As with many environmentalists, the protests against the government's plans to sell off the bulk of the UK's forest estate have struck something of a nerve with me.
Some of my happiest childhood memories revolve around days spent stomping round Grizedale Forest in the Lake District, the tract of woodland near Coniston Water that has emerged as the hub for many of the protests. As a result, I instantly bridle at news the government could sell off these beautiful and therapeutic spaces in search of a quick buck, reports made all the worse by the fact the sale may cost more money than it generates.
I was lucky enough to spend a few days last week staying in a hotel on the edge of the forest and the idea that it, along with many other of the nation's most valuable woodlands, could soon be sold is quite simply heart-breaking.
Caroline Spelman can talk all she likes about deficits, safeguards, community ownership and the Forestry Commission's conflict of interest – none of it hides the fact the government is offloading a supremely valuable national assets into private hands. This is less a case of selling off the family silver, more a case of selling off the back garden – the house is still intact, but it is not as nice to live in and it's worth a lot less. If the Forestry Commission should not be regulating and selling timber, then appoint a new regulator – but don't sell off one of the country's most treasured assets.
But leaving aside the merits and pitfalls of public versus private ownership, the government's forestry proposals also represent a huge missed opportunity that could undermine the UK's long-term renewable energy plans.
Regardless of who ends up owning the bulk of our forestry estate, the UK must embark on a major programme of afforestation over the next decade. Heritage forests should be expanded to boost biodiversity and commercial forests should be expanded at a rapid rate to ensure that the new wave of biomass power plants have ready access to fuel.
Biomass power plants such as the planned 350MW facility in Port Talbot or the proposed Forth Ports power plants in Scotland are deliberately being located in ports so that they can make use of wood chips imported from sustainable forests overseas. These power plants will play a significant role in providing relatively clean and reliable energy for the UK's base load, but if they are to maximise their environmental and energy security benefits, they will ultimately have to switch to fuel sourced from closer to home. Similarly, growing numbers of biomass boilers for domestic and commercial properties should ideally be fueled using wood chips produced locally.
There is a strong environmental and economic case for embarking on the largest programme of afforestation in modern history, and yet the government's consultation document does no more than hint at this possibility.
It states that "forests and the forestry sector can help to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by storing carbon in growing forests, by storing carbon in harvested wood products, by replacing fossil fuels with woodfuel and by replacing high energy products, such as concrete and steel, through more use of timber". It also acknowledges that the government has a duty to ensure "England's woodlands, forests and trees, and the open habitats within them, are managed and expanded to enhance the environment and biodiversity, combat climate change and support economic growth", and mentions the need to encourage more tree-planting and increase woodland area.
But it then becomes so fixated on making the case for forests being owned by civil society and commercial organisations that it provides virtually no insight into to how forests will be expanded and better managed to help the UK meet its climate change goals. There is a brief mention of how the reformed Forestry Commission could take responsibility for "expanding the woodland resource through promoting and creating incentives for planting and naturally regenerating trees, woods and forests of the right type in the right place". But the government offers no indication of what these incentives should be or what constitutes the right type of forest or the right place.
Biomass power will play a vital and often under-appreciated role in the UK's low-carbon future, offering a relatively clean form of backup power for days when the wind is not blowing. We are already in the process of building biomass power plants and, given that it takes decades for a commercial forest to start delivering regular supplies of timber, we should be taking urgent action now to expand our supplies of suitable fuel. Whether it is through targets for a publicly owned forest estate or incentives for privately owned forests, the government should be developing a plan to encourage the rapid expansion of our commercial forests while continuing to protect our heritage forests.
But judging by the forestry consultation, the government's fire sale will not only anger the vast majority of people who remain fiercely attached to our public forests, it will also miss a great opportunity to bolster the low-carbon economy.
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