Forestry Bill will shut out the voice of the community
The Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity, Pippa Hackett, recently opened a consultation for an amendment to the Agricultural Appeals Act, with a view to aligning the forestry licencing and appeals processes with similar planning processes .
An Taisce is a member of the Environmental Pillar, a coalition of 28 national environmental groups, who have written to the Minister, urging her to reconsider the approach taken in her recently opened consultation.
The Bill proposes amendments to the forestry appeals process, which would drastically reduce the ability of ordinary people and environmental NGOs to appeal any forestry decision with potential environmental impacts. The Bill proposes a number of significant amendments, curtailing which members of the public may take an appeal, and placing arbitrary and restrictive thresholds on which organisations qualify as environmental NGOs, in addition to introducing fees.
Under the current system, any member of the public may appeal a forestry licence decision, but this Bill will introduce the concept of a ‘relevant person’, where in order to be eligible to appeal an individual must have partaken in the initial forestry application process, or live adjacent to the proposed site.
The Bill also introduces the concept of an ‘Environmental Body’ who may also appeal licences. However, reminiscent of the ill-judged Housing and Planning Development Bill 2019 , the definition of an Environmental Body is very narrowly construed. The Bill would grant the minister powers to restrict what organisations qualify, based on, among other things, membership size, legal constitution and length of time in existence. This could have very serious impacts on local community groups who find themselves faced with extensive afforestation in their local areas, by potentially removing their right to appeal, effectively limiting their access to justice.
The Bill also proposes the introduction of fees for taking an appeal. This could see individuals and groups faced with the prospect of thousands of euros in costs for appealing a multitude of problematic licences. Not only would this Bill reduce the number of people eligible to take an appeal, it would then impose further financial restrictions upon those eligible few.
The current forestry system is broken, and An Taisce has repeatedly highlighted that it is not in compliance with European legislation for the protection of wildlife, habitats and water, with highly questionable climate benefits. This commercial forestry model also has serious social impacts which are currently being overlooked, with rural communities in counties such as Leitrim and Kerry bearing the brunt of this. This Bill will shut out their voice, one of the only avenues available to them to try to stop the disproportionate afforestation of their townlands with imposing stands of non-native sitka spruce. There are far better sustainable afforestation models Ireland could follow, promoting forestry which enhances and protects the environment and communities. Restricting who can take an appeal is not the way to do this. This Bill will primarily benefit the forestry industry, expediting flawed decision making.
Dr. Elaine McGoff, Natural Environment Officer with An Taisce says:
“It’s very disappointing that one of the Minister’s first steps in office is to restrict who can appeal, as opposed to focusing on fixing the actual system to improve the decision making itself. It’s backwards. This would mean that the problematic decisions will continue to be made, but far fewer people will be in a position to challenge them.”
 The Draft Agriculture Appeals (Amendment) Bill 2020 is available at https://bit.ly/3gYsxlS
Contact: Elaine McGoff, Natural Environment Officer, 085 7153796, firstname.lastname@example.org