Will Britain sell off its public forests?

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One of the major environmental challenges today is the task of convincing many developing economies in the tropics to protect their forests. But some countries up north in the developed world may soon understand how difficult it can be to strike a balance between economic pressures and arboreal conservation, at least according to a report in Britain’s Sunday Telegraph.

According to the paper, the British government is planning a massive sell-off of the country’s state-owned forests as they seek to raise billions of dollars to help cut the deficit. Here’s the kernel of the story:

Caroline Spelman, the Environment Secretary, is expected to announce plans within days to dispose of about half of the 748,000 hectares of woodland overseen by the Forestry Commission by 2020.
The controversial decision will pave the way for a huge expansion in the number of Center Parcs-style holiday villages, golf courses, adventure sites and commercial logging operations throughout Britain as land is sold to private companies.
Legislation which currently governs the treatment of “ancient forests” such as the Forest of Dean and Sherwood Forest is likely to be changed giving private firms the right to cut down trees.

The Sunday Telegraph goes on to explain that the sell-off is the result of cuts last week to The Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which will lose around 30% of its annual $4.5 billion budget by 2015. Britain’s government last week announced a “spending review” that saw huge cuts to public services in an effort to shore up the country’s public finances.

DEFRA has ultimate control over another body, called the Forestry Commission, which oversees Britain’s publicly owned forests. But the Forestry Commission is one of many so-called “quangos”—semi-autonomous but publicly-funded organizations that soak up huge amounts of public spending. Prior to the spending review it was thought the Forestry Commission would be eliminated altogether as part of an anticipated “bonfire of the quangos.”

But while the Forestry Commission has been spared, its funding is under scrutiny.  In a prepared statement, a DEFRA spokesman said: “Details of the Government’s strategic approach to forestry will be set out later in the autumn.  We will ensure our forests continue to play a full role in our efforts to combat climate change, protect the environment and enhance biodiversity, provide green space for access and recreation, alongside seeking opportunities to support modernisation and growth in the forestry sector.”

Conservation bodies will be watching the new “strategic approach” carefully and hoping that Britain will not face deforestation. As TIME’s Bryan Walsh reported last year, the economic benefit of chopping down trees is short lived. Both the National Trust and The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) said they would not oppose the sale of forests on principle, but warned that not all Britain’s forests are made equal. Mark Avery, conservation director at RSPB said: “We would be quite relaxed about the idea of some sales, but would be unrelaxed if the wrong bits were up for sale like the New Forest, Forest of Dean or Sherwood Forest, which are incredibly valuable for wildlife and shouldn’t be sold off.”

From the legend of Robin Hood hiding in Sherwood Forest to Birnim Wood rising up against Macbeth in William Shakespeare’s play, forests have long played a central role in British identity. But with the government under huge economic pressure, few things are sacred. Which leads to a dispiriting question: If Britain can’t afford to keep its forests under public control, what hope the poorer, rainforested countries of the tropics?