Dave's article 'Keep Our Forests Public'

MarkiB mark at tlio.org.uk
Sat Feb 19 12:47:44 GMT 2011

Dave's article Keep Our Forests Public highlighted for yr attention in
case you missed it (which he did send out on this list 2 days ago in his
reply to me).

Further down in this email is a Press Release from Save Our Woods which
makes some intelligent points about why many of the incumbent large NGOs
were unprepared and worse, very slow to respond to the government's
sell-off proposals (and in some cases, sitting on the fence on the issue).

First a telling quote from Dave Bang's article in the Morning Star copied
again below this quote:
'At a recent ornithologists conference in Sussex I asked the RSPB’s
Conservation Director what kind of a campaign they had, and suggested that
his organization and its sisters had the ability to make or break the

His answer was chilling. He made no mention of a campaign, and started off
by telling us that the RSPB was not a rich organization (though their
regional office down the road from me has 60 salaried staff, and they have
recently acquired several new tracts of Sussex land) and rounded up by
saying that “the state had no business growing trees”.'

Keep Our Forests Public

From: Dave Bangs (chair, Brighton Keep Our Forests Public).
dave.bangs at virgin.net  

Tel: 01273 620 815. 78 Ewhurst Road, Brighton, BN2 4AJ

The governments’s announcement that they are postponing the sale of 15% of
the Forestry Commission estate so as to review the site-by -site criteria
for disposal is a first victory in the massive grass roots
anti-privatisation campaign.  We have a country-wide wave of anger that has
brought levels of support for the public forest estate of the same order as
that for the NHS or free education. We’ve seen activist groups forming from
top to bottom of the country, with (polite) anger so raw that Mark Harper,
the Forest of Dean Tory MP, scuttled fearfully out of the back door of a
meeting venue, rather than address the shivering crowd outside.  We’ve seen
an on-line petition approaching half a million signatures and rising.

And yet ALL of the rich conservation organisations – the National Trust,
the Woodland Trust, the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts Partnership, and even
Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth - who have the resources and clout to
lead this campaign to a rapid victory have been horribly absent from the

At a recent ornithologists conference in Sussex I asked the RSPB’s
Conservation Director what kind of a campaign they had, and suggested that
his organization and its sisters had the ability to make or break the

His answer was chilling. He made no mention of a campaign, and started off
by telling us that the RSPB was not a rich organization (though their
regional office down the road from me has 60 salaried staff, and they have
recently acquired several new tracts of Sussex land) and rounded up by
saying that “the state had no business growing trees”.

Yet it does. Though the Forestry Commission controls only 18% of woodland
the Commission produces 60% of home grown timber, and harvests 92% of its
softwood increment, as opposed to just 37% in the private sector. The
public forest estate counters the business cycle by a steady timber
harvest irrespective of market conditions. They maintain their network of
staff and contractors, their forest infrastructure and year-on-year
thinning and planting operations, irrespective of market conditions because
they know that, if they don’t, their long term forest plans are
jeopardized. By contrast, only 60% of all private woodlands are in
management schemes, and commercial pheasant shooting represents the only
real management many of
the woods in my county receive. My countryside is tarnished with privately
owned semi-derelict forestry plantings, ancient woodlands strangled by
invasive rhododendron, giant veteran trees strangled by encroaching
conifers, and gill woodlands dating back to the ‘wildwood’ now flooded for
commercial duck shooting ponds.

But the Commission doesn’t just grow trees. They are a major player in the
restoration of ancient woodland, as well as endangered heath, mire, fell,
and other open habitats. About 26% of Forestry Commission land has SSSI
status and 96% of this is in favourable condition. The Forestry Commission
today bears no resemblance to the Commission of a generation ago, with its
narrow remit to grow conifers, conifers, and conifers, irrespective of
landscape and wildlife. Their recent dedication of their entire freehold
estate as statutory access land, and their energetic creation of Community
Forests and multi-purpose urban fringe and brown field woodlands, exemplify
a major progressive turn. 

Down here in Brighton we have some previous experience of the bureaucratic
inertia of the conservation NGOs. Fifteen years ago the Labour Council
proposed privatizing our 13,000 acre farmed downland estate. Every one of
the rich local conservation organisations accepted that the privatisation
could not be stopped, and contented themselves with seeking tokenistic
measures of amelioration. A hastily cobbled together coalition of community
and wildlife activists – ‘Keep Our Downs Public’ – refused to accept this
sell-out, campaigned furiously, and won. This victory set the scene for
four more successful local anti-privatisation struggles, including a 77%
tenants’ vote against council housing stock transfer, and a recent success
against the privatisation of council–owned downland at nearby Worthing. 

The lesson is clear. We need a two-pronged battle. First, the widest
possible independent mobilization against this privatization, on a clear
demand for the protection and expansion of the public forest estate as an
exemplar for a people’s countryside, and, secondly, a hard challenge to the
rich NGOs to adopt a common position of refusal to take over any privatized
fragments of the Forestry Commission estate. Such a boycott will blow out
of the water the government’s smokescreen proposals for an increased role
for the ‘third sector’, social enterprises, and community control.

If we do not succeed in this the ramifications of failure will spread far
beyond the decline and commercialization of ex-Forestry Commission land,
for the fire-fighting role of the NGOs will be even further compromised. We
will be faced with a huge diversion of the energy of countryside NGOs and
activists to the effort to absorb chunks of privatised forest and preserve
their public values, without the commercial cross-funding and professional
resources of the Commission. 

Down here in Sussex we have painful recent experience of this, for Keep
our Downs Public’s fight against privatisation came too late to keep one
important landscape, at the Devil’s Dyke, in municipal control. The
National Trust took it over, and launched a big fund raising appeal.
Whilst they were doing so a further stretch of gorgeous downland came onto
the market – downland with ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’ status and
traversed by a stretch of the South Downs Way. The National Trust refused
to bid for it - too expensive, in the light of their new commitment. The
result was that this downland was lost to an agri-business investor who
wished to convert its woodlands to intensive game rearing. The old
conservation projects were abandoned, and when I inspected the site last
year the landowner had herbicided over an acre of ancient flowery chalk
grassland to secure his fence lines.

Thus, the National Trust wasted its energies on purchasing land that was
already in public ownership, and abandoned the fight for a site that was at
real threat.

But the struggle for the public forest estate is one that we CAN win, and
in so doing we can make further gains. We can use this campaign to
re-connect people with the wider countryside and its problems. Down here
in the south east many of our Forestry Commission estates are scattered
and relatively remote. Our campaign will make sure that the public get to
know better what they are at risk of losing. 

We can, too, gain traction for the case for greater democracy and local
initiative in the management of public forests, without fragmenting
ownership and strategic control amongst a rag tag of third sector
organizations, private forestry companies and landowners.

State ownership’s major advantage is that it subtracts a resource, at
least partially, from the irrationality and greed of the market.  The
answer for our public forests is the same as the answer for our economy. We
need more democratic public ownership and economy-wide planning  – enough
to break the dominance of the market – not some porridge of private
businesses and ‘social enterprises’ struggling for market share.

‘Keep Our Forests Public’ is a new coalition formed with the intention of
galvanising campaigning activity across the Forestry Commission’s South
East Region.

(An edited version of this was published in the Morning Star on

>From Save Our Woods:

Never try to separate the people from their landscape

by SaveOurWoods on 17/02/2011

One clear fact that had been identified prior to the campaign and became
increasingly apparent is the lack of integration across the broad spectrum
of land based interests by those that were meant to be representative of
the public voice. When the voice of the FC was silenced, it highlighted
their omnipresence with regards trees and woodlands in the UK and the
necessary support associated with the industry and all values associated
with UK trees and woodland. These values contained factors that had been
identified in their modern sense for more than 30 years and have existed
since Neolithic man first settled down: The peoples bond with their

What was also proved is that many of the incumbent large NGOs were
unprepared and worse, unable to provide the mechanism to produce a cohesive
argument that transcended all the boundaries of the relevant issues. For
many of the smaller NGOs this is beyond their policy and their
contribution, confined to their special interest, and thus added further
strength to the campaign as it progressed. But the large NGOs were very
slow to publish their stance or even realise their stance, thus showing a
lack of knowledge and certainly a loss of touch with the public and even
their members which was quickly criticised by several within and on the
periphery of landscape and natural heritage issues.

This was particularly surprising given that global and European rhetoric
based on substantial academic research has been slowly introduced and
implemented with new policies adopting the ideals of sustainable land
management in all its guises for the last twenty years.

The stoicism of some NGOs is understandable for fear of disrupting what
for many has become a safe, privileged and powerful position, the only real
evolvement has been the PR element, the image and a close relationship with
the media. Indeed many governmental agencies have copied this sole modern
element of the NGO model, (English Heritage for example), in how they
present themselves to whom they serve. It was good for the members also as
this safe image was clearly in line with a desired ‘landscape’ encounter.
The staged and well managed Sunday trip to the countryside and its
woodlands, with the uniform waymarkers and signage, obligatory
interpretation panel and picnic benches allowing the public to enjoy but
not interfere.

This ‘honeypot’ system of management was designed to ensure the protection
and biodiversity of the area. But together with many other factors, (the
subject has resulted in much academic published theory), it helped to
transform a mindset from good custodial practice in maintaining a balance
into a more deep green philosophy of land ownership, at odds with
obligations to profit for the well being of the population at large.

The fact is that the furore over the possible sale of public forest estate
brought together the industry, the practitioners but most importantly the
public themselves. During the campaign some stated this was ‘unpredicted’.
But it was predicted, indeed it formed the basis of applying much
conventional text (rhetoric) into practice and there were many who knew
that there would be a ‘revolution’ of sorts within the land based industry
to break through the PR and media mist that has settled over the English
landscape and bring land management back into an agenda where the public
were the central policy rather than a necessary nuisance. The reality is
that the public are the custodians and will ensure the safety and
protection of their landscape if they are educated in this properly rather
than herded.

The government U-turn is welcome, in media language ‘U-turn’ is an ill
word for a politicians decision, why? This is what the people wanted and it
has been given to them. It should never have got to this stage and whether
there is blame to apportion in government is irrelevant in progressing from
the present time. The NGOs will be falling over themselves to represent our
interests in ‘the coming discussions’ for the future sustainable land
management for the UK – they should be allowed a voice as major landowners,
yet they have missed the opportunity to realise the importance of the
published data, which had discovered that the bond between people and
landscape was so strong that it is THE fundamental base for any policy
decisions in terms of ALL land use issues and thus representation of the
people and practitioners must be heard clearly in all future discussion to
avoid the costs, emotional and financial incurred over the last 4 months. 



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