In the latest in our report series, Natural Capital Ireland completed a review of national policies across sectors to identify where forestry-related ecosystem services could play a role, and looked at the degree to which such a role is currently recognised.
“Ecosystem services” are broadly defined as the benefits people derive from nature. In the case of forestry, these benefits include raw materials for food, fuel and shelter, environmental benefits through climate regulation and improved air quality, and cultural and health benefits through educational opportunities and recreation for physical and mental health.
Ireland’s forest policy sets out to ensure that development is undertaken in a way that “enhances their contribution to the environment and their capacity for the provision of public goods and services”, yet these public goods and services are rarely referenced or prioritised within other government policies.
Dr Noreen Brennan, post-doctoral researcher at NUIG, and Iseult Sheehy of Natural Capital Ireland completed a review of national policies across the sectors below to identify where forestry-related ecosystem services could play a role, and the degree to which such a role is currently recognised:
Environmental/Land Use Planning
Culture and Sport
Out of the 40 policy documents reviewed, 33 acknowledged forestry ecosystem services in relation to environmental objectives such as climate change mitigation, flood prevention and carbon emission reductions and supporting services such as biodiversity and habitat protection. Related policy actions included biodiversity friendly planting, the protection of existing trees, the development of bioenergy in industrial areas, city and town tree planting and monitoring and the diversification of agriculture into forestry.
However, the policy review highlighted how the benefits to people are currently underestimated and undervalued. The researchers found there is significant, unrecognised potential for forestry related ecosystem services to contribute towards a broad range of national objectives; particularly health, education, tourism, community development and environmental objectives.
Following the policy review, Natural Capital Ireland organised a workshop with representatives from a range of policy sectors to identify areas where forestry ecosystem services can be better incorporated and discuss barriers that may exist. The workshop included a lively discussion (thanks to everyone who participated!) and surfaced a number of practical suggestions for policymakers, including:
Incentivising farmers to embrace slower-growing trees and long-term planting objectives by making these approaches competitive with alternative land uses.
Developing a faster licensing system for large-scale restoration projects.
Highlighting the capital support provision available for developing forest ecosystem services for recreation and tourism.
Incorporating forestry-related education into the national curriculum within the objectives related to education for sustainable development, and allocating funds for schools to access outdoor activities within a forest environment.
Working with local authorities to highlight funding available to implement woodland projects and plans.
Coordinating transport and recreation policies to deliver better greenway outcomes.
Prioritising access to green space in infrastructure and health-related planning.
Overall, the workshop highlighted key barriers to greater integration of forestry ecosystem services across sectors, including opposition from farmers, lack of resources and accessibility and the lack of decision-making abilities for policymakers. In order to ensure buy-in from the agricultural sector, changes to the grant payment system may be required to acknowledge farmer preference to engage in farming and to compensate for environmental benefits rather than production only. Providing the financial and practical means to access forestry ecosystem services is crucial for children, particularly those with mobility issues and special needs, and ensures equal opportunities across society. Finally, the integration of forestry ecosystem services into a broad spectrum of policy areas requires strong leadership, a science-based approach and interdepartmental engagement.
Thanks again to everyone who took time out of their busy schedules to participate in the workshop and share their insights! You can read through the policy review and workshop outcomes in more detail within the full report and sign up here to receive updates on our research in this area and educational resources in development.