Plan to sell State forests must be axed

“When I would re-create myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable and, to the citizen, most dismal, swamp . . . There is the strength, the marrow of Nature. In short, all good things are wild and free.”

- Henry Thoreau, 1817–1862

The Cabinet is expected to make a decision on whether or not to sell harvesting rights to State forests over the coming days.

Even at this very difficult moment this is far more than an economic decision. It will define what we think important, what we consider inviolable, and most importantly of all, it will show how confident we feel about our ability to utilise natural resources for the benefit of this society.

There has been a strong indication from Minister for Natural Resources Pat Rabbitte that the rights will not be sold but Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney, no stranger to controversial, environmentally challenging proposals, has insisted the issue remains an open question.

If the sale offered even a modest economic return it might make some sense but a full analysis of the work of Coillte suggests that the sale would cost the State money if those valuable social and environmental services were sustained.

Economist Peter Bacon has prepared a report for Impact, the trade union that represents some Coillte workers, and concluded that the most the State could expect from any such sale — an 80-year deal has been suggested — would hardly cover interest payments on the national debt for a month. Small change in the multibillion-euro world we find ourselves floundering in so. Similar proposals were considered in Britain but they were dismissed — by a market-loving Tory government — because they did not make economic sense so surely we will learn from that decision?

Just as there is with any debate about selling the family silver to cover short-term debt — a twisted version of sub-prime mortgaging if you will — there is much more to this proposal than the economic imperatives forced upon us by reckless bankers’ debt being foisted on the State.

There are important social, environmental and, yes, national pride issues at stake. To sell would be an appalling admission that we cannot imagine that we could exploit the resource as well as privateers. This is, especially in the context of Coillte’s great successes over the decades, the kind of defeatism that numbs ambition and hope. Just as with the Lotto, soon to go under the auctioneer’s hammer, why can’t we do it for ourselves? Why can’t we reap the benefits?

There is too the sickening irony that, as we fret that oil and gas exploration companies do not pay enough to the State to exploit our natural resources, we are contemplating selling off another national resource — and the profits and jobs they might sustain over years — in a far from ideal situation.

We should not, like some broken and beggared landowners out of energy and options, sell our forests but rather we should manage them to create decent jobs, decent profits and an environment and countryside we can all enjoy and be proud of.

Sooner or later there will be a line-in-the-sand issue with the troika and if it is to be about the sale of our forests then so be it. They should not be sold but developed and enhanced for those who will enjoy them long after we are all gone. They are a jewel in our national crown and should be regarded and protected as such.


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