New legislation will be brought before the Oireachtas on Tuesday to get the forestry sector moving again, according to the minister with responsibility for forestry, Senator Pippa Hackett.
The sector has warned that tree planting has collapsed and 12,000 forestry-related jobs are threatened by a massive backlog in the Government's licensing and appeals system.
Speaking to RTÉ's This Week, Senator Hackett said the legislation would speed up forestry appeals.
"The legislation is allowing for an increase in the number of people on the Forestry Appeals Committee and it allows a subdivision of this committee so that it can review many appeals at one time," the Green Party minister said. "The appeals process will be more efficient and work quicker."
Minister Hackett also confirmed that she had removed a controversial provision that restricted appeals to "relevant persons".
These included applicants, a person who made observations on the original application, or someone with an interest in adjoining land. This had dismayed members of the Environmental Pillar which said it restricted the rights of concerned groups and individuals to appeal.
After reviewing 9,000 submissions on the draft legislation, Minister Hackett said she will be removing the "relevant person" provision. "The bill as published on Tuesday will not restrict people from making an appeal on a forestry licence," she added.
She also said the Bill allows her to introduce a small fee for lodging appeals which up to now have been free.
The licensing backlog has slowed forestry activity, including tree planting and thinning as well as felling and timber processing. Sawmills, manufacturers of wooden pallets and the construction industry have all expressed concern over a shortage of timber.
At the None-So-Hardy nursery in Shillelagh, Co Wicklow, Teige Ryan has had to destroy young trees produced to meet Government's planting target of 8,500 hectares. He says just 2,500 hectares have been planted this year.
"The plants are unfit for purpose and can't be used now. The Government’s own planting targets have been completely compromised by the Government's own administration," he said, adding they were destined for the compost heap.
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The Department of Agriculture must comply with the EU Habitats Directive which requires extra screening of applications. This is the result of challenges by environmentalists concerned that the Government was allowing the destruction of biodiversity.
Mark McAuley of Forest Industries Ireland said the backlog was threatening rural jobs.
"1,800 applications are stuck in the Department of Agriculture. Most of these are with the ecologists as they need to go for this new appropriate assessment screening," he said.
He said 400 cases were also stuck in the Forestry Appeals Committee. "You could be talking about two million tonnes of timber stuck in those two queues which is enough to build 100,000 houses in this country."
"It’s gone from a more simplified process to a much more complex process and most of us are running out of work" said Marina Conway CEO of Western forestry Co-op.
Ms Conway said getting a licence should take 3-6 months but was taking 12-18 months. She empowers small farmers to diversify into forestry but says the system discourages them.
Environmentalists fear the proposed legislation could limit the public’s right to appeal.
"Rural communities will feel disenfranchised," Dr Elaine McGoff of An Taisce told This Week.
She said there was potential that it would lead people to take court actions instead of going through the appeals board. "It’s often rural dwellers that are most impacted by these decisions and this bill will potentially stop them from having their say."
Wicklow TD and Social Democrats climate spokesperson Jennifer Whitmore also warned the draft bill could be open to legal challenge. This afternoon she said she had yet to see the revised bill but it seemed to be "positive news".
Senator Pippa Hackett told This Week she was aware of the concerns of rural communities in particular. "As part of the Programme for Government there is a very robust and ambitious plan for forestry. We need to address all the justified environmental concerns but we also need to support the commercial forestry sector which is hugely valuable in supporting thousands of rural based jobs," she said.
Minister Hackett also said she agrees there needs to be more broadleaf tress planted to protect biodiversity.