What needs to happen now to prevent severe job losses in forestry?

If the situation surrounding the ongoing forestry licence logjam doesn’t get fixed very quickly, there’s going to be “a lot of people unnecessarily joining the dole queues”, senior industry representatives have warned.

Speaking to AgriLand, Mark McAuley, director of Ibec group Forest Industries Ireland (FII), warned that the delay in licences being given the green light is already leading to shortages in the sector.

“I would say the sawmills are scraping the bottom of the barrel,” he explained.

“Usually 75% of the supply comes through Coillte. Coillte has only held two timber auctions this year; normally at this stage it would have held eight timber auctions, so it’s cancelled six out of eight.

I think that gives a good illustration of just how little timber they have. There’s loads of timber – it’s just not licenced to be cut down.

“There’s loads of trees; the trees are not the issue. The sawmills are extremely anxious about whether they’re going to have any timber come the end of October,” he added.

Perfect storm

In stark terms McAuley warned: “Going into the end of the year they might have to close their gate, lay off people and shut down.

“Everybody is wondering if they can get timber from overseas, from the EU, or from the Baltic, from Russia – but there’s actually a global ‘mini boom’ going on at the moment in timber.

A lot of it is being sent to the US because the US has just set a record all-time high price for timber, so that’s sucking in an awful lot of the international supply of timber. It’s really not easy to see how the Irish supply will be replaced by imported timber.

We’re really reaching the point now where, if the situation doesn’t get fixed very quickly, there’s going to be a lot of people unnecessarily joining the dole queues.

“And, our builders won’t be able to build houses because they won’t have the timber. You can’t build a house without timber; you can’t really build anything without timber on site.

“Already there are shortages emerging; there are instances where builders are turning up at their builder merchant and they’re not coming away with exactly what they need because it’s not in stock.

“We’re seeing the beginnings of that already and unless things get fixed fast, we’re going to see more of it.”

What needs to happen?

When asked what does FII want to see happen to avoid this scenario, in terms of specifics, the group director said:

First off, the Forestry Appeals Committee legislation needs to go through. That’s the first thing.

“The second thing, the forestry appeals committee needs to be doubled in numbers. Then I think the Department of Agriculture, to deal with its own backlog, the best thing it can do is contract out. They already have a private ecological consultancy working for them.

“If they need another one of those contracts to boost their throughput, that is probably the quickest thing they can do.

If the government is willing to spend a bit of money on this and address it with a bit of urgency, there are things that they can do. Mainly it’s the legislation and [additional] resources.

In the longer term, we need a review of the whole licensing system because it’s very bureaucratic – it’s very cumbersome, it’s very slow and it’s not fit for purpose.

“It’s not the way things are done in other countries, where you don’t need to keep going back time and time again to get another licence any time you want to do anything with your forest. It’s just not the modern way of doing things.

Package in plan

Pointing to the need to streamline the process without taking from the importance of properly assessing projects, McAuley said:

When you’re first planting a forest, you have to put in a forest management plan, which basically describes how you’re going to manage this forest over its lifetime.

“There’s plenty of scope to say ‘we have a forestry management plan; when we issue you with your initial licence, it implies that you’re allowed to go and thin that forest, for example, when thinnings are needed to be taken out’.

Also, build a road into it to do that – all of these things should be allowed as part of the forestry management plan.

“You can audit it, you can inspect it, you can keep a very close eye on what people are doing; but you don’t necessarily need to go back and issue a new licence every time – put it in a package.

A forestry management plan is basically the blueprint for everything that’s going to happen in that forest for its 40-year cycle. It would take a massive workload off the department, allow the industry to plan much better, it would just make things much more efficient.

“It would be very simple to regulate that and to inspect it and keep tabs on everything; make sure everybody is sticking to what they said they would do. That wouldn’t be a difficulty at all,” McAuley concluded.