15 Jun The Forestry Appeals System
The licencing for plantations of trees in Ireland is controlled by the Department of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine (hereinafter DAFM). An individual or group wishing to be approved for a forestry licence must engage the following process:
The individual or company wishing to plant must apply for an afforestation licence through the Forestry Division of the DAFM. The decision to grant the licence will be made with due regard being given to the potential environmental impacts which may occur as a result of the site location; the type of trees which are to be planted, or the planned harvesting and processing of the trees on-site.
For a licence to be granted, it must be established that the intended use of the land will not detrimentally impact the surrounding environment and cause harm to protected habitats, vulnerable peatlands, or protected species. In order to assess these elements, an Appropriate Assessment (AA) or Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) may be necessary.
As a member state of the EU, Ireland has obligations to ensure the protection and restoration of at-risk eco-systems. Council 92/43/EEC on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora (Habitats Directive) defines Appropriate Assessment as the evaluation of potential effects that a plan may have on qualifying interests in Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs). Therefore, AAs are conducted in areas that have been designated and have conservation objectives.
Furthermore, Council 85/337/EEC (EIA Directive) outlines where projects require an EIA to properly ensure whether protective conditions need to be applied, or where a project unnecessarily impacts the environment and therefore to allow the project to proceed would be an infringement of EU law.
Economics, Coillte and the Forestry Appeals Committee
The Government has incentivised afforestation in Ireland through the allocation of forestry grants wherein a private landowner can designate a portion of land for a forest plantation. The grant allowance depends on the category of trees which are to be planted, for example, the plantation of native trees would provide a higher grant rate than that of non-native trees. The most commonly planted tree for afforestation is the non-native Sitka Spruce, as this tree can be processed into timber which allows for a greater return in profit. This stimulation of the forestry sector has been strengthened through the semi-State-owned company, Coillte; their Premium Partnership Scheme offers consistent payments to the landowner in return for Coillte having full control over the projected forest. However, Coillte will only offer this scheme to plantations which are predominantly Sitka Spruce. This has provided many landowners the opportunity to utilise unused land for forestry purposes whilst gaining passive income and as a result has led to a major rise in applications for afforestation licences.
Although this may seem like an environmentally sustainable and economically viable venture, there are important implications with an increase in afforestation for the purpose of timber production. While planting trees can be beneficial to the environment through the removal of carbon dioxide (Co2), the process of clear-felling trees to produce timber causes a release of Co2 through the disturbance of soils. Further, planting non-native trees as the majority of the forestry project can create inhospitable environments for protected species and can diminish the populations of migratory birds.
Due to foregoing concerns, it is imperative that the necessary measures are put in place to assess these projects to ensure compliance with legal standards. As there is no independent regulator or authority to oversee the overall compliance of these issues, appeals are often submitted against licence applications to ensure legal conformity with environmental requirements. With the rise of licence applications there has in turn been a rise in appeals to ensure legal scrutiny. The DAFM have created a Forestry Appeals Committee (FAC) to fast-track the appeals process, however, this has failed to alleviate a backlog of licence applications and appeals. In order to discourage what they considered to be spurious or frivolous appeals, the Government approved the introduction of fees in October 2020 for the application of a licence (€20) and for submitting an appeal against a licence (€200); however, this action has had no appreciable effect on the number of appeals to date. This backlog still persists with the blame being put on concerned environmental and local community groups, who are responsible for a large portion of the appeals submitted.
Some of the most common concerns of these groups are in relation to: incomplete, inadequate or inappropriately carried out environmental assessments, disregard for the needs of rural communities, and the imposition of large projects into communities which are inappropriately over–scale for the location.
Due to the lack of independence of the State in the commodification of the forestry sector, it is inevitable that there would be a strong interest in appealing licences. A report (FRL 2021-2015: Ireland, a National Forestry Accounting Plan) sent by the Irish Government to the European Commission concluded that the forest industry in Ireland is a ‘net-emitter’ of Co2 which raises many questions about the real environmental consequences of unsustainable forestry.