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How our forests are governed is not yet out of the woods

Three years ago, government plans to privatise the forests met with strong opposition from community groups and NGOs. But there have been calls for change – among others the Woodland Trust has called for…

Which path will the government take? Roger Jones, CC BY-SA

Three years ago, government plans to privatise the forests met with strong opposition from community groups and NGOs.

But there have been calls for change – among others the Woodland Trust has called for legislation that would afford the public forest estate greater protection from privatisation, and there are expectations that the Queen’s Speech will include an announcement of proposed legislation to “conserve and enhance” the forests. We will learn more about the government’s intention in upcoming weeks, but it takes only a bit of history to have mixed feelings about the proposition. It has to do with the words “conserve and enhance”. And it has to do with the government.

Forests were subjects of government control long before states were thinking about things like income taxes. Rulers have tried various approaches over the centuries, and usually these shed a revealing light on their overarching ambitions. Show me your woodlands, and I will tell you what your government is up to. Authorities can focus on wood or game for hunting, they can over-exploit forests or preserve them for future generations, or they can reduce oversight and allow people to do their thing. And unlike many politicians, woodlands have a long memory, and they do not lie. Forests bear the effects of past policies over many generations.

A strong European tradition has focused on timber production, and securing a reliable supply of timber was a matter of national and economic security. Countries with a powerful state administrations such as Germany and France were particularly eager to manage their woodlands systematically. They issued edicts for wood production, controlled supplies and markets, and created government-run schools for foresters.

Forests were places where some could escape to. Herr stahlhoefer

For most of world history, rulers have shown their power by cutting down forests, because of their value as a resource and because forests were places where people could escape their control. European governments were different, and displayed power by preserving forests and guiding their use in what they perceived as the common interest. In other words, they sought to “conserve and enhance” the forests. Sound familiar?

Governments of the early modern era strongly favoured timber production, as selling forest products was an important source of revenue. That had consequences for the way forests looked, as the quest for timber products favoured tall and fast-growing species. It also meant a ban on all non-monetary uses – specifically the traditional allowances for locals to make use of forest resources. This led to generations of conflict between governments and the people for control of the forests.

Forests have captured the imagination of people since medieval times. Gaston Phoebus

Over the course of the 19th century, many European governments gained the upper hand and controlled the woodlands, but it became a rather ambiguous victory. The penchant for tall, fast-growing trees brought with them a wide range of problems. Game hunters voiced their own concerns, preserving a whiff of feudalism into the modern era. Nature lovers sought to preserve views and landscapes. And it is a matter of debate whether optimising domestic wood production was a good idea in an age of world trade. Forests mirrored society’s obsessions almost as reliably as those of the government.

Environmentalism has made the issue even more complicated. Forests are hotspots of biological diversity. Climate change will affect tree growth, and introduce different pests, while also highlighting their potential as carbon sinks. Strong winds or ice can cut down elaborate forest management plans overnight. In spite of strenuous efforts against acid rain, pollution is still a major problem. Nitrogen oxides have received some attention for their impact on the climate, but they also contribute to a chronic over-fertilisation of soils that puts habitats in jeopardy by boosting unnatural growth.

Economics is still important for forests, but governments can no longer pretend that this is all that counts. David Cheskin/PA

Governments can no longer choose what they perceive as the crucial use of forests and ignore all other claims. Today’s governments need to meet a multitude of goals: economic viability, scenic value, resilience to disasters, climate effects, biodiversity, and all this when the ground is constantly shifting. We do not know Britain’s climate in 50 years, or the effects of higher carbon dioxide concentrations on forests. Nor, looking from the environmental to the economic, can we guess what timber prices will be in 2064.

So this makes it remarkable that the government wants to pick up the issue – but then it remains to be seen what “conserving” and “enhancing” forests actually means. Will they face up to challenge in full, or merely focus on monetary returns? There is plenty of evidence around the world to show what neo-liberal policies and short-term thinking can do to forests, and equally plenty of evidence of protests against it.

We will learn soon more about the government’s idea of the right forest. We may also see another round of protests. But then, we will also learn something about ourselves in the process: we are out in the woods when it comes to the future of forests.

Maybe we do not so much need a bill as an invitation to experts and the public: we need to talk.