Hooray for the Telegraph, creakily mounting its well-worn soapbox to draw our attention to the forthcoming sell-off of Forestry Commission land.
The controversial decision will pave the way for a huge expansion in the number of Center Parcs-style holiday villages, golf courses, adventure sites and commercial logging operations throughout Britain as land is sold to private companies. Legislation which currently governs the treatment of “ancient forests” such as the Forest of Dean and Sherwood Forest is likely to be changed giving private firms the right to cut down trees. The Telegraph, 23 October
Now this sounds like the sort of thing all right-thinking environmentalists should campaign against. And possibly it will prove to be so. But this Ranger isn’t so sure: there’s not enough detail in the announcements so far to really know if this is a good or a bad thing. But more to the point, some of the reaction to the announcement has been worryingly misguided. If we do ever need to run a public campaign to save our forests – as well we might – we need to do some serious re-educating pretty sharpish. Let me explain why.
“Save our forests – don’t sell them off to the highest bidder” * Don’t let private companies chop down our woodland. * Protect trees for the conservation of wildlife and the enjoyment of the public.
Clearly, the principle here is worthy – trees are good. But any assertion more detailed than that is starting to look a bit shaky. Here are some assumptions – and why they are wrong.
1. Cutting down trees is always bad for wildlife. No, it isn’t. In fact, it can be quite the contrary. It is sometimes assumed that anything which involves felling trees is bad for the environment. This is not true: on a small and sustainable scale, managed woodlands can be better for wildlife and particularly the economy than woods which are left unmanaged. In areas where almost all woodlands have been managed in the past, such as most of England, there are significant opportunities to improve wildlife and habitats by managing woodlands and felling trees sustainably. Leaving them unmanaged might actually diminish biodiversity. The issue here is a lot of publicity about ‘saving the rainforest’ – quite right when applied to tropical old-growth forest, but wrong when applied to secondary woodland in England. Also, there is a misunderstanding of the need to save woodlands, as opposed to the need to save individual trees. Sometimes, to keep a woodland, you need to fell trees. Planting new trees is not as important as managing the ones you already have.
2. Private woodland ownership must be a bad thing No, this isn’t right either. Look at the photograph above. It shows not only a recently coppiced hazel woodland (an example of trees being felled beneficially) but also happens to be a picture taken in a private woodland. The woodland is open to the public at no charge, and sympathetically managed, with the help of government grants. The owner? The National Trust. So whilst the Telegraph is technically correct to point out the opportunities for entrepreneurs to build Center Parcs and golf courses, they fail to mention that such developments would of course require the benefit of planning consent, which may not be forthcoming. Whereas there are many thousands of hectares of private woodland which is very well managed as it is, owned by private estates, companies, and big charities such as the National Trust and RSPB. In fact, don’t just take my word for it. The charities themselves say as much. In the original Telegraph article in fact. A spokesman for the National Trust said of the proposed sell-off:
Potentially this is an opportunity. It would depend on which 50 per cent of land they sold off, if it is valuable in terms of nature, conservation and landscape, or of high commercial value in terms of logging. We will take a fairly pragmatic approach and look at each sale on a case by case basis, making sure the land goes to the appropriate organisations for the right sites, making sure the public can continue to enjoy the land.
Mark Avery, conservation director for the RSPB said:
We would be quite relaxed about the idea of some sales, but would be unrelaxed if the wrong bits were up for sale like the New Forest, Forest of Dean or Sherwood Forest, which are incredibly valuable for wildlife and shouldn’t be sold off. We would look very carefully at what was planned. It would be possible to sell 50 per cent if it was done in the right way.
3. Selling off the forests will make lots for the public purse For what it’s worth, it doesn’t seem a foregone that this proposal will save much money. Andrew Heggie on UKTC remarks: “It shows how short memories are: if I remember correctly last time round the FC paid out more in grant aid to some new owners than they got for the land”. Of course that wouldn’t happen if the government seriously cuts grants to private woodland owners – which might be a very much more worrying prospect.
So, in short, it’s not that I don’t think the Forestry Commission does a good job. By and large I think they do. Nor would I particularly want to see the national forest estate privatised as a matter of principle (which is what I suspect at least partly motivates this proposal). No, I think that those concerned about this proposal could be right to worry, but should be directing their concerns more precisely. Don’t worry about felling trees, worry about destroying woodlands. And don’t worry about private ownership, worry about unsustainable management and loss of public access. Maybe I ought to start some sort of petition…
EDIT: Yes, I signed the damned thing. It’s been a couple of months, but the questions I hoped might be resolved have not been addressed. If anything, the government’s plans appear to be worse than first thought. John Vidal in the Guardian reports that junior environment minister Jim Paice MP said in Parliament: “Part of our policy is clearly established: we wish to proceed with very substantial disposal of public forest estate, which could go to the extent of all of it…”
Now don’t get me wrong. I think this petition is poorly, even misleadingly, worded, and if it had been better drafted it would have even wider support. But it’s captured the popular vote as the most obvious means of expressing opposition to the proposals. So I’ll back down. The wording is less important than the sentiment. I’ve signed: I urge you to do the same.