It’s always been important to SoW to gain a broad understanding of others’ point of view and so we are grateful to Steele for sharing his opinions with us..
I am a commercial forester. I make my living helping my clients grow trees, cut them down and then sell them to other people who make things out of the timber. I want what I do to have the maximum benefits with least damage. I work to make what I do sustainable. I am passionate about what I do – but I operate in a World of real money, real constraints and real opportunities.
These opinions are mine. They are not my company’s.
by Steele Haughton
The final report of the Forestry Panel worries me. I worry that some folk, who believe they have won a shining victory for what they think is ‘right’, may actually have contributed to the long term decline of the woods and forests for which they clearly care a great deal. I will attempt to explain why.
The history and background has, in my view, resulted in many people’s perspectives getting muddled and confused at many levels:
- Forests and woods: an oak wood on an ancient woodland site in Dorset is a very, very different entity from a Sitka spruce tree farm in upland Northumberland. Considering them in the same way or requiring the same things from them is irrational and wrong – and, for the Public Forest Estate, wasteful of public money. One of the major errors of the original Government consultation, in my opinion, is that the range and distinction of ‘forests’ was not made at all clear.
- Timescales: forests and woodlands are complex, dynamic systems. The problem for foresters engaging with ‘the public’ is that the cycles in forests are almost as long or longer than most human lives (so people see forests as static and unchanging, they are not) and the complexity and interdependencies are easy to overlook if your interest is in one, narrow aspect of what is going on. Forests cannot – and should not – remain the same forever. Failure to explain that to well minded people (who think that cutting down any tree is a sin) is a favour-currying weakness that magnifies the gap in understanding and will likely contribute to the long term decline of most woodlands.
- The Public Forest Estate: most of the Public Forest Estate in England was either ‘inherited’ (like the New Forest or Forest of Dean) or bought and/or planted in the rush to build a strategic timber reserve after the devastation of the two World Wars. Some areas were planted specifically to produce timber in remote areas in industrial quantities – and they do. Are these producers of a primary industrial resource best managed by civil servants? Does the Nation get the highest public benefit from that arrangement? Does shouting down any suggestion of looking at any other possible approach really best serve arriving at the right way forward? Nobody in their right mind would seek to privatise the New Forest; historically, culturally and, not least, commercially (in forestry terms) it is a non starter. But should the Nation own a large chunk of upland commercial softwood timber production capacity? Why? And why doesn’t the Nation own similar proportions of milk production or wheat production or concrete production? If your answer to that question is that it should, then you are an advocate of widespread state ownership and the route to that is via the ballot box – not by curtailing debate on the future Public Forest Estate.
- Public benefits: all forests and woodlands produce more than one ‘benefit’. Wildlife habitats, soil stability, attractive landscapes are all important – but they are very difficult to turn into cash – particularly reliable cash that doesn’t disappear with a change of government support based on a change in public fashion. Forests and woodland last a long, long time. Changes in government and public attention and trendinesses tend to be every five to fifteen years – it is impossible for woodlands (and their owners) to keep up – a failure that has saved many important features of important woods. Uncomfortably for some, timber production remains one of the very few, truly sustainable methods of producing real money to pay for forests. The management of the Public Forest Estate has been adjusted and tweaked over the last 25 years to respond to generally articulate, direct and indirect, approaches from outside interests and bodies, often those with a single or narrow focus. So, say, birds tend to get attention as does mountain biking – but deer and squirrel management may get dropped or hidden because of ‘sensitivities’. Articulate campaigning is, in my experience, usually a middle class occupation. Reasonably well off, middle class people (with cars) can get to publicly owned forests and woodlands and enjoy them for doing what they like doing. But what about the ‘public’ who haven’t got cars and who don’t write letters and emails or have websites? Is there not a case for ‘moving’ at least part of the public forest estate to where this ‘public’ can have easy access and enjoyment of ‘their’ woods? Perhaps ‘public benefit’ sometimes gets confused with ‘my benefit’ – and perhaps those who aren’t as good at manipulating the channels of influence, old and new, should be asked what they want from the Public Forest Estate.
- The Forestry Commission is an organisation is made up of two bits: the forest authority that deals with policy, making sure private forest owners keep to the law and administering government grants and then Forest Enterprise that manages the Public Forest Estate. While the Forestry Commission employs some very good foresters and they do some good things, they do not walk on water. Some of the management of the Public Forest Estate is, in my opinion and the opinion of others, poor. Treating the Forestry Commission as the ’experts’ who are always right is very dangerous. The organisation itself has evolved methods and approaches that are often not the best way of doing things – ask any group of operations level FC field staff.
The Government ‘consultation’ on the Public Forest Estate was not well run. Once started it should have been allowed to run its allotted full time and then all views considered properly. As it was the Government was scared off by campaigning boosted via Facebook and Twitter. In my view this was a disaster for the publicly owned forest and woodlands. We needed (and still need) a rational debate about what we (all) want from forests and woodlands, what the best way is of securing those benefits, who should own the forests to best produce those benefits and then who should manage them. I fear the Forestry Panel has essentially shied away from properly looking at ownership for fear of being howled down by another storm of tweets generated by a very few, but very effective campaigners.
Claiming huge ‘non market’ benefits for forests and woodlands has been something forest economists and others have done for over 30 years- the Forestry Panel is in good company. Unfortunately, nice as this seems, when it comes down to it, someone actually has to either produce something they can sell or to write a cheque. You cannot pay people in the pounds imagined in a glossy report.
The publicity behind the Early Day Motion from Caroline Lucas MP of the Green Party echoed the Public and Civil Service union sound bite that the Forestry Commission ‘only’ cost us less than 30 pence each a year. But we need a rational debate not emotive campaigning attempting to force acceptance of the status quo. The real question is should the public forest be costing ‘us’ 30 pence each or should it be producing an income of 30 pence or 50 pence or £ 1? And that is before we start on whether we should spend that 30 pence each on forests or, in these hard times, should it go to looking after children with cancer or old peoples’ homes or better medical facilities for wounded soldiers.
Wood and timber is a great material; recyclable, reusable, biodegradable and, managed well, sustainable. We import some 80% of the wood and wood products we use. We no longer have an empire we can plunder for cheap raw materials. I think we should do our best to produce as much of our own timber as we can, ourselves, as efficiently as possible. This means that for some areas ‘timber production’ needs to be at the top of the list of objectives. But it is never the only objective. Virtually all of the forests with which I am involved are certified to an international standard. The standard imposes an auditable structure to ensure environmental and public benefits are maintained or enhanced. Much of the campaigning appears to doggedly over look this.
For example, much was made of the ‘certainty’ of the loss of public access if any forests were sold. Great campaigning stance: scare the public and then set yourself up to save them from the demons. But what about reality? Why not just impose a public access clause on all sales. Commercial forestry works fine with a full right to roam in Scotland – why not in England?
The Forestry Panel highlights the area of private forest and woodland in England and the need to cherish this resource. I agree. But some years ago the high ups at the Forestry Commission appeared to have decided to disengage with private owners – and they have never properly re-engaged. The focus of the Forestry Commission appears to be on increasingly elaborate administration of whatever public money that is left over for grants after the costs of administration have been paid – and with secondary rules introduced to produce hurdles that NGOs find it easier to jump than private owners – and you can’t argue it’s for the public benefit. The Forestry Commission, their ‘attitude’ and their grant scheme rules left many private owners behind long ago. They will struggle to regain the confidence of many owners who can, with just a little imagination, encouragement and guidance, produce the benefits that the Panel has recognised. A major strategy for forestry in a region of England I know well, its review and its monitoring was undertaken by committees appointed by the Forestry Commission. The committees included members from local authorities, government agencies representing the environment, heritage and nature, NGOs, education bodies, health bodies – but not a single private woodland owner. In my opinion that represents unacceptable bias and, much more significantly, is totally counter-productive if the objective is to engage with private forest owners and get the most and best public benefit from the very limited public spend on forestry. The Government’s response to the Forestry Panel’s report needs to address this culture within the Forestry Commission – they won’t like it.
Real forests and real woodlands need real money for plants and planters and fencing and roads and gates and weeding and maps and– you get the picture. That money comes from selling things from the forest or government money in the form of grants in one form or another. When Government is cutting spending on social security, local authorities, the armed forces, the police and most other aspects of ‘public’ life it is, in my view, a total abdication of their responsibility for the Forestry Panel to base their ‘solution’ to the problem on substantial additional public spending. This is not make-believe money. We have already seen a reduction of 25% in Forestry Commission staff numbers and many suspect that that is not the end of it. Does anyone out there really believe that substantial additional public funding will (or, in fact, can) be forthcoming in the next 2 or 3 or 5 years? Someone needs to come up with some ideas for what happens when the money doesn’t appear.
I have a vested interest – I earn a living from privately owned, commercial forests. But there are other many other vested interests at play here. Forestry Commission staff have a vested interest; they will seek to protect their jobs, terms and conditions. Their costs of management are significantly higher than the private sector; those costs need to be clear and open to scrutiny and criticism. The RSPB has a vested interest: they find the Forestry Commission a relatively easy organisation to influence. The timber users have a vested interest – particularly if they find it easier to buy timber cheaper from the Public Forest Estate than elsewhere. But the Nation has a vested interest: it currently owns the Public Forest Estate. The Government needs to work out how best to get the maximum public benefit from that resource for the whole Nation. A total ban on all sales, of anything, anywhere, forever, without any further thought or discussion, based on short term political reaction to emotive campaigning may serve the Forestry Commission staff. It may serve the timber users. It may serve the environmental campaigners. It certainly does not, in my opinion, best serve the Nation. And that is what we all want – isn’t it?