The Government may have bought itself some time whilst the consultation on the future of our forests runs its course.  I bet they are tempted to jack it all in and say that they’ll keep everything the same just to get out of the position that they are in.  And if they do, then that’s fine by us. 

Except surely we should use the consultation to think deeply about the future role of the state in forestry as a business, and land management as a public service.

The Forestry Commission is a fine organisation and it’s come a long way.  But the question is – where is it going?

In the past, the fairly distant past, we are talking about the 1970s and 1980s here, the FC wrecked lots of wonderful places for wildlife by planting our hillsides and heaths with non-native conifers, and many areas of broadleaved woodland were converted to conifer plantations.  It was a long time ago, and things have got much better since, but foresters, more than most of us, live with their mistakes a long time as the commercial rotation for a crop of trees for timber is likely to be over 30 years and even up to 50 years. 

This is what the FC in England say they are for – provide a resource of trees, woods and forests in places where they can contribute most in terms of environmental, economic and social benefits - it’s in their Corporate Plan for 2010-11 which is worth a read.

That all sounds good.  FC delivers a mix of economic, environmental and social benefits.  But in the real world, the Treasury has a stranglehold and FC has to deliver a financial return which means acting like a business a lot of the time rather than a public service. 

Let us recognise that many of the very best and most culturally valuable of our state-owned or state-managed forests cost us money, and always will, and let’s decide that is money we are happy to pay.  But let’s fund the delivery of beautiful forests, which we can enjoy, from the sale of some of the ugly industrial conifer forests that are also ours.  In the FC we have the business of making money from timber too mixed up with the public service of delivering beautiful forests.  And too often the money wins out in the end.

There is a strong argument that the bundle of love for forests that has been released in this debate should lead the Government to a more radical position. Why not separate the truly commercial forests from the ones that are primarily of heritage value and change the remit of the FC to deliver those social and environmental aspects for which people are now crying out. 

Once you have a state forestry service that is delivering for people and wildlife then it looks a bit more like Natural England which carries out a similar role for other iconic sites – the National Nature Reserves.  If NNRs, planted ancient woodlands and planted open heaths were all managed by a single body with a biodiversity and public access remit then the public could expect to get more for our investment - more beauty, more wildlife and more opportunities to enjoy it. 

A Forest and Wildlife Service which delivered natural beauty for the public looks an increasingly good idea.  And it’s one that I believe many in the FC would support.  FC staff are efficient and capable land managers with quite a gift for dealing with the public.  NE staff have more of the scientific expertise, see a bigger environmental picture and have greater biodiversity expertise.  Is this a marriage made in heaven?

Let’s emancipate our state lumberjacks – they have nothing to lose but their chainsaws. 

Anonymous
  • I think the perception that all land planted with trees is good is the difficult part of this for 'the public' to get their head round. What I mean to say is that there are plenty of examples where Forestry Commission plantations are absolutely in the wrong locations (is there a right location?) and whilst initially there are large gains for Raptors and mammals eventually all you end up with is a landscape much poorer in diversity than that it replaced. It is right for the RSPB to have a maturity of approach on this and ask questions and suggest an alternative approach. One would hope they know what they are talking about. A complete sell off is wrong but if it means we get to think about doing things in a better way rather than accepting the status quo then that is entirely right.

  • I think it's a nice idea. The question is, how would it work out in practice? In practice I think the public access tail might well wag the nature conservation dog.

  • When I read about this in the Independent's concise newspaper as being what the RSPB want to happen - I was frankly appalled. How can this suddenly be RSBP policy? I thought major policy needed to be ratified by the AGM. As a member I certainly would not support it - and for a very good reason. The interests of wildlife are not confined to forests. Neither are the interests of "commercial" forestry distinct and separate from the interests of biodiversity. Here in Cumbria most of the money that the Forestry Commission makes does not come from timber logging but from a whole range of activities designed to balance the interests of humans and wildlife. This has provided a working springboard for the reintroduction of ospreys, red kites and other vulnerable species. To state publicly that the RSBP supports the scrapping of the FC at this sensitive time is deplorable, particularly when so much excellent partnership work has been achieved by these two organisations  working in tandem. The current coalition government's proposals for the dismembering of our national forest estate are shameful. To distract from the impressive and commendable public campaign to preserve our heritage by promoting this unworkable idea is naive, unhelpful and extremely disappointing. It's just made the job of the protesters and lot more difficult. I thought the RSBP was being rather bashful in not adding its voice of support to the national clamour. Now perhaps we know the reason why. The word cahoots springs to mind.

  • In many other countres such a service runs the National Parks too.

    Not quite the same as public land here in the UK, but why not adding the this service for the nation too. AONBs too , of course.

  • I am very concerned about the future of forestry. Who is going to put the money in to plant billions of trees for our future? Private sector will not plant landscape and carbon capture. The future forests like Kielder will be redesigned for the benefit of everyone not just commercial. Natural England do not have the experience to do that and at the present time may be even the forestry commission are lacking. Any one who can not manage Golden Eagles in this present climate but feel that one pair of Ospreys makes the forest work are short of the mark. [And that's not you]. The largest % of Goshawks are found in these big forests and are slowly being removed by neighboring estates. Natural England can't even manage Hen Harriers so they have no chance with Goshawks. As I have said before the Forestry Commission should stay in control and be given a vast amount of man power via job creation to manage all their estate and then be allowed to take over large areas of upland especially in national parks to create the new forests.