Author Tony Whitbread
We await the report of the Independent Forest Panel, due to be published on 4th July.
Earlier in 2011, the government announced its consultation to look into the disposal of the Public Forest Estate – the land managed by the Forestry Commission (FC). This was an ill-considered move and it led to a predictable public outcry. Disposal of the Public forest Estate has been considered at various times in the past, the environmental NGOs have opposed it each time, and each time the government has pulled back and the estate is safe for a bit longer. (Except for the fact that FC have had to continue to sell individual forests in order to try to balance the books).
Two things were different this time. First was the level of public outcry – heartfelt and well-organised, coming as a welcome surprise to NGOs and as a shock to government. See, for instance Save Our Woods.
Second was the government response – to set up an independent panel to look at the future of the Forestry Commission and the Public Forest Estate. My link to the panel is remote, and opinions vary as to whether this is either a put up job or a valuable independent review. We will discover which next week when the report is published.
The response of some organisations is to set out criteria against which they will measure the panel report. The Wildlife Trusts have produced their view here.
The Public Forest Estate represents the single biggest opportunity to implement the commitments made in last year’s Natural Environment White Paper and the recommendations made in the independent “Making Space for Nature Review”. It is critical that this opportunity is taken. The Public Forest Estate (and the body managing it) must have a clear purpose that focuses on excellence in environmental management. It should be given the responsibility and resources to work in partnership across all sectors, from local communities to wood-based industries to enhance England’s ecological network and deliver ecosystem services (including such key public benefits as access).
The Wildlife Trusts have been working with the Forestry Commission for decades. About 30 years ago this was often from the perspective of conflict – we saw the Commission as largely damaging to nature. The Forestry Commission of today is a very different organisation to the Forestry Commission of the past – I have been on their various meetings and committees for about 20 years (from the perspective of a critical ecologist – I do not come from the perspective of automatic support) and whilst we may have had some lively discussions, criticisms of the organisation has been extremely rare.
But – coming from the perspective of two decades of critical questioning of Forestry Commission, from a perspective of not automatically supporting anyone and having no political ideal about land ownership – I feel that Forestry Commission has an excellent history of delivery and now has a very strong role to play in delivering environmental and other public benefits in an outstandingly cost effective way. It could do more with an improved remit and in order to do more it must have the resources and responsibility to deliver.
I hope that the panel report will recommend a new remit for the Forestry Commission, focusing on nature and the delivery of public benefit and acting as an exemplar of sustainable management:
- It should promote forestry as part of a coherent strategy for the natural environment with woods being one part of a diverse and resilient ecological network
- Woods, especially ancient woods should be better protected and better managed
- It should promote a reconnection of people with nature through good access to forests
- It should encourage a “right tree in the right place” principle reconnecting woods through appropriate woodland expansion at a landscape scale
- It should restore existing woodlands, continuing an already active programme of woodland restructuring in order to better deliver public benefit
- Furthermore it should look after all habitats in its care, not just the wooded areas – areas of lowland heathland, meadows and other open habitats, currently planted with conifers should be restored with urgency
To fulfil this remit the Forestry Commission will have to be bigger and be better resourced. Is this likely at a time of austerity? Well maybe. If you count the benefits of a public forest estate, not just the cost, then investment in the Forestry Commission is possibly one of the greatest returns on investment you can make!