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What wood you do to stop this?

External Reference/Copyright
Issue date: 
16 February 2011
Publisher Name: 
The Morning Star
Dave Bangs
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The government's announcement that it is postponing the sale of 15 per cent of the Forestry Commission estate, in order to review the site-by-site criteria for disposal is a first victory in the massive grass-roots anti-privatisation campaign.

We have a country-wide wave of anger swelling that has attracted levels of support for the public forest estate of the same order as that for the NHS or free education.

We've seen activist groups forming from top to bottom across the country with polite anger so raw that the Forest of Dean Tory MP Mark Harper had to fearfully scuttle out of the back door of a meeting venue rather than address the shivering crowd outside.

We've seen an online petition approaching half a million signatures and rising.

And yet all of the rich conservation organisations - the National Trust, Woodland Trust, RSPB, Wildlife Trusts Partnership, and even Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, which have the resources and clout to lead this campaign to a rapid victory - have been horribly absent from the field. 

At a recent ornithologists conference in Sussex I asked the RSPB conservation director what kind of a campaign it was running and suggested that his organisation and its sisters had the ability to make or break the campaign.

His answer was chilling. He made no mention of a campaign and started off by telling us that the RSPB was not a rich organisation - though their regional office down the road has 60 salaried staff, and they have recently acquired several new tracts of Sussex land - and rounded up by saying that "the state had no business growing trees."

Yet it does.

Though the Forestry Commission controls only 18 per cent of woodland, it produces 60 per cent of home-grown timber and harvests 92 per cent of its softwood increment as opposed to just 37 per cent in the private sector.

The public forest estate counters the business cycle by producing a steady timber harvest irrespective of market conditions.

It maintain its network of staff and contractors, its forest infrastructure and year-on-year thinning and planting operations irrespective of market conditions because it knows that if it doesn't, its long-term forest plans are jeopardised.

By contrast only 60 per cent of all private woodlands are in management schemes and commercial pheasant shooting represents the only real management many of the woods in Sussex receive.

The countryside is tarnished with privately owned, semi-derelict forestry plantings, ancient woodlands strangled by invasive rhododendron, giant veteran trees strangled by encroaching conifers and gill woodlands dating back to the "wildwood" now flooded for commercial duck shooting ponds.

But the commission doesn't just grow trees.

It is a major player in the restoration of ancient woodland as well as endangered heath, mire, fell and other open habitats.

About 26 per cent of Forestry Commission land has Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) status and 96 per cent of this is in favourable condition.

The Forestry Commission today bears no resemblance to the commission of a generation ago, with its narrow remit to grow conifers, conifers and conifers irrespective of landscape and wildlife.

Its recent dedication of its entire freehold estate as statutory access land and its energetic creation of community forests - multi-purpose urban fringe and brown-field woodlands - exemplify a major progressive turn.

In Brighton we have some previous experience of the bureaucratic inertia of the conservation non-governmental organisations.

Fifteen years ago the Labour council proposed privatising our 13,000-acre farmed downland estate.

Every one of the rich local conservation organisations accepted that the privatisation could not be stopped and contented themselves with seeking tokenistic measures of amelioration.

A hastily cobbled together coalition of community and wildlife activists - Keep Our Downs Public - refused to accept this sell-out, campaigned furiously and won.

This victory set the scene for four more successful local anti-privatisation struggles including a 77 per cent tenant vote against council housing stock transfer and a recent success against the privatisation of council-owned downland in nearby Worthing.

The lesson is clear. We need a two-pronged battle.

First, the widest possible independent mobilisation against this privatisation on a clear demand for the protection and expansion of the public forest estate as an exemplar for a people's countryside.

Second, a hard challenge to the rich NGOs to adopt a common position of refusal to take over any privatised fragments of the Forestry Commission estate.

Such a boycott would blow out of the water the government's smokescreen proposals for an increased role for the "third sector," social enterprises and community control.

If we do not succeed in this the ramifications of failure will spread far beyond the decline and commercialisation of ex-Forestry Commission land.

We will be faced with a huge diversion of the energy of countryside NGOs and activists to the effort to absorb chunks of privatised forest and preserve their public values without the commercial cross-funding and professional resources of the commission.

Down here in Sussex we have painful recent experience of this, for the Keep Our Downs Public fight against privatisation came too late to keep one important landscape at Devil's Dyke in municipal control.

The National Trust took it over and launched a big fund-raising appeal.

While it was doing so a further stretch of gorgeous downland came onto the market - downland with Special Scientific Interest status and traversed by a stretch of the South Downs Way.

The National Trust refused to bid for it - it was too expensive in the light of its new commitment.

The result was that this downland was lost to an agri-business investor who wished to convert its woodlands to intensive game rearing and the old conservation projects were abandoned.

When I inspected the site last year the landowner had herbicided over an acre of ancient flowery chalk grassland to secure his fence lines.

The National Trust had wasted its energies on purchasing land that was already in public ownership and abandoned the fight for a site that was at real threat.

But the struggle for the public forest estate is one that we can win, and in so doing we can make further gains.

We can use this campaign to reconnect people with the wider countryside and its problems.

In south-east England many of our Forestry Commission estates are scattered and relatively remote.

Our campaign will make sure that the public get to know better what they are at risk of losing.

We can also gain traction for the case for greater democracy and local initiative in the management of public forests without fragmenting ownership and strategic control among a rag-tag of third-sector organisations, private forestry companies and landowners.

State ownership's major advantage is that it subtracts a resource, at least partially, from the irrationality and greed of the market.

The answer for our public forests is the same as the answer for our economy - we need more democratic public ownership and economy-wide planning, enough to break the dominance of the market and not some porridge of private businesses and "social enterprises" struggling for their market share. 

Dave Bangs is a co-ordinator for Keep Our Forests Public, a new coalition formed with the intention of galvanising campaigning activity across the Forestry Commission's South East Region.


Extpub | by Dr. Radut