More than 33,000 people have voiced their opposition to coalition Government plans to sell off up to half of the publicly owned and managed forests in England.
And both the Scottish Government and Welsh Assembly Government say their forests are not up for grabs, as the environmental justification of Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs secretary Caroline Spelman’s decision was questioned.
At the time of writing, just over 33,000 names had been added to the 38 Degrees online petition against the carve-up of the Forestry Commission.
Labour’s shadow Defra spokeswoman Mary Creagh said: “Caroline Spelman settled early in the comprehensive spending review and her department is losing a third of its budget.
“This Government said they would be the greenest government ever yet they plan to sell off England’s forests in an act of environmental vandalism. We will see private companies cherry-picking sites for commercial development and voluntary organisations left to look after the rest with no budget to do so properly.
“Whatever cash the Tories get from this will not reflect the forests’ true value in terms of public access, biodiversity and combating climate change.”
And Friends of the Earth’s director of policy and campaigns Craig Bennett said: “The Government claims its motivation behind these proposals is to increase community involvement in the management of woodlands and forests, but if its real intention is to sell off much loved sites to make a quick buck, its vision of a Big Society is somewhat questionable.
“Forests are worth less in hard cash to the Government than their value to the nation, which is priceless. A lot of Forestry Commission land is critically important for wildlife conservation, for regulating our climate and protecting us from flooding, as well as being beautiful places for us to enjoy.
“Friends of the Earth spent many years campaigning for strong legislation which should continue to protect our most important wildlife sites – whoever owns them.
“But all areas of woodland and countryside need careful management to maximise their benefits for wildlife and people, and until the Government is able to show how this will be achieved in private hands, we think they should remain in public ownership.”
Wales’ rural affairs minister Elin Jones said: “Forestry is a devolved matter and decisions affecting the future of Wales’s national forests lie with Welsh Ministers, not with Westminster.
“I believe the national forest is an important asset to Wales, providing access, employment, support for the timber and tourism industries and has a major role to play in helping us to tackle climate change.
“The activities of the Forestry Commission in Wales are currently under review as part of the wider review of environmental delivery bodies which will be concluded early next year. I am also in contact with my counterparts in England and Scotland to ensure that the needs of Wales are considered as part of any proposals to change the management of forestry in England.”
It was a view echoed by the Scottish Government’s environment minster Roseanna Cunningham, who said: “Forestry has been a devolved matter since April 2003. It is quite clearly a matter for Scottish ministers to determine the future of Forestry Commission Scotland and the national forest estate in Scotland – it is certainly not a decision for Westminster.
“There may be a review of forestry in England but that does not include Scotland. This review has no remit whatsoever north of the border.
“We are certainly living in very difficult and challenging times and with swingeing cuts being imposed on Scotland we need to plan carefully for this.
“The Scottish Government is continuing to look for opportunities to simplify and streamline public bodies in Scotland and Forestry Commission Scotland, along with other public bodies, will be part of that ongoing process.
“However, let me be quite clear, we have no plans to dispose of the national forest estate in Scotland and there is no review of Forestry Commission Scotland being undertaken.
“I do have considerable concerns over the review of Forestry Commission England and its potential impact in Scotland therefore I have written to my counterparts in England and Wales to suggest a meeting to discuss issues surrounding forestry.
“The Scottish Government views Scotland’s forests as a source of national pride and an important public asset which can help deliver many benefits in economic, environmental and social terms.”
Disposal of the Forestry Commission’s assets would need legislation in the Westminster Parliament and at Holyrood and the National Assembly for Wales.
Britain’s forests have evolved from their origin as a source of timber for the nation to include much recreational activity, with access guaranteed to walkers and many other outdoor activities such as mountain biking.
Removing access from any forests to be sold off would be highly contentious, but their worth to commercial buyers would be severely diminished if present access arrangements were kept.
But it emerged that the Public Bodies Bill being introduced in the House of Commons, will introduce sweeping powers for the Government that would allow public bodies to be sold off or abolished without the need to pass further laws.