If you go down to the woods today

It may be your last opportunity. Well, maybe not but hear me out. Earlier in the year, Miss and I went to renew our membership as Friends of the Westonbirt Arboretum. Westonbirt is a wonderful place and home to the national tree collection, operated by the Forestry Commission. When there, we discussed taking up a lifetime membership, since we expected to live long enough for it to be financially viable, but we were strongly persuaded by the staff there not to do so. The not-quite-said message in this was that the arboretum might not be available to the Friends forever, or even for very much longer. We took out another annual joint membership.

Today, I notice that a lifetime membership is no longer even offered by the Friends of Westonbirt.

Rumours have abounded across the interweb recently, about the current governments intention to sell off some of the English Forestry Commission estate. Last Wednesday, in the Guardian, John Vidal spelled out the Con-Dem’s intention, using a quote from an environment minister, Jim Paice:

Part of our policy is clearly established: we wish to proceed with … very substantial disposal of public forest estate, which could go to the extent of all of it.

This is so frightening as to be a call to arms! Over the last three decades we’ve given away our gas, water, electricity, railways… now it’s time for the forests? But wait, dig deeper. Read the actual Select Committee Transcript and you’ll see that the minister wants a carte blanche permit, as part of the upcoming Public Bodies Bill, because “opportunities for legislation do not come very often.” Is this government by wise heads?

To a large extent, the disposal of public utilities to the private sector has in my view had a neutral effect on society. As end users we pay our bills, and the private companies invest in the infrastructure to ensure we have the services we need (I am biased of course – I work for one, and a very good one at that). In many ways the change was transparent to the end user. But if the forests and woodlands are sold off, what will protect them, who will protect them? What restrictions of access will we face? Someone just said to me that the PlayStation generation probably won’t even notice, but how about the folk who will?

If woodland and forests become private estates, will we still be able to walk in them? Do you walk your dog in one now? Do you hold ritual in one? Will that end, or at least incur a charge? In fat Britain, will this privatisation lose another venue – many other venues – for exercise? Will they even remain British forests? The minister states quite clearly, “Foreign purchases … I not think that they are automatically necessarily bad. Indeed, we  could not prevent them under EU law.”

It’s not all bad, ish. He also states:
“We do not have any hard and fast proposals about disposals at this stage.”
“all the protections remain in place. We are not going to lose any woodland cover
through any of these proposals.”
I’m not sure how the two quotes work together…

The interesting point is reinvestment. When asked about the ring-fencing of cash asset from the proposed sales, so that we do not lose our existing forest cover the minister bluntly states: ” I cannot say that it will all go back into forestry. It would be an incredibly large sum of money to put into forestry.” Ignoring utterly that that is the investment the government will be taking out of forestry.

And as for mitigating against Climate Change, he referred to the report from Professor Sir David Read which called for a climate change related increase in our forest asset of 12-16%. “I would be rash to say that I  support the recommendation, because somebody will construe that as a commitment to achieve it. Anybody would accept that it is a very high aspiration.” So forget about that then…

Most informed folk understand that the end of a trees life is the start of a new one, as home to fungii, insects and a whole new sector of bio-diversity. It’s sad, therefore, to read the ministers quote that, “We have to persuade the general public that a tree is just a very aged plant that, like any other plant, comes to the end of its life.  That is the point at which you harvest it…” So, no debris on the forest floors in Big Society Britain… no bugs and ‘shrooms (which will probably be illegal anyway under other plans to ban many herbal remedies…), leading to no birds, small mammals, bang goes another food chain.

Meh. I can’t believe I had a hand in producing this government, via the wonders of coalition puppetry. But apart from the need to ramble and get it out of my system, I wanted to make clear the need to react to stories by investigating the source data. Too often we react, sign petitions and talk amongst ourselves about the awful thigns that happen to us. Go and read the transcript of the conversations and interviews that took place. Read the Public Bodies Bill. And then, informed, write to your MP and tell him how you feel. Get involved.

And now to find out how much The Druid Network has in it’s Tree Planting Fund… Oh, and happy new year.

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