Wednesday, 27 February 2019
Update on Implementation of National Forestry Programme: Statements
I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. Before I respond directly to the matter in hand, I wish to bring people's attention to the issue of trees being felled in public and private areas over the past two weeks. I have received a flood of emails and tweets from just about every county, as has the Green Party, about the extent of tree felling around the country. There is a sadness and lack of understanding as to why trees are being felled and on such a scale. I have received reports from County Waterford, Dungarvan, Fethard, Faheen, Golden Road, Cashel, Bray, County Mayo, Westport, County Kerry, Killorglin, Hugginstown, Gorey, Carrigaline, Limerick, County Meath, County Roscommon and Fingal in Dublin.That has come to hand and I wish to draw the Minister's attention to it. I have tabled a Commencement matter for tomorrow for the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan, because of the anger among the public about the trees and the fact that there appears to be a lack of social and ecological value attached to them. People are waking up and recognising the importance of trees and tree coverage in terms of ecological services and biodiversity. When we see reports that diversity is threatened the necessity for trees is more important than ever.
The idea that tree policy can be set by a single complainant to a local authority or that the benefits trees provide can be erased because of the inconvenience to councils of a single complainant is just not good enough. We can do better. We require a national biodiversity policy with a strong statutory basis that would mandate landowners, local authorities and bodies such as the ESB and larnród Éireann to have a better approach to managing trees in public areas. I hope the Minister will take this into account overall.
In response to the Minister of State's contribution on the implementation of the forestry programme, like many of my colleagues I wish to address the Save Leitrim campaign. It is not long since the group protested at Leinster House and held a press conference about its concerns. The Minister of State is well aware of the points made by the campaign and the complaints about the approach of the State forestry agencies across the country. He will also be aware of the campaign's disappointment at not being able to discuss the terms of reference of the study of forestry policy in the county. The group has been campaigning for a moratorium on new planting in the area and for a well-designed study that would examine the cross-cutting issues around forestry and forest cover in Leitrim. Members of the campaign are dissatisfied with the terms of reference. They are narrow in scope and will limit the UCD investigative team to looking at only some of the areas affected by current policy. Fire risk, soil carbon analysis, local infrastructure impacts, land prices, tax and other issues are omitted, as are the health and mental health impacts of such major use of non-native coniferous forest planting on communities. The group is so disappointed in the process that it is also concerned about the outcome of the report given the lack of consultation with people and communities such as theirs.
The Green Party has always been passionate about forestry and tree cover in Ireland. Ireland has the second lowest level of forest cover in Europe and the lowest in the EU, but it is increasing. That is welcome. We want forestry to be an integral part of Ireland's response to climate change and the challenges to our biodiversity, to enhance biodiversity at a time when there is such massive global decline and to provide stable and good employment in rural areas. We want a policy that Ireland can be proud of, one that provides material for energy and green construction and for a high-value export product, crafted by a skilled and engaged emerging sector. That is far from what we have today. It could be better. Ireland has approximately 11% forestry coverage. Sweden, in contrast, has the highest level at approximately 69%. Our approach to forestry is to confine it to profit-orientated State-run and privately-run plantations, separate from the communities around them. We should develop and enhance the social knowledge in communities about the importance of tree cover.
We must have a positive vision for the future. Our vision is one of healthy forestry plantations across the countryside, of selected uphill areas being allowed to return to the tree cover they previously had before excessive grazing took over in some areas and of trees used in public areas and allowed to mature there and be left alone to provide shelter and benefit to life. Most importantly, we seek a national land use strategy. That is the single best way to deliver a strong vision for Ireland. I hope it is something the Government will engage with more, particularly in view of the pending report from the climate action committee. There are plenty of models in other countries that we could look to in terms of how we could do things better in Ireland. The Minister of State's intention is more or less what we seek, an increase in forestry and the opportunities that forestry can provide to citizens.