Carry on up the forest
In response to public pressure, the Coalition’s consultation on its plans to sell England’s woodlands has excluded from the asset sale between 50,000 and 80,000 hectares of forests of “national historical, biodiversity or cultural significance, like the New Forest and the Forest of Dean.” This still leaves 120,000 hectares open to bids from “commercial interests”. One poll showed 84% opposition to a sell-off. But, they carry on ragardless.
Introducing the Coalition’s consultation, the Environment Secretary says, “I grew up a stone’s throw from Hatfield Forest, brought up my own children on the outer reaches of Shakespeare’s immortal Arden Forest, and understand fully the emotional attachment we have to our forests. I am determined to protect and enhance them for future generations and I believe this consultation sets out new and better ways of doing that.”
All public forests should remain just that. In 2009 the commission conducted a detailed study of the long-term role of public forests that concluded public ownership was essential in supporting the forestry estate.
Nevertheless, the Coalition proposes to break up the Forestry Commission, replacing it with a “mixed model” approach. Four principles will guide its decisions:
- protect and enhance biodiversity to contribute to a network of wildlife corridors across England;
- maintain public access for recreation and leisure;
- ensure the continuing role of the woodlands in climate change mitigation and adaptation; and
- protect nationally important landscapes.
First thoughts are, the missing principles – maximising profits from sales, securing the interests of a dedicated and skilled workforce, securing the Forestry Commission’s international reputation, a thorough climate change impact assessment.
The Consultation suggests three options for disposal of the forests:
- Charities to take on the heritage forests
- Community groups for smaller woodlands
- Commercial operators for the large scale “commercially valuable” assets. Commercial forests will be set out in a “prospectus”, with 150 year leases on offer and with consideration of any “development value and sporting rights”.
The other choice, of course, is that all public forests should remain just that.
The lack of joined up thinking with the UK’s climate change strategy remains one of the most worrying aspects of the Coalition’s proposals. Aside from our concerns to secure decent working conditions for 1,200 staff in England now facing a period of great uncertainty, this initiative needs a thorough climate change impact assessment? Apparently, there could be impacts if new owners were to adopt different forst management practices to those currently adopted.
Our forests capture around 15 million tonnes of CO2 annually, equivalent to a clutch of fossil fuel power stations. Yet the UK has much less forest cover than most EU nations. There is a clear need for more woodlands, to maximise their capacity to absorb and store CO2. And woodlands are a cost-effective way to abate CO2 emissions, as the Committee on Climate Change has recognised.