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Britain cancels plan to sell off state forests

Faced with an outspoken public determined to protect Britain’s woodlands, government officials struggling to overcome a devastating budget deficit canceled plans Thursday to sell hundreds of thousands of acres of forests to raise money.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman told Parliament that the decision to change course came after a public outcry against privatization that included environmentalists, politicians, entertainers, religious leaders and many others. Hundreds of thousands of people signed an Internet petition against plans to sell woodlands and forests, and thousands held rallies in forests or wrote to their political representatives.

“I am sorry. We got this one wrong,” Spelman told members of the House of Commons. “If there is one clear message from this experience, it is that people cherish their forests and woodlands and the benefits that they bring.”

As part of its effort to cut the deficit, the government proposed selling all the property owned by the state Forestry Commission, amounting to about 1,000 square miles, or 18% of all woodland in England, and worth an estimated $1.1 billion.

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The proposal was received with a massive national outcry; a petition was signed by more than half a million opponents, including conservation and environmental groups such as the National Trust, Britain’s landmark custodian of historic treasures, and the Woodland Trust, a major nature conservation group that envisaged precious common land being sacrificed to private landowners, logging companies and developers.

Personalities from the news media, arts and politics loudly opposed the idea, among them backbench Conservative and Liberal Democrat lawmakers, whose parties form the ruling coalition. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican Church, added his voice.

Despite government assurances that there would be conditions safeguarding any forests from damage or eventual destruction by commercial developers, environmentalists still feared that large tracts of woodland would become housing tracts. Others foresaw an irrevocable curb on public access to forests and national parks.

“My first priority throughout this period of debate has been securing a sustainable future for our woodlands and forests,” Spelman told lawmakers.

The government decision Thursday echoed Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement this week that he was not happy with the policy of selling off the nation’s forests. The government, in trying to address Britain’s deficit, has ordered $128 billion in cuts to public spending over the next four years.

Environmental and conservation groups welcomed the government’s move, though some, such as the Woodland Trust, urged vigilance.

“Even if there are no sales of publicly owned forests, the worst of all worlds would be for there to be no change to the loopholes that have allowed 850 ancient woods to be threatened by development over the past decade,” trust Chief Executive Sue Holden said.

A planned protest by Hands off our Forests, or HOOF, a group defending the Forest of Dean, an ancient woodland along the English-Welsh border, has turned into a celebration, the Independent newspaper reported.

“We were determined to defend our ancient privileges and traditions, and we have succeeded,” HOOF supporter Jan Royall, a Labor member of the House of Lords, told the Independent. “The forest belongs to the community, and we hold it in trust for our children and our children’s children.”

janet.stobart@latimes.com


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