Not just timber

The broadening of the remit and work of the Forestry Commission has been transformational. I’m going to describe some of the sheer breadth of what we do and what our forests now provide. Today, the Forestry Commission is the largest single producer of timber in the UK - the result of the creation of all the new forests. No surprises there perhaps. But we also find ourselves to be the largest single provider of outdoor recreation in Britain, and the largest manager of rare and protected habitats. The mature woodlands provide an enduring and a quite unique environment for other quiet recreational pursuits such as orienteering, camping and wildlife watching.

We have a commercial business, Forest Holidays, which provides cabin, caravan and camping holidays in 24 stunning wooded locations throughout Great Britain. And with nearly fifty visitor centres, many set within our Forest Parks, we are uniquely placed to tell the stories of our forests. At Dalby forest, one of the most visited places in North Yorkshire, we welcome more than 300,000 visitors every year. The all-timber visitor centre is clad in locally-sourced timber shingles made from Yorkshire larch. The building structure contains added insulation and uses natural ventilation to lower its energy consumption. It is powered by energy from photo-voltaic panels and a wind turbine. Heating is provided by a biomass boiler, which runs on woodchips from the local area. The building uses rainwater harvesting and bio-filtration sewage systems in its wastewater management. Among the many accolades the project has won is this Prime Minister’s Award for Better Public Buildings. This is just one of many similar projects we have around Great Britain.

And we are making increasing efforts to reach new audiences, particularly hard-to-reach groups whose mobility may be limited by reasons of geography, affordability or disability. People flock to listen to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, or bands such as Status Quo, Blondie or Simply Red at one of our many summer Music in the Forest concerts.

Back in 1976 when I joined the Forestry Commission, if someone had said that I would end up being responsible for managing semi-urban fishing lakes designed to provide disabled access, providing forests for classrooms, rehabilitating criminal offenders, and managing rock concerts, I would have been delighted – but in disbelief. But today we do all these things – and more.

Forests are for everyone

Where not so long ago the forest was the preserve of the forester, today forests are for everyone. As I said before, forestry is every bit about people as it is about trees. The restoration of our forest cover has also continued apace, but with a completely new emphasis. We are creating new woodlands on derelict land, restoring old mine workings and contaminated industrial sites. We are creating woods in and around towns for local people. And restoring our native woodlands.

In contrast with Canada, the UK’s primary sector – agriculture, mining, fishing and forestry – accounts for only 1.5% of GDP. Forestry on its own is too small to even register in the UK’s official statistics. So arguments to support forestry based purely on economic benefits cut little ice with the UK Treasury. It might seem therefore that forestry in the UK is in a weak position. From a strictly economic perspective – based on traditional cost benefit analyses – it is. 

We have survived a number of ‘near death’ experiences – and learned from them. Our lack of understanding of vocal, politically astute, and media-savvy environmental campaigns in the 1980s was one example. There have been others. The key lesson we have learned is that for forestry to prosper in the UK, it has to be based on benefits that society wants, not only the benefits the forester thinks it wants. Changing this mindset – and changing behaviours – has not been simple. 

As I said earlier, we have had to take on many new policy agendas that matter to people and society. Some of these have not been traditionally associated with forestry. In the 1970s we added recreation. In the 1980s, we added the environmental agenda. In the 1990s, we added sustainable forest management. And in the last decade, we took on social inclusion, health and education. Note that nothing gets deleted!

If it works use it

How have we been able to respond to all these new and changing agendas? I’ll set out a few examples: The Forestry Commission has a strong pragmatic and operations-focussed culture. Put simply: if it works use it. And if it doesn’t work, don’t use it. Staff are empowered to try things out and the organisation quickly adopts successful practice. Examples of this include local consultation on environmental issues, local initiatives on the arts - which led to the setting up of national forest sculpture trails.  Local partnerships on economic regeneration led to national community forestry initiatives. Perhaps the most striking example is mountain biking where local interest led to the Forestry Commission becoming a global player with some of the best mountain bike trails in the world. This all began with a few rangers in Wales who started mountain biking in the early 1980s. It started to grow, the Forestry Commission noticed and adopted it as a major activity across Great Britain. Today, we have attracted millions of pounds of external investment in our trails and bike shops and we regularly host world championships events. 

We have a very short operational management structure so decisions can be implemented quickly and across all parts of the organisation. We also operate a number of integrated functions with good feedback systems. We are unlike much of government where operational and policy functions have been separated. We are also geographically dispersed across all parts of Great Britain. Because our local managers have considerable autonomy, they can adapt our policy objectives to meet local needs. One size fits no-one! 

Although we operate in some of the most remote parts of Britain, the new agendas have taken us into some of our inner cities. This has led to the development of multiple programmes based on community forestry. When, in the current economic recession,  so many banks and retailers find themselves reducing cutting back, it is refreshing to find ourselves actually putting more 'branches' into the high street!

In Scotland, community forestry has developed along two strands of urban regeneration and community enterprise and ownership in rural areas. In England, community forestry is often associated with the management of new and existing woodland in areas of urban regeneration. And in Wales the focus has been on the Welsh Valleys, which are post-industrial settlements in south east Wales that had been based on coal mining and steel.

Despite differing approaches, what these urban and urban fringe initiatives have in common is the fact that trees are a means of bringing about rapid and affordable landscape and social change.  From our evaluations we have found that good quality environments contribute to local self-confidence and self-esteem.  The social scientists in our research agency explain that place and personal and community identity are closely linked - where we come from is part of who we are.  So a positive contribution to place also boosts our sense of personal worth.

The rationale for our rural projects has been to help maintain rural settlements whose sustainability is threatened by demographic change and by emigration to the towns. Creating new jobs is a large part of this, but there is also a symbolic dimension. In Scotland, we have transferred ownership or management responsibility to local communities, much in the same way that has been done in Canada with indigenous peoples - though we operate on a much smaller scale - to boost social cohesion. We are also very happy to see our forests used to support social enterprises - businesses owned and run collectively by local people.

Not all about about the countryside

But our biggest effort has been going into our heavily populated urban areas and their peripheries. Invariably we work in partnership with regional and national lead agencies and usually we are using regeneration and renewal budgets rather than forestry money. In recent years our focus has been on environmental improvement in deprived urban areas and more recently we have started to promote urban woodlands for their contribution to physical and mental health.

Just coming over the horizon is an interest in using urban forestry to help mitigate the effects of climate change on the urban environment.

Since an explicit social agenda for forestry emerged in the 1980s we have had to find new ways of working - to learn about consultation, participation and governance.  Today it is second nature to us to encourage local participation in our decision-making.

Just when we thought we had it all sewn up, we knew what sustainable forest management meant, we knew what society wanted from us, and how to deliver it all, in through the door marched climate change. It refocused our views of the world, shook our thinking, recast some of our real-world paradigms, and caused us to re-examine many of our policies and practices.

The climate change agenda is incredibly important for the forest sector because we have so much to contribute and a clear responsibility to society to ensure that we do our bit. I often ask people how much they would pay to buy a machine that would take  carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. A device that would lock up carbon for a long time and pump out oxygen in return. It would need to be environmentally friendly of course, efficient, reliable, easy and cheap to produce and to maintain. Of course, foresters know that machine already exists.

We all know, but are rediscovering, that trees sequester carbon, that wood is a ‘low carbon’ material and can be used as a nearly carbon neutral source of energy.  Trees and forests can help society to adapt to a changing climate. Last year, we commissioned an independent group of experts to assess the potential of the UK’s trees and woodlands to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The outcome of that work, the Read Report, was published in November 2009.

The Report sets out the scientific evidence that will form the basis for many of our policy responses in the future. It has already led to support from government for a major expansion of tree planting in the UK. Forest practice will have to change in response to the move towards a low carbon economy. While most of the policy responses will be positive for those working in forestry, some will not. We can predict that forest managers in the future will be challenged on their current management practices.  

A new economy is already developing based on carbon markets. Carbon payments will emerge as a new income stream. New forms of regulation can be expected, including new auditing and monitoring arrangements for carbon stocks, and new forms of certification. All of these will require the engagement of new stakeholders - and will be under scrutiny from wider society. 

Thankfully, foresters tend to be pragmatic and flexible and able to adapt to the new paradigms. But, in responding to this new agenda, we must heed the lessons of the past –  to listen to what people think, and take them with us, not to force our views of the world on them, no matter whether they be right or not.

What we have seen is an external environment where new policy drivers add to those already in place, rather than displace them. They are all in play together. One consequence of this continued accretion of new agendas is that we take on new stakeholders over the years. Standing back, we have witnessed a broad shift in political power away from ‘land and industry’ toward ‘user based’ interests.

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Tim Rollinson's speech was reproduced with the kind permission of the Forestry Commission.