Oct. 29th, 2010

helenic: (glade)
A few days ago I retweeted a link to this story about planned legislation changes which would permit felling in privately-owned forests. It's been doing the rounds thanks to a fair amount of understandable outrage - there's already a 38 Degrees petition about it.

At the open mic last night we saw Mick, the local forester who let us camp in his chestnut coppice a few weeks ago. It's a beautifully maintained bit of ancient woodland - mostly sweet chestnut, some of the stands so old they're over six feet in diameter - interspersed with a number of gracious oaks a hundred years old or more. It also contains hornbeam (known as ironwood for a reason - I got blisters trying and failing to chop it for firewood), birch, ash, holly, hazel, a couple of natural springs, badgers and deer and wild boar. We spent a happy few hours tromping round it hearing all about responsible forestry and how coppicing works. I love the sustainability aspects of it: growing your own fuel; the way that the forest basically acts as an oxygen factory, and if you're burning fallen branches or coppiced trees there's no way you're going to generate enough CO2 to replace the amount absorbed by the live trees; the fact that coppiced woodland grows much faster than unmanaged woodland, and therefore absorbs even more CO2; how much good responsible forestry can do for the ecosystem of a bit of woodland.

There's an ongoing dispute about felling - a lot of people who own woodland are sentimental about the oaks, which I can understand - they're a bit of a religious focus for me, after all, so I do get it - but the forest as a whole is an organism which needs care, not just the individual plants in it. Part of a respectful relationship with the land is responsible maintenance, and I'm persuaded that sometimes you need to cut down certain of the older trees where they're too crowded, in order to reduce the canopy and stimulate new growth. And each oak tree yields an incredible amount of wood, which can then be used for all sorts of things - I think they gave the last one to a local community farm to build a new barn with.

It seems to me that selling the national forests per se isn't a bad idea, as long as it's being sold to owners who will maintain it responsibly. The problem is how to ensure this happens. When I asked Mick about the news story he said there was an element of scaremongering - use the word "logging" and mention CentreParcs and of course people will jump - but that he hasn't seen any evidence that would actually happen. The issue basically boils down to planning permission. A lot of woodland is protected so closely by legislation that it's impossible for foresters to build any structures at all - which not only makes managing the woodland harder, it also prevents charitable trusts and community organisations from constructing, say, visitors' centres to help them teach people about forestry. That sort of outreach work is not only necessary for the continued maintenance of our national forests, which will be impossible if no-one knows about how to do it, but it's also the sort of fundraiser which gives foresters the financial breathing space to do what's best for the woodland, rather than what will turn the highest profit.

Mick reckons that the legislation unbending is not necessarily a bad thing, but depending on how loose it gets, it might well be down to local communities to keep an eye on sales of woodland in their own area, and to resist any planning permission applications which threaten its maintenance. Which is interesting, because that's exactly the sort of "it's up to us" approach which a few people have been discussing in response to public spending cuts. It's a nice idea, but I can't help wondering how much power the public will have in the face of big business, which the government has tended to put first when it counts. On the other hand, planning permission is a local council decision, and NIMBYism is a force to be reckoned with. Personally, I think I'd like to see some legislation remaining in place to prevent widescale logging of British woodland, but I can see why it might be difficult to draw a line.

It's a microcosm of the whole Nanny State vs Big Society dichotomy, and I think in a way it comes down to trust. Can we trust the government to write laws which aren't over-controlling, ill-informed and which compromise our freedoms? If not, do we trust the government to exercise discretion in who it sells to? Do we trust private owners to manage their land responsibly? Do we trust each other to resist destructive changes to our local landscape? Do we trust our local government to listen to us if we try?

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