Seeing the wood for the trees

Jan RoyallJan Royall on why it's a game, set and match for those who campaigned to safeguard our public forests

Like all Foresters (people who live in the Forest of Dean) and the millions of people up and down the country who either live in/near forests or simply visit them to enjoy the access, beauty, opportunities and so much more, yesterday was for me a day for celebration. The publication of the report by the Independent Panel on Forestry confirmed our strong view that “the public forest estate should remain in public ownership and be defined in statute as land held in trust for the nation”.

I pay tribute to Bishop James and his fellow panel members who have done a terrific job, but thanks must also go to HOOF (Hands of Our Forest, my local campaign group which led the way), campaigners up and down the country and 38 Degrees, who raised awareness about the threat to and importance of our forests.

The Panel’s report marks a new beginning for England’s forests, of which only 18% are in public ownership. I warmly welcome the statement by the government that it will not sell off 15% of the forests as planned, but I also read with joy the Panel’s recommendation that our woodland cover should be increased from a paltry 10% to 15%. The Bishop was absolutely right when he said that, as a society, we have lost sight of the value of our trees and woodlands. They cost the tax payer a mere £20m a year but bring in around £400m in benefits such as recreation, clean air and water, wildlife, healthy people and a thriving ecology.

A no brainer you might say, especially when society needs more green jobs and we are grappling with the challenges of climate change and the mental and physical pressures of 21st century living.

Of course, as with all reports, the devil will be in the detail. I like the idea of a Charter for the public forest estate, and the recommendation that there should be an enlarged role for the Forestry Commission. The latter does a super job in sustainably managing our forests – so good that from 18% of England’s forests they deliver 40% of the access and 60% of the timber. But we will have to ensure that the Treasury makes adequate funds available – vital if we really are serious about both protecting and expanding this invaluable natural resource.

Ministers have said they will not issue a full response until January 2013. This seems rather a long time, but it will enable us to properly discuss and consider the recommendations. I know that in the Forest of Dean we will want to ensure the uniqueness of our glorious Forest is properly recognised and protected for future generations.

Thanks to people power we achieved our major goal: the future of our public forests safe in public hands and managed by the people who do it best. But the public debate must continue, so all of the social, environmental and economic opportunities of our forests and woodlands can be delivered.

I end by quoting some words from Bishop James, which for me encapsulate the magic, poetry and reality of the Forest of Dean:

“Our forests and woods are nature’s playground for the adventurous, museum for the curious, hospital for the stressed, cathedral for the spiritual and a livelihood for the entrepreneur. They are a microcosm of the cycle of life in which each and every part is dependent on the other: forests and woods are the benefactor of all, purifying the air that we breathe and distilling the water of life. In short trees are for life.”

Baroness Jan Royall of Blaisdon is Labour’s Leader in the Lords, and lives in the Forest of Dean

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