Sale of Coillte forests will restrict public access and place up to 12,000 Irish jobs at risk

Thursday 29th November 2012

Government plans to sell the rights to harvest Coillte forests for up to 80 years will “destroy the character and quality of Irish forests and limit countryside access for walkers, cyclists, school groups and the general public,” according to a new report launched today (Thursday). Save Our Forests: The social, economic and environmental case against selling Coillte assets also says the plans could jeopardise jobs in the 12,000-strong Irish forest products sector, which is currently worth €2.2 billion a year including €286 million in exports.

Today’s launch, by the Coillte Branch of IMPACT trade union, was attended by representative groups including Mountaineering Ireland, the Irish Orienteering Association, the Society of Irish Foresters and the Woodland League, along with representatives of teachers concerned at the potential impact on school projects and events. IMPACT also launched a campaign website – saveourforests.ie – and said it would work with interested organisations to alert the public to the issue and convince the Government to change course.

The Government is developing proposals to sell Coillte harvesting rights – the right to fell and sell timber – to private operators. Save Our Forests says prospective buyers, set on the commercial exploitation of timber, would be unlikely to maintain “safe and optimum” access to forests. This would severely restrict countryside access in Ireland, which has no public ‘rights of way’ over private land, and where 18 million visits are made to Coillte forests each year. This could also have a major impact on the tourism sector.

Drawing on the limited privatisation experience of New Zealand, the publication says: “Commercially-driven owners or concessionaires could not be relied on to interpret access liberally, or to undertake the expenditure necessary to maintain forest land for safe and optimum recreational use. It is impossible to imagine how the State could maintain public access to Coillte lands after harvesting rights were sold to private companies.”

Outside of tourism, concerns over the employment consequences of a sale of Coillte assets – particularly to companies based overseas – focus on the supply and quality of timber to the Irish forestry products sector. Save Our Forests says international logging companies tend to export wood in unprocessed log form and can easily circumvent contractual requirements for local processing or supply of timber.

“This means that there is no certainty that the Coillte wood supply would continue to be available for purchase by Irish processors if foreign buyers take up harvesting concessions. Coillte does not withhold supply from Irish businesses regardless of market conditions. Private concession holders, on the other hand, are unlikely to place wood on the market when prices are low. They are likely to divert supplies to higher priced destinations when opportunities arise,” it says.

The publication also says selling forestry rights would put Coillte’s internationally-recognised Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification at risk, which could undermine the quality of – and prices for – Irish wood products.

Save Our Forests also outlines a range of environmental risks that could arise from the sale of Coillte harvesting rights, and highlights the difficulty and cost of the post-sale regulation of re-forestation, tree species mix, forestry inventories and the maintenance of State expertise in these areas. “Once lost, it will not be possible to rebuild Ireland’s reservoir of forestry experience on which the future viability of Irish forestry depends,” it says.

Speaking at the launch of the publication, IMPACT general secretary Shay Cody said the economic, environmental and social consequences of the proposed course of action could be disastrous. “This publication also makes the compelling case that, in current market conditions, these consequences are entirely disproportionate to the relatively small sums of money the Government could hope to raise from a sale,” he said.

Colm O’Dwyer, chair of IMPACT’s Coillte branch, said there had been no consultation with stakeholders, including rural communities and the people who make 18 million visits to Coillte forests each year. “We believe the people of Ireland have a right to know what the Government’s plans are before irrevocable decisions are taken. We believe that the people should have a proper opportunity to let the Government know their views on the matter – again, before irrevocable decisions are taken,” he said. Mr O’Dwyer called on the Government to commence a consultation process immediately.