Secretary of State Caroline Spelman yesterday outlined controversial plans to make available large areas of commercial forest for sale to companies, although 'heritage' woodlands such as the New Forest or Forest of Dean will be handed to charities to manage on behalf of the nation, and community groups will be invited to purchase other forested land to run independently.
The Government wants to sell off forest worth £250 million in order to ensure Defra can meet its target of making 30 per cent savings on its annual budget by 2015, as outlined in the recent Spending Review.
'State control of forests dates back to the First World War, when needs were very different,' Spelman said in a statement. 'There's no reason for the Government to be in the business of timber production and forest management. It's time for the Government to step back and allow those who are most involved with England's woodlands to play a much greater role in their future. We want to move from a Big Government approach to a Big Society one.'
Pressure groups are mounting an increasingly energetic campaign opposing the planned forest sale, highlighting fears ranging from concerns over public access under the new arrangements to the damage of commercial logging operations to the impacts on wildlife.
Sue Holden, chief executive at the Woodland Trust, said: 'While we fully support the concept of community ownership, we don’t believe that the charitable sector can be the solution to future care of all of the publically owned heritage woodlands, as it will not have the resources to manage these for decades into the future without substantial and sustained government funding. We don’t believe the government has properly considered the feasibility of this option.
RSPB conservation director Mark Avery said: 'Protecting wildlife and ensuring public access is a key test for any change in ownership of our forests. But the sheer scale of the changes may make this very difficult to achieve in practice.
'We welcome the assurances that "heritage forests" such as the Forest of Dean and the New Forest will be protected but there are many other areas that are also important for wildlife which need to be secured, including those with the future potential to support a range of threatened species. The [RSPB] remains open minded about these proposals – but we need to be reassured that whoever manages former state run forests, whether private individuals, companies, leaseholders or trusts and charities, will protect our native wildlife,' he said.
Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP, said: 'Despite Caroline Spelman's belief that the Government should not involve itself in forest management, there are very good reasons for our woodlands and forests to remain under public ownership.'
The Government's consultation is set to last three months. Last month The Ecologist revealed how the proposed sale could see biofuel companies benefiting through the acquisition of additional forest sites.
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