Radical thinking on forestry



I don’t know whether all the fuss about forests is down to ignorance or malice. Certainly all those celebrities who are complaining about a ‘sell-off’ don’t seem to know much about the actual proposals – nor about Britain’s forests, for that matter. Maybe they are just being manipulated by spin-doctors whose agenda is to unseat the government and expand the state.

As Miles Saltiel points out in his new ASI report today, Seeing the Wood for the Trees (PDF), three-quarters of England’s forests are already privately owned. And there are strict rules on them – things like public access, biodiversity and conservation. So what’s the problem?

But only 8% of the land held by the Forestry Commission – the UK’s state forestry quango – are the broad-leafed woodland that the celebrity hikers love so much. The vast bulk of it – 72% in England and 93% in Scotland – comprises endless acres of identikit conifers. Dark, dense and unwelcoming, these plantations serve none of the interests that the campaigners champion. They are largely inaccessible to the public; they generate almost no rural employment; with their depressing monoculture they promote neither biodiversity nor wildlife. They may contribute to the acidification of rivers. And they don’t make money – the Forestry Commission fails even to cover its costs.

The rest of the Forestry Commission’s estate is non-wooded farmland – potentially very valuable in this era of food shortages. Indeed, Saltiel figures that, forget the broadleaf heritage forests, selling the pines and pastures alone could bring in over £4bn – a welcome boost to the taxpayer right now.

But the government isn’t even suggesting that. It is talking about leasing forests, and favouring charities, community and other ‘civil society’ groups – and only in England. With such strict regulation already, why don’t we just sell the forests to commercial managers, and get some fresh capital into the sector – and some fresh thinking?