Members of a campaign group set up to fight the sell-off of England's public-owned forests say the battle isn't over yet. They're urging mountain bikers and other cyclists to head out into the woods later this month and make their presence felt.
Last month, the UK's coalition government shelved its plan to sell off all 258,000 hectares of Forestry Commission woodland following a public outcry. However, existing legislation still allows Ministers to sell off 15 percent of the forestry estate every electoral term.
They're in the process of setting up a panel of experts to examine public access and biodiversity within the public-owned forests. Protesters fear this means large chunks of woodland are still at risk of being sold.
James Greenwood, of the Forest of Dean's Hands Off Our Forest campaign, which is part of the national Forest Campaigns Network, told BikeRadar: "The mountain bike community probably have more to lose than anybody else from a sell-off of the forestry estate... It's international Forest Day on 20 March and we want to encourage as many people as possible to get out on their bikes into the forests and basically enjoy themselves.
"It's a strange form of protest but it's about showing what the forests mean to us. It would be good if people could wear yellow or put yellow tape on their bikes, and write about it on forums and blogs." Why yellow? When the sell-off was announced, residents of the Forest of Dean in Gloucester started tying yellow ribbons round trees as a quick and cheap way to raise awareness.
Campaigners are organising a series of events across the country for 20 March – see the 38 Degrees website for details. They also say it's vital that groups such as mountain bikers get a say on the new forestry panel being set up by the Government, the make-up of which is due to be announced in coming days.
James told us: "We think it's very important that public users – walkers, horse riders and cyclists, who are the largest single 'stakeholders' – should have a voice on the panel so we're pushing for that at the moment. Once we've got a clear indication of who's on the panel, it's going to be a question of how we can put forward the case for the future of mountain biking [in England's forests].
"We're not out of the woods yet – pardon the pun – but people seem to think that the forestry isn't going to be sold off. Actually, all that's happened is that, potentially, [the Government has] a new way of going about it."
James said campaigners had looked long and hard at proposals for the future of the forests and had decided that maintaining the current situation was the best option. "Our position is one of status quo," he said. "Our feeling is that the forestry is actually pretty good value for the taxpayer and it's an incredibly valuable resource.
"For the sake of a few [million] quid, we can't understand why they're considering any form of sell-off. There's also concern that there's almost a concerted effort to grind the Forestry Commission down so far that it becomes unviable. They're losing about 400 jobs. [Any more and they] can't look after the extent of the forestry estate."