If a tree falls in the woods, will the country be any better off?

Just ten per cent of Britain’s land surface is wooded, compared to an average of 25% in other European countries. The United Kingdom is unique in that this figure is rising, but a return to a more beautiful and ecologically supportive country has been threatened by government plans to sell off all state-owned woodland in the next ten years.

Along with the other changes being made to the country, we could see our woods being cut down for timber or turned into golf courses and holiday parks, with nearly 40 public forests in the Lakes alone potentially under threat. The future of the 1200 jobs in the Environmental Department is also unclear.

The irony of these plans speaks louder than even a chainsaw: Cameron told us he wanted the greenest government ever, yet that which helps keep the earth at a habitable temperature and allows us to breathe could face the well-worn Tory axe – the government have promised to remove the red-tape of planning permission which would protect the woods. It also doesn’t go unnoticed that 2011 is the UN’s International Year of the Forests.

The Forestry Commission, which currently manages state-owned woodland, has commitments to replace conifers with native broadleaf trees such as oak, beech, ash and lime. The forests are expected to be sold with no requirement to honour these commitments. The privatisation of the forests will doubtlessly incur the opposite – our remaining native forestry being replaced with more and more monocultures that are not supportive of ecosystems.­­­

Another issue with selling off the country’s natural heritage is that the forests will be owned by ‘leasehold’, meaning that access can be restricted. So if the highest bidder found a more profitable use for the land, the forests could be fenced off. In a certain sense, we are all in it together, as everything from ecological stability to dog walking is under attack.

If forests aren’t chopped down, they could potentially be used as tax loopholes: commercial forestry in the UK is free from income tax, capital gains tax from timber crop, corporation tax and even inheritance tax. Funnily enough, the debt the government wish to clear from selling off the forests could easily be raised through dealing with tax avoidance.

Before the trees have even fallen in the woods, public outrage at the plans has already been heard: Protests have been held at locations such as the Forest of Dean, where thousands gathered and burned a statue of Big Ben. Celebrities have also voiced their concerns, raising support for the issue. The privatisation of state-owned forests has yet to go through the House of Commons, so now is the time for everyone concerned with the future of rural Britain to sign petitions, contact MPs and, more pertinently, consider action that will more directly challenge this environmental vandalism.

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January 2011

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