Monday, 31 January 2011

Why "Save our Forests" rather disappoints...

A few days ago I wrote about the proposals to dispose of all or part of the Forestry Commission's English estate. I remain of the opinion that the Commission is not the best steward for these estates - either as commercial woodland (which is what most of it is) or as public amenity. The Government is consulting about the proposals - the document is here - and it would be rather more helpful if people thought for themselves rather than herding like sheep behind the cry of "save our forests". The purpose of the consultation is set out clearly:

This consultation is about the future ownership and management of the public forest estate in England – land managed by the Forestry Commission on behalf of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

It sets out the rationale for a move away from the Government owning and managing significant areas of woodlands in England and the principles which will guide the Government in deciding the way forward. The consultation proposes a mixed model approach to reforming the ownership and management of the public forest estate to create a far greater role for civil society, businesses and individuals.

So first of all, the proposals isn't for a quick sale of the estate (which would be best achieved through simply putting the lot on the market in one big lump) but a more nuanced proposal. Yet all we hear of the ever shriller cries of "save our forests" - including nonsense like this:

They (the forests) could be auctioned and fenced off, run down, logged or turned into golf courses and holiday villages.

I really don't know where to start with this but it's clear written by someone who has never been anywhere near managing a forest - and I really can see why anyone would buy something just to have it "run down".

Logging? Yes dears, that's what the Forestry Commission do now with the woodlands it owns - it's a commercial forest operator. It's also a regulator which really isn't a good idea and explains why 90% of the Commission's woods are conifer monoculture of little landscape benefit, limited in its contribution to biodiversity and rather lacking in amenity or leisure value.

Golf courses? Good grief - a new game of 'golf in the wood', now that's an idea! Why would a developer go to all the expense - not to mention the planning problems - of clearing a whole forest so as to build a golf course when there's plenty of good open land near towns where they can be developed? Makes no sense - a bit like the suggestion!

Holiday villages! A what exactly is the problem with holiday villages? Don't we already have holiday facilities so people can stay in the woods and enjoy them? Isn't this something to be encouraged? In fact what's this - a business called "Forest Holidays" that 'operates entirely within the Forestry Commission Estate'! Wow! Holiday villages!

This entire campaign is unhelpful - not because the forests should necessarily be sold but because it is founded on misinformation and ignorance rather than presenting any rational discussion about the future of the Forestry Commission's English Estates. There are a few such as Julian Dobson who try to get beyond the slogans to suggest possible ways forward:

It doesn’t necessarily follow that the Forestry Commission or the government are the only people who should own woodlands. Indeed, the idea that some of our best-loved forests should be owned in perpetuity by the National Trust is attractive because it reduces the risk of future sales. But - as I argued in a paper for The Mersey Forest published this month - we can’t expect local communities to take over stewardship of our woodlands without help and investment. The need is for a greater emphasis on the community forests programme alongside a clear recognition by government that our woodlands are a resource to be looked after for generations to come.

Julian's focus is on the amenity value of woodland and especially the development of woodland in and near urban areas. But there is a further discussion to be had - that of balancing the different options and opportunities presented by the variety of wood and forest. I see no reason why the upland commercial woodland can't be sold - so long as access rights are guaranteed (and this should, for these forests, extend to include cycles and horses). For the less commercial forests, we need a debate about management, leisure, amenity and different potential uses set alongside an examination of options for future ownership.

It seems to me that the government is consulting with a three-year-old - the opponents simply scream "save our forests" rather than taking the opportunity to ask whether the proposed 'sell-off' actually presents opportunities for trusts, co-operatives and others to secure the woodland for public use and enjoyment.

I find this rather disappointing.


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