The Sunday Telegraph yesterday reported that ministers intend to privatise – or transfer to community groups and mutuals – about a third of Britain's forests. The country's government, struggling to contain huge budget deficits, needs the money of course. Even so, it is very much the right thing to do.
You could guess as much from the fact that the trade unions instantly denounced the plan. They say that private ownership would mean less public access to forest land. They could not be more wrong. For decades, Britain's state-backed Forestry Commission has smothered the hillside of Scotland and Wales in particular with blankets of unattractive, dark, and completely inaccessible conifer forest. Private owners, on the other hand, have a financial incentives not only to manage the forest stock better, but also to open up forest land to paying tourists, and to develop forest resorts for tourists and hikers. And rights of public access can be guaranteed, even extended, as part of the sale process.
New Zealand, for example, developed a leasing system to combine the benefits of private-sector management with the guarantee of public access and amenity. Forests are an important environmental resource in New Zealand, where natural and commercial forests cover around a third of the land area. In the 1980s, the then Labour government wisely separated its state management authority from the actual ownership of the forests, and identified those forests which should be reserved and managed principally for amenity rather than commercial use. The changes led to immediate beneficial returns, reversing the need for state subsidies, and in fact encouraging a sharp rise in new plantings and timber production.
For more on New Zealand, see our ideas piece Out of the Woods. See also Douglas Mason's ASI report Wood for the Trees and Miles Saltiel's Forests for the People.