Keep up the pressure on Forestry Commission jobs
Prospect has hailed the government U-turn on the sale of 85% of England's forest estate on 18th February as testament to the strong feeling across the country about the importance of keeping woods in public hands.
Environment secretary Caroline Spelman told parliament the government had "got this one wrong," as she announced the current consultation had been halted and the policy was being removed from the Public Bodies Bill going through parliament. Instead a panel of experts is being set up to look at public access and biodiversity in public woodlands.
A week before, the government had suspended its separate programme to sell 15 per cent of FC land - about 40,000 hectares - pending a re-examination of the criteria for disposal.
Prospect's Forestry Commission branch has thanked everyone who signed the petition at 38 degrees, who wrote to their MP, who held meetings and set up community groups and who waded through the biased questioning of the consultation.
But the Commission still faces 25% cuts as part of the cuts announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review, and has announced plans to shed 150 jobs at the Commission's UK headquarters in Edinburgh, and 350 jobs in England.
These will go from two branches of the Commission's operations - Forest Enterprise, which manages the public forest estate; and Forestry Services, which supports the grants and licensing system.
These figures do not include a third part of the Commission - Forest Research - which faces 25% cuts under the CSR, details of which have yet to be announced
Even with the U-turn, England's forests still face real dangers, and Prospect is urging its members and the public to keep up the pressure. These job cuts will affect staff in England, Scotland and possibly Wales, and what has been announced so far is just the tip of the iceberg.
Prospect is urging all members and supporters to continue campaigning against job losses. Things you can do include:
- arrange a meeting with your MP or write to them, using your own words to spell out the implications of job cuts
- keep an eye on Prospect's Forestry Commission eBranch .
What Prospect members do
Prospect represents 275 specialists and professionals in the Forestry Commission, who carry out a variety of roles, including:
- Engineers, who build roads, paths and bridges within the forests to the required standard. Repairs are also carried out to the access routes after a felling operation has been carried out. This is especially important to maintain access for people at all levels of abilities.
- Community engagement officers, who strive already to create a big society. As their title suggests, they engage with local communities, groups, non-government organisations and stakeholders to ensure that any local plans for the forests are consulted on and that the forests are managed as sensitively as possible.
- Scientists specialising in climate change, who are already fighting to ensure that Britain meets its green targets on greenhouse gases and carbon sequestration. They ensure that trees are planted that will both continue this amelioration and survive despite changes to our climate. Bioscurity scientists are researching to keep our trees healthy and to find solutions to the rapidly increasing number of tree diseases - phytophora in larch, red band needle blight in Scots Pine and bleeding canker in horse chestnuts.
- Policy writers, who design current best practice for forestry. They take into consideration new research, new methods of harvesting, current requirements of changing forest type, historical monuments and protection of important archaeological sites and maintenance of biodiversity including transient species.
- Foresters, who take the policies and manage the land and forests. They ensure a continuous cover of forestry, which will benefit current and many generations to follow. To do this the Commission plant thousands of trees each year to fit with our mission statement of increasing forests, it is interesting to note that private land owners are only convinced to plant trees to create new forest on their land in response to receiving government grants.
Q&A: why forests should remain in public hands
FC has sold land before, what's the problem now?
Previous sales of land have been selling high-value land, using the money to buy poorer-value land, which is then afforested and improved in value. The money from sales therefore results in an increase in the land owned by FC and an increase the amount of accessible forest.
How much are the forests worth?
The economic studies necessary to say how much the forests are actually worth haven't been done - tourism, ecosystem services (eg water and renewable energy), education and recreation all add value. Some figures suggest that the value of the public forests for health alone far surpasses their value for timber. The market will only value the cash-flow, not the services, so the cash price will not reflect the real value.
Do these proposals only affect England?
The headquarters of FC are in Edinburgh, so many people who work there on issues across the UK will find their job under threat. Also, forest research often depends on having a wide range and sufficient scale of forests, often in different climate and conditions. This simply won't be possible if the forest estate in England is sold off. There may, similarly, be implications for timber processors who operate throughout the UK.
Will it be cheaper for the taxpayer once the forests are sold?
FC provides all of its services (the land management, access opportunities, industry-wide stability, research and engineering expertise) for less than 31p per year per taxpayer. This is only possible because of the economies of scale and the industry overview this affords.
Is this land is all owned by the Forestry Commission?
Crown forest transferred to the Commission in 1919 will, presumably, require separate treatment in any privatisation. Leased land makes up more than 30% of the remainder and large areas of the estate are subject to mineral and sporting reservations. There seems to be little appetite from lessors to buy out their leases, largely because the benefits they already enjoy comprise the greater part of the value of the forests.
Won't it be more efficient to involve the private sector?
Timber production and forest management already have a high level of private-sector involvement and are highly efficient. Up to 80% of FC operations are carried put by private contractors. FC's scale of operations means that contractors can invest in equipment (that can cost upwards of £250k) that can be moved between forests and regions to work in FC forests. Almost all harvesting and forest management is already undertaken by private contractors. There is a policy of franchising where commercial possibilities exist in the Commission's recreation activities. Many specialist services such as legal and valuation, engineering and ICT are already bought in from commercial suppliers.
How will this affect the timber processing industry?
The UK timber processing industry is one of the most modern and efficient in the world. This is because the Forestry Commission is always felling some timber, albeit at current market rates. FC forests continue to operate even when the market is unfavourable. This allows processors to invest in new technology and in market innovation knowing that they have secure supply of wood. Private sector landowners typically sell less when the price is low and flood markets when prices are high - processors can't be sure of getting the timber they need. This has been a major problem even in countries such as Sweden, and is one of the reasons for Scandinavian investment in UK processing.
How will this affect scientific research?
The scale of forest under FC management allows staff, time and money to be invested in projects and data collection (that may take decades because of the time forests take to grow). FC research can demonstrate that consistent approaches to research, maintaining knowledge and data analysis capabilities give the best quality results and the best value for money. FC research into forestry related matters is largely a GB-wide issue. Further fragmented ownership is not likely to allow enough investment in national projects.
What sort of research is being done?
A number of threats occur to our trees and wildlife within the forest - phytophora (a fungus-like pathogen of plants), red band needle blight and squirrels are a few examples where FC research is at the forefront of maintaining tree stocks and wood health throughout the UK. Forests, like all agriculture, need the right balance of nutrients to grow effectively. Removing too much material will lead to poor subsequent crops. This effect must be quantified and rules established. It is difficult to see how disparate organisations/companies, including locally owned co-operatives, could organise themselves, and access the funding and expertise, to continue the research to maintain our ability to grow our own wood stocks essential to the UK.
Will this change the UK approach to climate change?
Forests are an important way to capture and store carbon; FC researchers are looking at the effects of changing forest management on CO2 mitigation. FC needs to be at the forefront of developing this mechanism for the government. Emission reductions have been agreed. As set targets under the Kyoto Protocol and subsequent agreements, these must be met by both reducing emissions but also by increased carbon capture and long-term storage. This includes changing fuel sources and displacing materials that have a high environmental impact. Only with combined research and land use protocols can the government hope to achieve these targets.
But we know all about that already, don't we?
We live in a changing climate. This means that established growth rates, species suitability and expected timber quality are likely to change. Investigations need to be completed in order to anticipate the impacts potentially decades away. The creation of an entire department (Department of Energy and Climate Change) clearly recognises such an important far-reaching issue. Many factors cross cut with climate change such as water, pests and pathogens, biodiversity and carbon sequestration. Again, it is hard to see how disparate organisations and projects could join up to effectively continue this vital work to ensure our planets well-being for generations to come.
Are there any renewable energy opportunities?
The current structure of the Forestry Commission allows strategic management of the estate, much of which is located in areas where wind and hydro energy is commercially viable. The ability for utility companies such as E.On to deal with a single landowner with a high level of technical and engineering competence has meant that the public forests have been very attractive to renewable energy schemes. Fragmenting the estate will reduce the government's abilities to advance quickly with land-based renewable energy programmes.
But forests are just for timber production, aren't they?
Although forests occupy just 9% of the UK land area they contain 25% of areas designated for their wildlife. They are highly important for biodiversity in the UK. Many wildlife species, plants as well as animals, need extensive areas of habitat. Breaking up the forest estate so that different management regimes operate across small areas of forest is likely to have a major negative impact on biodiversity.
What do forests have to do with water quality?
FC research has worked to improve the quality of run-off and local land stability to ensure that forestry is no longer detrimental in GB. Indeed, forests have been shown to ‘clean' water. Research is ongoing into land usage in comparison to water tables and water infrastructure to gain an understanding of how our water usage and supply is likely to change as our climate continues to change.
But this will make land management simpler, won't it?
As one of the developed world's most heavily populated countries the demands on land in the UK are intense and conflicted. The New Forest is a well understood example. But even the 20th-century forests such as Thetford and Kielder each get many tens of millions of visitors. The FC is the home for expertise that allows for single projects to be expanded out to give an approach to all land use and forestry that allows different interests to be balanced.
What about the local economy?
The foot and mouth crisis in 2001-02 led to the closure of forests in England and Wales and affected areas of Scotland. The closures had an unexpected consequence, where many local tourist businesses were hit hard. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has still to undertake a definitive study on the value of the public forests to tourism, but it is likely to be far greater than the direct outputs from the forests. Colloquial evidence from the Forest of Dean suggested that tourism businesses dependent on the forest generated cash-flows around 400% greater than the forest itself generated from timber sales.
But is it not better to involve local communities?
Local empowerment - German and French models of community forestry where local people set objectives and benefit directly from the forests - have not been tried in the UK. It would be better to try such approaches before selling off the assets
What is the role of forests in education?
Public forests host about 2 million school visits each year, supported by rangers and by infrastructure such as forest classrooms. This is the only opportunity that many of those children will have to see applied science and technology or to see wildlife management.
People enjoy a walk, but how does that contribute to the economy?
Figures suggest that the value of the public forests for health alone (in terms of exercise, escape from pollution, mental well-being and rehabilitation) far exceeds their value for timber. FC researchers are working in all aspects of this to ensure that our forests work well for everyone across the UK. The FC also works in partnership with others to develop workable and cost effective solutions to all access issues, maintaining the right to roam and allowing and promoting safe access and use of all forest environments. Previous experience demonstrates that private landowners are unlikely to provide access and facilities in forests that are remotely comparable with those provided by FC.