Britain’s biggest walking charity today welcomed the report of a panel set up to report on the future of England’s forests.
The Independent Panel on Forestry was established by the coalition Government in the face of a huge public outcry at Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman’s plans to sell off the publicly owned forests.
The Ramblers welcomed the panel’s views, published today, that said public forests should be protected and woodland access for all should be the goal.
The report makes clear that the panel believes the public forest estate is a national asset, which should remain in public ownership.
The panel is recommending an evolution of the Forestry Commission. The new organisations should have greater financial freedoms and investment to generate even greater benefits for people, nature and the economy, it said.
The panel’s chair, Bishop James Jones said: “The panel’s work over the last year has shown that our woodlands, managed sustainably, can offer solutions to some of the most pressing challenges facing society today.
“We have consulted widely, visited woods and forests around the country and read over 42,000 submissions.
“There is untapped potential within England’s woodlands to create jobs, to sustain skills and livelihoods, to improve the health and wellbeing of people and to provide better and more connected places for nature.
“Government investment is now needed to kick start these changes which will repay itself many times over in terms of public benefit.
“We recommend the expansion of woodland cover from 10 per cent to 15 per cent by 2060.”
The report calls for England’s woods and forests to be re-valued for all the benefits they provide. These include areas for recreation, clean air, clean water, and habitats for wildlife.
They also lock up carbon, provide shade and can help reduce flooding. Wood is the raw material for timber frame buildings, furniture, flooring, fuel, and of course paper, the final report says.
It calls for a revival of a woodland culture that appreciates how important trees are for people, for nature and the economy.
A Ramblers spokesperson said: “The Ramblers have continually campaigned not only for the protection of public forests but for increased access to all woodland; to bring the benefits of woodland access for recreation, health and wellbeing to people across England.
“The Ramblers’ vision of a future where access to both private and public woodland is the norm has been taken onboard by the panel.
“Its report outlines an aspiration for a future where all people can access a local wood; a future where the public forest estate is protected and access to the 82 per cent of England’s woodland not in public ownership is increased.”
In the run-up to the independent panel delivering its decision, pressure group 38 Degrees said it was concerned to hear of rumours of a behind-the-scenes effort to revive plans to sell off England’s woodlands.
It began an online petition urging members of the public to plead with the panel, which included former Ramblers chief executive Tom Franklin, to hold firm against what it said was Government and industry pressure to revisit the sell-off plans.
And a week ago, the Ramblers themselves put out a statement urging the panel to maintain the position it had taken when it delivered an interim report last December.
Ramblers director of policy and campaigns Nicky Philpott said: “We want the panel to maintain its commitment to public forests but also hope it goes further and looks at ways to increase public access to woodland outside the public forest estate.”
This morning, Ramblers chief executive Benedict Southworth said: “Today’s announcement will be good news for the thousands of walkers and woodland lovers who protested against the proposed sale of public woodland last year.
“An independent panel, which included representatives from landowners and industry, has told us something that we all knew in our hearts to be true: all English people should have access to a walk in the woods.
“The aspiration of the report is one which not only sees the continuation of a strong public forest estate but a future where every person has access to a local woodland, something which the Ramblers has campaigned passionately for.
“We will continue to work to help make this aspiration a reality and urge the Government to put concrete measures in place to move this vision forward.”
The Ramblers added they were urging the Government to once and for all abandon the sell-off of the public forest estate, to take forward the panel’s proposals and set a firm target for increasing access to non-public woodland.
A spokesperson said: “Today the baton has been firmly handed back to Government to put targets and measures in place which will achieve the Panel’s vision. The Ramblers will continue to work to help the aspirations of this report to become a reality and we call on the Government to move forward as soon as possible.”