The Government is on the verge of selling Coillte’s harvesting rights for the next eighty years. Rather than selling those rights we should be changing our whole approach so we manage our forests in a more long term, permanent way. There should be no sale of Coillte clear felling rights. We should move instead to a system of ‘continuous cover’ forestry.
Irish forests has developed successfully over the last fifty years. However, the vast majority are monoculture conifer plantations, where the land is prepared, trees planted, thinned and then ‘clear felled’ in forty years, before the whole cycle starts again. The ‘clear felling’ methods at the heart of this process limits biodiversity and leaves soils exposed, causing a problem as they are washed away into rivers and streams.
We are missing out on the economic, environmental and social gains that would come from having more mature, mixed species forests. We only gets a tenth of the price we could get for timber, because our whole industry is geared up for dealing with shorter, less valuable softwood logs.
It is time we moved to the sort of ‘Continuous Cover’ forest management systems that are employed in the rest of Europe. In such a system, trees are selectively felled from within the forest, allowing new trees to naturally regenerate in the sheltered space that are left behind. Such forests are more profitable in the long term, more ecologically diverse and resilient. This is the way we need to go.
Coillte’s biggest cash flow cost is in the replanting of areas that have been clear felled. Maintaining a more permanent forest, relies on natural regeneration, which would essentially remove those replanting costs. Because ‘Continuous Cover’ forestry is more labour intensive it would also lead to more local jobs, which we so urgently need in rural areas.
Not selling the harvesting rights should not mean sticking to the status quo. In many ways Coillte has been given a very narrow legal mandate, to act only as a commercial lumber company. Many of the Coillte sites that have been planted were never suited to forestry. Coillte should be turned into a land management company, where many of those sites could be returned to delivering other environmental services.
We have been in a learning situation in establishing a forest industry from scratch but we now know better. Going towards a system of continuous cover would provide us with a most effective form of carbon storage and would create a social amenity that everyone can really enjoy.
Selling ‘clear felling’ rights for the next eighty years will tie us into the wrong, short-term model. Rather than taking money out of the industry the Government should be looking at how we can attract more public and private funding into forestry. With the best climate for growing trees in Europe and working examples from other countries, this is not an impossible task.
Turning from ‘clear felling’ to ‘continous cover’ forestry could be one of the best ways of giving us a jobs and investment boost, which is exactly what our country needs right now. Bear in mind that should the sale of Coillte go ahead it would almost certainly be to “a foreign company, with no stake in local communities dependent on forestry jobs, or in the long-term health of our landscapes” (Irish Times, March 2013).