In response to the publication of the Final Report from the Independent Panel on Forestry, Mark Walton argues for the value of community forestry
“We have lost sight of the value of trees and woodlands”, says the
Right Reverend Bishop James in the opening lines of yesterday's report from the
Independent Panel on Forestry.
This may seem an odd statement coming as it does from the Chair of
a Panel established in the wake of a ferocious public backlash against
government proposals to sell off parts of the public forest estate.
However the Bishop is right to state that we have lost sight of
their value. Millions signed petitions and supported campaigns demonstrating
the deep love we have for our trees and woodlands. But how strongly are we
really connected to them? The outrage and indignation was visceral, emotional and
deeply felt, but it was also somewhat abstract and ill informed.
We want our forests to be publically owned, but in fact public
forestry represents only 18% of England’s woodland.
We associate public ownership with public access, but 60% of
publically accessible woodland is in private or charitable ownership.
We want our woodlands to be ‘protected’ and ‘conserved’ because we
think of them as wild places, but half are suffering a loss of wildlife and
biodiversity because they are undermanaged.
It is clear that we have become disconnected from our natural
environment and the reality of its ownership and management. The idyll that so
many seek to protect was once a working landscape that delivered food, shelter
and energy, and was managed sustainably in order that it would continue to do
so year after year. We didn’t just love our landscape - we understood it. It
had real value that was lived rather than interpreted into aesthetic or
The main body of the Forestry
Panel’s report states clearly the role trees and woodlands play in supporting
people, nature and the economy. It goes on to suggest how, at a
national level, their management and governance should be transformed and
financed. The report sets out a strong case
for the need to revitalise our woodlands. The analysis is compelling, but is
the prescription radical enough to create the “transformational change of culture around wood
and woodlands” that the report calls for?
Proposals to support the
creation of new woodlands, increase the levels of investment and active management,
and strengthen supply chains for woodland products are both welcome and well
argued. However those relating to
reconnecting people with woods and forests are limited to supporting “community
engagement”, education and improving access.
The value of community
forestry is highlighted, but when it comes to recommendations on local forest
management the focus is on consultation, with only a subsidiary mention of the
possibility of community management or partnership. There is no discussion or
analysis of how this works in practice or how it might be encourage or
Likewise there is a passing
mention of “community supported agriculture” but no mention of other
enterprising models of community management and investment that could help
deliver the social, environmental and economic benefits associated with trees
and woodlands. The potential role of social enterprise to help strengthen local
supply chains, and overcome some of the issues of marginal profitability in
parts of the woodland economy by building diverse income streams goes
Top down, expert-led,
environmental management, and the division of resources into public and private
goods to be either protected or exploited, lie at the heart of our
disconnection with our environment and our confused responses to how it is
managed, used and sustained. With limited exceptions, the Panel recommendations
remain based on an assumption that our common environmental resources should be
nationally managed, with the wider public and local communities engaged or
consulted when necessary.
It is right that our
remaining forest estate should be publically owned and held in trust, but we
should also be creating and supporting new opportunities for local communities
to bring their passion, knowledge and innovation to its day to day governance
Local communities working
together can manage common environmental resources in ways that prevent their
collapse or overuse, enabling them to be not only sustainably harvested but
enriched and replenished, whilst delivering a wide range of social and economic
benefits for the local community. Such direct connections enable people to
understand the true value, not just of woodlands but, of all of our natural
The Forestry Panel report
sets out a strong case for more, better managed trees and woodlands, but the
assumption that public ownership at a national level requires public, national
level management and governance remains largely unexamined and unchallenged.