Irish Forestry and Climate Change
Author Dr Margaret Duff Garvey
The issue of Irish forestry and climate change evokes memories of the pantomime. Anyone who went to the pantomime as a child will remember the evil wizard/witch sneaking up on the oblivious heroine/hero while the audience shouted with a mixture of terror and glee: ‘Look Behind You!’
In a similar way, all of us are looking at the wicked effects of climate change while shouting at the most prominent public figures to do something urgently. An extreme example of this scenario can be seen in the recent near-collapse of the Irish state forestry felling and replanting licensing system due to environmentally and socially conscious objectors flooding the appeal system with objections.
How has state forestry management in Ireland become so conflicted? This blog looks at these recent conflicts from an environmental history perspective.
The environmental short-fall of state-promoted non-native conifer plantations has been a growing cause of concern since the end of the twentieth century. Grant-driven planting programs of the previous eighty years increased state forested (i.e. non-native conifer plantations) land from 1% to 11% of all land. But the government have been slow to address overall implications research into conifer plantation impacts on reduced biodiversity, increased acidity levels in groundwater, the increased propensity to disease, as well as on the social impact on communities and landscapes.
Political and technological success in Irish state forestry has been seen as production of low-grade conifer softwood for the pulp and chip industries, with small amounts of timber going to fencing, and construction. Although conifer forests are temporary, an increase in conifer forested land was also seen as a national achievement in a profoundly deforested countryside while re-establishing native woods has been considered uncommercial for state investment.
Protests over state forestry and climate change
But for a small rural county such as Leitrim, with nearly one quarter of its land under non-native conifer plantations, this approach to forestry has generated popular reaction to halt the expansion of new development. One of the protest actions by some members of the public was to lodge hundreds of appeals against routine felling and replanting licences, based on environmental and social criteria. These appeals have overloaded the government administration’s review process which holds back the entire timber processing chain.
As ecological expertise is needed in the review of each appeal, it is noteworthy that the first and only state forestry service ecologist was hired in 2002, and it has taken nearly twenty years to recruit enough forestry ecologists to facilitate the movement of state conifer forestry towards environmentally-friendly practices. Since 2020, there is now a team of 7, with ongoing training of foresters and new administrative staff, and a new policy review group has been appointed.
It could be said that the flooding of the appeals system worked in favour of the environment. But crisis management is a costly exercise in a long forestry cycle for the landowners, the taxpayers, the timber processors, and for the environment. Neither is it an approach that is conducive to building trust. This example brings up the more basic questions of why the state is in opposition to environmentalists and communities on future forests? And why is the state not fostering a commercial forestry approach that protects the environment of the tree and the wood and all that goes with it for future generations? Some of the answers to these questions can be found in the foundations of state forestry, in the early years of the twentieth century.
The study of these foundations was the subject of my research into the first two decades of Irish state forestry, from 1919 to 1939(1). In 1919, according to Provisional President Arthur Griffith, state forestry was to be an essential element in rural regeneration, and the reconnection of people to trees. It would be the corner-stone of nation-building after centuries of British administration in Ireland, wood clearance and deforestation. The original expectations for a national forestry policy were evident in the sixth Provisional Dáil (Parliament) Decree in 1919 which ordered the release of funds raised by the First Dáil Loan to launch Arbor Day.
Arbor Day was meant to be the forerunner of a ‘National scheme of Forestry for Ireland that would repair the effects of deforestation on the climate, on agriculture, on high timber prices and flooding’(2). In a letter from the Provisional Department of Agriculture to all public agencies and civic groups, the voluntary organiser, William Cole, said: We cannot too strongly impress on everybody that our work is to restore the natural forest growth of Ireland: not to have merely an annual One Day outburst of enthusiasm. The work now started must be continuous and permanent. Hence this year the work must be mainly educational and preparing the ground(3). He added that Arbor Day would be a precursor to ‘the national plan to be worked out on comprehensive and permanent lines for the whole of Ireland.’(4)
However, due to challenging circumstances of war and civil disturbance, an national policy was not officially agreed until the Forestry Policy of 1996. Without a national policy, planting non-native conifers for planting’s sake since 1922 had become unofficial state policy, which was an approach evident up to mid-twentieth century, according to Irish state forestry historian, Eoin Neeson.(5)
Community-based forestry needed for climate changing environment
Is it time to build a new vision of Irish state forestry based on the inclusive, integrated vision of the early founders of the state with public input? This vision would be to charge the state with the protection and restoration of natural tree and wood growth in Ireland, based on cooperative, community-based silviculture (i.e. forestry for all types of tree, in permanent woods) for a climate changing environment, while supporting its investment in conifer plantation forestry (i.e. single aged tree cultivation in temporary forests), for both traditional and industrial uses.
Such a vision would mean that we, the pantomime audience would be standing with the state as hero and heroine, as we face down the wicked villain of climate change together.