England’s Forest sell-off: ‘People power’ forced U-turn, say campaigners

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From The Guardian – Feb 17, 2011

Campaigners have hailed the “people power” which has forced the government to abandon plans to privatise England’s public forests.

The news that Caroline Spelman, the environment secretary, would announce a halt to the consultation into proposals to sell thousands of hectares of woodland was welcomed by grassroots campaigners and conservation charities.

David Cameron heralded the about-turn at prime minister’s questions yesterday, when he stated bluntly that he was unhappy with the policy.

The proposals put out for consultation last month detail measures to dispose of up to 100% of England’s 258,000 hectare public forest estate, which is currently managed by the Forestry Commission, over the next 10 years.

They included a £250m sale of leaseholds for commercially valuable forests
to timber companies, measures to allow communities, charities and even
local authorities to buy or lease woods and plans to transfer well-known
“heritage” woods such as the New Forest into the hands of charities.

But the proposals attracted cross-party opposition and sparked a public outcry, with critics arguing they threatened public access and wildlife.

Campaign group 38 Degrees started a Save Our Forests petition which attracted more than 532,000 signatures.

David
Babbs, executive director, said: “Some people say signing petitions and
emailing MPs never changes anything, but it did this time.

“This
is what people power looks like, and over half a million of us are
feeling very proud of what we’ve achieved together today.

“We will
keep watching David Cameron to make sure he keeps his word. But right
now it looks like fantastic news for all of us who want to keep our
forests safe in public hands for future generations.”

The Woodland Trust welcomed the U-turn but warned the campaign to protect and restore England’s ancient forests must go on.

Sue
Holden, chief executive of the trust, said: “While we welcome the
removal of threats to public access, there is still an acute need for
better protection of ancient woodland, our equivalent of the
rainforests, and restoration of ancient woods planted with conifers.

“Ministers
have made strong commitments over the past few weeks to increase
protection for ancient woods, and we will be holding them to these
commitments.

“We must not let public passion and support for our
woods and forests die down and now that ownership is no longer an issue,
we must not lose sight of the need to increase protection for ancient
forests and restore those planted with conifers, a once in a lifetime
opportunity for woodland conservation.”

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About Damien Gillis

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.

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