Do you remember your tree? Your own unique Irish native broadleaf tree? The one that the Government planted for you to mark the millennium? You must remember it: Séamus Brennan sent you out a certificate with a scientific-looking number on it and a statement of where your family's very own tree was to be found.
Bertie Ahern launched the project at Avondale in December 1999. The official propaganda described it as "a visionary millennium project to help rescue and restore a number of the country's native forests and woodlands. A unique element of the People's Millennium Forests is that each of the 1.2 million households will be able to identify the exact location of their tree, obtain a certificate of identification and will be encouraged to chart its growth well into the new millennium."
The Taoiseach hailed the idea as "a unique project that will stop the decline of native forests and create a tremendous environmental, educational and cultural resource all over the country for Irish people to enjoy and appreciate for hundreds of years to come."
It was a lovely notion. It recognised that one of the nastiest aspects of the degradation of the Irish environment was the abysmal state of our forests. On average, over 30 per cent of the EU at the time was forestry. In Ireland, the figure was less than 9 per cent. Most of that, moreover, was made up of cheap, nasty evergreens that sustain little in the way of natural diversity and actively harm the environment.
So here was a Government plan that caught the public imagination. Kids in schools all over the country collected the seeds of native tree species to be planted and, according to the official website, "set up small nurseries on their classroom windowsills . . . in this way each school helped to increase the forests of Ireland".
The Government told us: "The trees will be planted using a grid system. A central database will record the precise location of each tree and will allow for households to identify their tree."
It was, of course, a lie. Last month, when Valerie Cox of Today with Pat Kenny on RTÉ radio went with a local resident to look for his tree in Camolin Wood in Co Wexford, they found an area overgrown with furze and brambles. Gerry Egan, company secretary of Coillte, which was given the job of managing the people's forests, explained that the unique, numbered tree they were looking for wasn't, after all, a unique numbered tree. The number referred to a block. No individual tree was identifiable because the vast majority of the trees that had been planted would be "thinned out" - in other words dumped.
The 2,500 trees that had been planted on each hectare would be reduced to about 50. So well over 99 per cent of us were simply lied to.
We didn't get a unique tree. We can't "chart its growth well into the new millennium" because it will be thinned out soon. The central database that we were told would identify each of our trees doesn't exist. And all of this was known from the start. Once the trees were planted in the way they were, it was always impossible for each family to have its own tree whose development it could monitor. This matters at a number of levels. Firstly, governments shouldn't get away with large-scale deception of their citizens for the sake of a PR stunt. Secondly, the cynicism involved in getting primary school children all worked up about a big environmental project under false pretences is as corrosive as it is sickening, teaching them the lesson that public ideals are for suckers. And thirdly, the whole episode highlights the unholy mess that continues to be made of forestry policy.
One of the reasons for the millennium forests debacle is the bizarre status of Coillte. When, in late 2000, environmental activist Tony Lowes wrote to Coillte seeking information of the environmental aspects of the millennium project, Coillte replied that it was a private limited company which operated on a commercial basis. It argued it had no public administration functions or responsibilities, and was not obliged to provide any information.!!
This is an astonishing position for a company whose only shareholders are the Ministers for Finance and Agriculture, and it has been repeatedly rejected by the European Court.
Coillte sees itself as a purely private, commercial operation, with no public responsibilities. So, while the Taoiseach could blather about stopping the decline of native forests and the Heritage Council could demand that 50 per cent of all new planting be native species, Coillte's then chief executive, Martin Lowery, could state baldly that "hardwoods are not commercial, do not produce a return and require good agricultural land" and that the company therefore has no interest in planting them in large numbers. This same logic underlies the company's practice of selling off public forests to private developers in deals that involve very little public scrutiny.
The big lie in the whole millennium forests spin was that "we" own our trees. Public ownership of one of our most important environmental and tourism assets is about as real as the teddy bears' picnic.
© The Irish Times