Forests must stay in public hands, says independent report

By John Whitney in Bath, UK | Wednesday, July 4, 2012 9.55am

The UK government has called off plans to sell off the 258,000 hectares of publicly-owned forests after an independent report found it was a national asset that could help drive a sustainable economic revival.

The Independent Panel on Forestry was set up in March 2011 after public outcry into a bid to sell off the land into private hands forced the government into a U-turn. They have now accepted the recommendations and halted the plans, with organisations like the Forestry Commission no longer up for the chop.

Responding to the report, environment secretary Caroline Spelman said: "Our forests will stay in public hands. We will not sell the public forest estate. We'll be talking to all those who are passionate about our forests to decide how we will manage our forests for the future."

Once of those groups will be mountain biking advocacy group IMBA UK, who have reacted lukewarmly to the news. Chairman Mark McClure told BikeRadar that while they were pleased to see the forests stay in public hands, it's not necessarily the best news for all mountain bikers.

"The Forestry Commission have done a fantastic job in developing mountain biking in the UK but we're at a stage now where many mountain bikers are looking to progress," he said. "There are plenty of green and blue runs but they aren't building the higher level red and black trails they need, partly in fear of litigation."

He believed the benefits to putting the forests into private hands outshone the current state ownership model.  He used the example of Llandegla to show how a private landowner can be approached by a group or private company to lease an area of land and allow the creation of new trails.

He added that IMBA UK has been invited to London on 10 July to give its feedback on today’s report and encouraged all riders to come forward with their opinions.

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Last spring, an online petition gained over half a million signatures in protest at the policy. The panel, headed by the Right Reverend Bishop James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, said it received over 42,000 responses from people and organisations wanting their say into future of the forests.

"The Panel’s work over the last year has shown that our woodlands, managed sustainably, can offer solutions to some of the most pressing challenges facing society today," he said. "Woodlands keep us healthy. They are places where people can get out in the fresh air and feel connected with nature, with history and with each other, away from the pressures of everyday life."

"There is untapped potential within England’s woodlands to create jobs, to sustain skills and livelihoods, to improve the health and well being of people and to provide better and more connected places for nature. Government investment is now needed to kick start these changes which will repay itself many times over in terms of public benefit."

The panel concluded that while the public forests cost the taxpayer around £20m each year to maintain, an estimated £400m was generated in benefits to people, the economy and nature.

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