It is hard to imagine, but in the 1980s UK forest policy, as articulated by the Forestry Commission, comprised just a couple of sentences. Something to the effect that: “The government will seek to: a) deliver good management of forests, and b) increase the area of forest”. This sparse policy landscape presented a clear need for people to step in and try to develop forestry policy better suited to the expanding potential of forestry. For example, Steve Tompkins in his 1989 book, Forestry in Crisis – The Battle for the Hills, argued that “forestry policy needs to … be rethought, revitalised and modernised, to take account of the ever increasing complexity of forestry and woodland management”. The debate was sufficiently high-profile that the Prince of Wales even got involved, bringing forestry industry, environmental and community interests together over dinner at Highgrove House! Remember in those days the idea of trying to constructively influence forest policy from outwith government was relatively new and no one, in or out of government, really knew how to make it work.
The late 1980s saw two independent policy initiatives set up to tackle the asymmetry in forest policy – the Native Woodland Policy Forum and the Scottish Rural Development Forestry Programme. Their ground-breaking reports1 in 1995-96 helped to change official attitudes. To Forestry Commission Scotland’s credit was the establishment of the Native Woodland Advisory Panel and the Forestry for People Panel to guide Forestry Commission thinking. This exposed Forestry Commission policy-makers to the environmental and social sectors, and led to a better understanding of, and empathy with, forestry issues beyond the dominant softwood production paradigm.
So in the intervening years what has changed and what has not?
One thing that has not changed is the continuing need for diverse, informed input to the forest policy debate. Whilst the Scottish Government is committed to sustainable forestry, policy makers still need to be made aware of the relevance of emerging social trends and ideas that have an impact on Scotland’s forest strategy. Take for example the idea that who owns forests in Scotland is relevant to policy, and that having the most concentrated pattern of forest ownership in Europe is an issue for Scotland2. Furthermore, policy can still sometimes get framed too narrowly. For example, if it is a good thing to have a tenant farming sector, then why not a tenant forestry sector? Ergo, leasing of State forests could be an element in policies to diversify forestry ownership and tenure3.
Another unchanging feature is the lobbying effort of the industrial forestry sector to further the economic aims of plantation forestry, with little emphasis on the many other key aspects of more sustainable models. So another forestry policy voice is needed.
So what has changed? Partly as a result of forest policy lobbying in the 90s and noughties, social and environmental forestry in Scotland have made great strides in the last 25 years; native woodland has dominated woodland creation in recent years and the community woodland network continues to grow.
Forest policy has expanded out of all recognition. There is a rhetorical commitment to the full package of ‘sustainable forestry’ and it is now possible to find statements in policy documents supporting virtually any aspect of forestry you care to name. However, this has almost reached the point of being unhelpful and it can be challenging to discern which policies are adequately resourced and implemented, and which are not. So there continues to be a need for independent scrutiny to try to distinguish the wood from the trees in the forest policy world.
Something that has changed for the better is that there are more opportunities to talk to policy makers than there were 20 years ago; and they are invariably more inclined to listen to a sufficiently good case. Having a government in Edinburgh that understands forestry and land use has been a crucial advance.
All this describes the raison d’être of the Forest Policy Group. Our older members were amongst the pioneers who started the long march, albeit now more experienced and street wise, and we are bolstered by a younger generation of innovators with their own rich vision for forestry’s contribution to Scotland’s future. So the long march will continue.
This blog sets out our ideas.
- Robin Callander and Rick Worrell 1996, Native Woodlands and Forestry Policy in Scotland. Native Woodland Policy Forum; FAPIRA 1995 Forests and People in Rural Scotland. Forests and People in Rural Areas Initiative.
- Andy Wightman 2012, Forest Ownership in Scotland – a scoping study. Forest Policy Group