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Get rid of Coillte

The State forestry company’s continuing ownership of 7% of Ireland serves socialism better than the environment – Tony Lowes 


Save Ireland from ... Coillte © Mary Russell
Save Ireland from … Coillte © Mary Russell

The Left in Ireland, marshalling the atavistic Irish interest in land, has mounted a formidable ‘Keep Coillte’ campaign to prevent the IMF-mandated sale of the harvesting rights of the ‘The Irish Forestry Board Limited’ who own most of our 700,000 hectares of forested land. Nice picnics in Parnell’s ancestral estate in Avondale led by the extended Boyd-Barrett family have animated many thousands of the high-minded against the sale of our sacred woodlands to a rapacious private sector, perhaps led by the perfidious Bertie Ahern.

There may indeed be social grounds to maintain Coillte’s 700,000 hectares (7% of the State) and their harvesting rights for the people of Ireland. But rummage a little deeper and maintaining Coillte (whose boss’s salary was €297,000 until a recent 15% reduction) itself has calamitous environmental consequences for this under-forested, allegedly-green land.

Not so long ago, distinguished visitors to the Glaskeelan River catchment beside Glenveigh National Park in Donegal were inspecting part of a €2m EU ‘Interreg’ project designed to ensure the preservation of the fresh water pearl mussel. In 2010, the Glaskeelan population was declared one of the eight populations that were considered to have the most potential to prevent national extinction – and so recommended for the highest international priority for conservation measures.

After Coillte’s guided tour, a few of the scientists decided to take a different route back. What they found was that a Coillte forestry-thinning operation had brought functional extinction to the mussels.

Coillte’s barbaric forestry practices led to the ending of the 75% EU funding for Irish forestry for the 2007-2013 CAP – at a total cost of €375m to the taxpayer

Coillte had used the protected river as a roadway for its heavy machinery. In the words of Coillte’s own report: “high levels of silt and mud were generated, rutted tracks created conduits for run-off to water courses exporting high levels of sediment”. A subsequent assessment by the country’s top specialist concluded that the colony was no longer viable, the last juveniles’ habitat smothered by the operation.

In fact, the shocking photographs are no different from those displayed in reports by environmental NGOs on Coillte’s operations in countless remote sites. While Coillte is now celebrating ten years of Forest Stewardship Council certification, the fresh water pearl mussel is not the only species being forced into extinction by its activities. The hen harrier, protected under EU law, also faces extinction, with 124 pairs left in 2010.

Coillte, established in 1988, engineered a grant deal with Ireland’s Ray MacSharry, then EU Agricultural Commission. From 1992, Coillte received the EU farmer’s rate grant for planting land, using the 20 years’ guaranteed income to leverage bank loans to dispossess more farmers – exactly the opposite of the EU’s original intention.

MacSharry, who had resigned as Tánaiste and Minister for Finance when it came out he had borrowed police tape recorders to secretly record conversations with a cabinet colleague, returned to Ireland in 1997 to chair Coillte, the stream of funding he had established now pouring into his own lap. Complaints to the Irish Minister and European Commissioner by an Irish NGO fell on deaf ears, but the EU’s Agricultural Audit Committee took a different view, leading to a ruling that Coillte had no ‘legitimate expectation’ that it would qualify as a farmer, and clawing back  €8m in grants.

The Government paid, refusing to admit that this was state aid – which would have required permission from the EU.

Worse yet, Coillte’s barbaric forestry practices led to the ending of the 75% EU funding for Irish forestry for the 2007-2013 CAP – at a cost to the taxpayer of €75m a year, a total cost of €375m. Asked recently in the Dáil if Ireland would alter its policy in 2014 to qualify for EU funding in the next plan, the Minister declined to answer.

Consequently, Coillte reviewed its expansionist planting programme and has planted only 1,000ha of new forests since losing the grants. The ending of Coillte’s illegitimate grants is now given as one reason for a failure to meet the national targets in forestry set at 20,000ha a year but in fact coming in at 6-8,000 per year.

The policy of favouring conifers rather than broadleaves has been disastrous to Ireland’s environment but has buttressed Coillte’s legally-mandated ‘commercial basis’, central to its privatisation

The MacSharry era targets were based on national policy to continue planting at 20,000ha a year until 2036 to reach ‘critical mass’ – production that would enable downstream industries like paper mills to be created. Not only has this policy been proved a pipe dream, but by placing the entire emphasis on plantations of poor quality non-native timber destined for clearfell the opportunity to restore Ireland’s legendary forests was lost.

The forest area in the country has increased from 104,000ha in 1904 to almost 700,000ha in 2007. But the broadleaf target of 30% set in 2007 was largely ‘sacrificial’ bands of broadleaves planted as facades around the conifer plantations and landscaping along motorways. The days when a squirrel could cross from Wexford to Kerry in an unbroken canopy of native trees will not be seen again.

Instead of developing a sensible forestry policy based on native timbers, Coillte’s nurseries are stocked with the fertiliser-hungry sitka spruce. The policy of favouring conifers rather than broadleaves has been disastrous to Ireland’s environment but has buttressed Coillte’s legally-mandated ‘commercial basis’, central to its privatisation.

Playing on the necessarily longer-term maturity of broadleaves rather than conifers, Coillte’s economic consultant Henry Phillips in 2007 introduced the concept of ‘negative discounted revenue’ to undermine broadleaves. The term is not recognised by other economists and was based on his view that the income from the land lost while growing broadleaves would be greater than the final profit. He valued hardwood firewood at €15 a ton. The price now is over €75 a ton, and there is insufficient supply to meet the demand. Conifers sold for less in 2009 than they did in 2004.

As Coillte sees it, more broadleaves divert scarce resources and don’t play to our competitive advantages. An agonising aside to the tunnel-vision is that Irish ash seeds had to go to a nursery in Holland before being reimported as saplings – with added ash-dieback disease which now threatens the trees survival across Ireland. The costs are not just ecological. The 30,000 infected trees are now subject to an government emergency grant with a €1,500 per hectare Sanitation Action Plan payment and up to €5,000 per hectare for re-establishment and maintenance.

Although the government announced a policy review of Coillte in its 2010 Programme for Government, the Department of Agriculture recently told Village that ‘the deliberations were superseded by the government decision in 2012 in relation to the sale of state assets’. The legislation establishing Coillte was excluded from the current revisions of the Forestry Act now before the Dáil.

Recently closing its only hardwood mill in Dundrum, County Tipperary, Coillte feeds its poor-quality timber into its panel mills, where since its purchase of the US Louisiana Pacific in 2002, it holds a monopoly. Since 1983, €2.25bn worth of timber-panel products have been shipped from Ireland from Coillte’s plants. As the chairman wrote in the 2011 annual report: “Forests, sawmills and panel mills are interdependent and the integration of our forestry and panel products’ businesses is a key competitive advantage and source of value for the Group”.

Ultimately, a decision not to sell Irish forestry rights may have more to do with the future viability of a semi-state company when an asset as significant as harvesting rights is removed than the songs of Christy Moore and the articulate champions of socialism. But in an ironic example of the ‘be-careful-what-you-wish-for’ warning, the Boyd Barretts and Christy Moores are now in effect bolstering the primary agent of the continuing calamity that has overtaken Ireland’s once noble forests.