Legislative changes to encourage permanent planting of native forests could instead allow unrestricted use of commercial forestry, legal experts warn.
They say a loophole in the proposed legislation could allow for unregulated planting for the timber and biomass industries.
The proposed change exempts the planting of native trees in areas up to one hectare or in a line 20 meters wide from permit requirements.
It aims to reduce paperwork for small plantings on unused swaths of land to strengthen native forests and address the country’s alarming tree shortage.
But there are no details on how long the 20-meter-wide ribbon line can be, what type of land can be planted, or what mix of native trees is needed.
“Theoretically you could start in the middle of Ireland and plant around and around in a 20 meter wide spiral until you run out of land,” said Attracta Uí Bhroin, legal officer at the Irish Environmental Network (IEN).
“You could plant on environmentally sensitive land that supports biodiversity and there is nothing that prevents monoculture.
“You could just plant willows and then cut it all down to burn as biomass because there’s nothing to say it has to be permanent.”
Secretary of State for Land Use Pippa Hackett said she didn’t think the proposed exemptions would have such consequences.
She said there will be “additional provisions to ensure each system protects the environment and complies with environmental law”.
Ms Uí Bhroin said the law itself should provide these assurances as any additional provisions could be amended by future ministers.
The amendments are proposed in the Animal Health and Welfare and Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.
Most of the bill deals with banning fur farms and establishing a compensation mechanism for operators who go out of business.
But Secretary Hackett has also used it to make some changes to the Forest Act.
There have been major delays in processing planting and felling licenses under the Act given the challenges of mass planting and clear-cutting of commercial conifers.
Ireland has one of the tiniest forest covers in Europe, an even lower percentage of permanent forest and a tiny amount of native forest.
As part of climate protection and biodiversity policy, the government has committed to planting 440 million trees by 2040, a third of them native deciduous trees.
Those plans are already behind schedule, and the Climate Change Advisory Council has warned the government that over the next decade more trees will be felled than planted, leaving forests producing more CO2 emissions than they absorb.
The bill is scheduled to be debated in the Seanad on Thursday.
Senator Alice Mary Higgins already had an amendment to address concerns raised by the IEN.
However, Ms Uí Bhroin said she hoped there was room to amend the wording.
“The idea behind this is good, but there needs to be proper control over what is planted where and it would be a shame to introduce a law that neglects this from the start.”
https://www.independent.ie/news/environment/experts-warn-legal-loophole-could-thwart-tree-planting-plan-41405997.html Experts warn of legal loophole that could thwart tree planting plan