and other implications of developing the potential of Coillte's forest assets. As the Minister advised last week, it is the sale of the harvesting rights to commercial Coillte forests that is being investigated. Consultants have been engaged to do specific work around valuations and managing the way in which the sales process may proceed, with the aim of maximising the value to the State, if value is to be found, as well as taking account of issues that have been identified during the overall process. Some of the issues so identified include the possible impact to the timber industry, public access to recreational land, environmental and social impacts and consequential implications for the company and levels of employment. These issues and the measures, if necessary, to address them require detailed consideration.
A number of bodies have highlighted their concern that the current proposal to sell the forest assets owned by Coillte presents a threat to the use of these forests by the people of Ireland and by visitors to the country. The Government is highly conscious that Coillte, as part of its management of some 442,000 hectares of the national forest estate, plays a significant role in the provision of forest recreational activities. Coillte's forests provide a range of recreational opportunities for the general public, continuing a long tradition of open access to State owned forests. It was therefore determined that the process would not include the sale of land. The future management of the estate, the maintenance of the existing amenities and environmental issues are all being considered in the current analysis.
The Government intends to protect the State assets, including associated public goods, which encompasses public access. It should be noted that most of the forests to which there is public access are not commercial crops. I reiterate that the decision relates to standing commercial timber. The outcome of the overall analysis will be considered by the Government upon its conclusion, which is expected early in the new year. This is a very complex process but I assure Deputies that the Government will act with caution.
Finally, the Deputies were also inquiring about the recent proposed sale, by public tender, of forestry land in County Donegal. Coillte Teoranta was established as a private commercial company under the Forestry Act 1988 and day-to-day operational matters, such as the sale and acquisition of land which take place regularly, are the responsibility of the company. This transaction is an operational matter at the discretion of the company and is separate from the Government decision that a concession for the harvesting rights to Coillte's forests be put forward for sale. I trust this clarifies the matter for the Deputies.
I thank the Minister of State for acknowledging the importance of public access. I can give two examples of its importance from my constituency of Clare. The Violet Hill forest, which is located near Limerick, is a very popular amenity. Most notably, Cratloe Wood attracts between 60,000 and 80,000 visitors every year. The East Clare Way follows a 172 km circular route through some of east Clare's most spectacular and varied scenery across Slieve Aughty and Slieve Barna and passes through parts of the Coillte estate. At a national level, we must acknowledge that Avondale House in County Wicklow, the home of Charles Stewart Parnell, is in a forest park that is maintained to a high standard by Coillte.
However, there is a reasonable assumption among people that the sale of the forest tree crop will produce a more aggressive commercial environment. Concerned groups fear that the open access policy will be threatened and that recreational amenities will no longer be maintained as they should be. State forests, even those that comprise commercial plantations which were planted to be harvested in a commercial manner, are on publicly owned land and should be managed and maintained for the benefit of the Irish people, even after the crop is sold.
There is a problem with the Minister's reply. He says the sale and acquisition of land takes place on a regular basis and is the responsibility of the company. The Irish people believe these forests are our land and our crop, to be managed on our behalf. Coillte is making decisions to sell our land behind closed doors. It is clearly necessary, even more so in view of the Minister's reply, to have a rigorous public inquiry into the actions of this organisation. It is a commercial semi-State company, not a private commercial one. It pays over the odds to its chief executive officer and sells off land belonging to the people. It is not accountable anywhere for that activity. There is outrage in Donegal at the proposal to sell another 1,000 acres. That the Minister would say it has nothing to do with the Government and that it is the company's decision is not acceptable. There must be scrutiny of where our money is going and why these lands have ended up in the ownership of the Irish Forestry Unit Trust, an amalgam with AIB and Bank of Ireland and in which Coillte is also involved. There are many unanswered questions about what is a fundamental State asset. Switzerland, which is half the size of Ireland, employs ten times as many people in its forestry as Ireland employs.
It is a retrograde step to sell Coillte lands or forestry to private investors. Inevitably, those investors will opt for the more lucrative side of Coillte's operations. The Minister is effectively giving away the goose that lays the golden egg. It is a mistake and the Government should reconsider it. The Government should exploit the resources, be they commercial timber or otherwise, for the benefit of the Irish people. I still cannot get an answer from anybody about what will happen the mineral rights. There are mineral rights, as we were told by the Coillte representatives when they appeared before a committee recently. If somebody takes a lease on the land and holds it for a period of years, what happens after they harvest the crop? Does it revert straight away or does it remain in the ownership of the privateers until the end of the lease?
I do not know the answer to that until the report is produced and there is a full analysis. I agree with the Deputy about mineral rights. Everybody is worried about what will happen. In response to Deputy Daly, since 2003 Coillte has sold 4,700 hectares. I am aware it is a big issue in Donegal. Perhaps a little more clarity from Coillte is required. However, that is not related to the sale of our forest plantations. Every year Coillte makes its decisions; we cannot hold it by the hand. Perhaps clarity should be forthcoming on a more regular basis. It would be helpful to everybody.
I have taken account of what has been said. I will revert to Deputy Ferris. On the last occasion it took a long time to revert to him, but I will take up the questions with the Minister, Deputy Coveney. I am aware that John Jackson in Donegal is very concerned about the sale of 1,000 hectares. The people of Donegal require more clarity about the matter. Perhaps a letter should be sent to Coillte. It is not obliged to give us the information but nowadays it is crucial that people be as up-front and open as possible. I have no doubt a properly worded letter to Coillte will get those answers.