Canada: University of British Columbia Annual Forestry Lecture 2010

In this two part feature Tim Rollinson, Director General of the Forestry Commission explains the history of the biggest land management organisation in the UK and their modern approach to conservation, communities, and recreation.

Pine forest plantation

Part one: the UK Experience

I’m going to start this talk by looking backward - to look at the history of forestry in the UK over the past 2,000 years or so, through to today. But, before I do that, let’s look at our two countries to gain a little perspective.

Canada is over 40 times bigger than the UK (998 million hectares land area in Canada and 28 million ha in UK). Canada’s forest area is around 310 million hectares. In comparison, the UK has just 2.8 million ha! But the population of the United Kingdom is nearly twice that of Canada (61 million in UK and 33 million in Canada). That means that there are 30 ha of land for every Canadian citizen, and just one-third of a hectare for every citizen in the UK. Put another way, there is just over 9ha of forest land for every Canadian citizen, and only 0.04 ha for every UK citizen! We’ll return to people pressure (in one form or another) a number of times because a major theme of my talk is the forester’s relationship with society; why public trust is so essential – and yet so fragile; how we came close to losing our public licence to operate; and how we cannot afford to do that again.

A history of deforestation

Deforestation is not new. By the time the Romans arrived in Britain around 2,000 years ago, forest cover had been reduced to around half of its original state. Even so, when Julius Caesar arrived he was recorded as saying that ‘the whole island is one horrible forest’! This was followed by centuries of further clearance for uses such as woodfuel, ship building, housing, deer hunting and, of course, agriculture.

If you consider the iconic images of Victorian landscapes a century or so ago, they are often treeless and bare. Romantic perhaps in those days, but to an ecologist something akin to a barren moonscape. Those woodlands that did remain after all these centuries of heavy exploitation and deforestation were generally remote or inaccessible, or they had remained useful to society. History taught us an essential lesson – woods that provide society with tangible benefits are more likely to stand the test of time. Woods with a limited range of uses did not survive.

At the beginning of the 20th century, our forest cover was at an all time low - just 5% of the land area.

So our forest history has been one of thousands of years of deforestation. Not only did we lose our forests, we also lost our forest culture. The deforestation had been so prolonged and gradual that we had rather grown used to landscapes without trees. We also lost our forestry skills. We were without adequate knowledge and lacking relevant science. We had virtually to start from scratch.

And that is what we did. Following the First World War, national concern about the lack of timber available to help us fight any future conflict led to the establishment of the Forestry Commission – in 1919. The Commissioners had a single, and simple, objective – to create a strategic reserve of timber. They were provided with funds, manpower and political backing to restore the country’s forest resources.

The early priorities were simple. The nation needed timber and the new forests were created to meet the needs of society at the time. The post-war emphasis was on production. The aim was to establish fast-growing plantations of trees to provide us with timber should we face another war.  This mirrored what was happening in agriculture, where policy also focussed on production, to increase yields to feed a nation recovering from the war effort. Agricultural policy safeguarded the best land for food production, so only the most marginal land was available for the new forests.

Plantation forestry was seen as the way forward - as the only means of quickly and efficiently establishing new forests. Many of these new plantations were established on upland grazing areas which had lost their tree cover, often centuries before. The range of tree species that could be grown on this marginal land was heavily restricted  - with an emphasis on fast growing conifers in the uplands and Scots and Corsican pine in the lowlands. Some of the new plantations were established on the sites of original native woodlands and, believe it or not, some of these were cleared with herbicides to make room for the productive new plantations.

The biggest reforestation project in the world?

The simple and singular objective to rebuild the nation’s forest resource was achieved. The forest area in the UK was doubled in just 80 years. 1.5 million hectares of new forests were created. This was the biggest land use change in the UK in modern times and, at that time, one of the biggest reforestation projects in the world.

How was it done?  A powerful organisation was created with dedicated research programmes and an emphasis on technological innovation. It had a large motivated workforce. It worked closely with private owners and with the benefit of committed government backing. Foresters scoured the world to find the fastest growing species for our conditions. New scientific and engineering advances were made for example in ploughing, cultivation and fertilisation, soil fertility, tree breeding, road building and much, much more. Among the most successful introductions were Sitka spruce and Douglas fir.  As it happens, the last time I spoke at this University was in the early 1990s when, as head of our growth and yield research division, I shared information on the growth of Western red cedar and other fast growing conifers from the Pacific seaboard of North America.  I had data from our long-term measurement plots that was of real value to researchers here in UBC. 

By 1950, the Forestry Commission employed over 13,000 people. Today that figure is nearer 3,500.  Unsurprisingly, the harvesting and marketing of timber became a core part of the Commission's work.

The creation of the new forests was a big success – the targets of the day were met. But the single-minded objective of building up a strategic reserve of timber led to conflicts – and those conflicts were mostly about loss. Loss of access in some areas, loss of some valuable semi-natural habitats, loss of the Victorian open vistas and loss of some native woodlands.

The young, dense, monocultures intruded into open landscapes - even if they had been forested at some point in the past - often with insufficient or no attention to planning. Abrupt boundaries between the forest and the neighbouring land were often unnatural and awkward on the eye. These perceptions hindered public acceptance of reforestation but they also provided us with some valuable lessons. The first was that there is an innate dislike of change to our landscapes. The longer people have to ‘get used’ to a landscape, the harder it becomes to repair the damage. And the second lesson? When reforesting – do it sensitively and with an eye to the multiple benefits of woodland rather than single purpose imperatives. Lack of public acceptability jeopardises reforestation just as surely as lack of government will - because forestry is every bit as much about people as it is about trees.

Conflict in the trees

The expansion continued in the 1970s and 1980s fuelled by tax relief to high income earners to encourage them to invest in forestry. The media was full of  tax avoidance stories of the rich and famous at the time. This led to increasing conflict, especially between forestry and nature conservation interests. This conflict reached its peak at the end of the 1980s when forest expansion moved to some of the remotest parts of Britain.   In the far north, environmental groups vigorously challenged continued expansion plans in what became known as the Flow Country.

You can imagine that years later we watched with great interest developments at Clayoquot Sound right here in BC. The War in the Woods of 1993 brought 12,000  protestors with over 800 arrests in a blockade that is now widely quoted as the ‘largest act of peaceful civil disobedience in Canadian history’. 

The two issues, albeit more than a decade apart and on different continents, marked a critical tipping point in the relationship between the forester and society.  It was clear that the forester was under close public scrutiny.

In Britain, forestry policy and practice had become unsustainable. Policy was challenged and the forester no longer enjoyed people’s confidence. The public trust we so needed, that is was so vital to our business, was in danger of being lost - perhaps for good. Things had to change - and they did. The era of single purpose plantation forestry came to an abrupt end.

From the 1980s onwards - largely in response to public concerns - the Forestry Commission began to revise its objectives. There was a move to increase planting of native species on our own land. Changes to support mechanisms for private owners encouraged them to do the same. Forest expansion slowed dramatically and the focus shifted to management of these new forests that had been created, with the Commission playing a more general stewardship role in forest management.

And so the single purpose objective of creating a strategic reserve of timber was replaced by a much wider remit that embraced visual amenity, recreation, access and biodiversity management. Multi-purpose forestry was the new buzz phrase - long before the term ‘sustainable development’ came into common use.

By the 1990s the Commission was fully committed to this new way of working. The demands of commercial production, recreation and conservation had to be carefully balanced. Forests were recognised as being valuable environmental resources - and managed as such. The post-war forests began to be carefully restructured as they reached maturity. They were reshaped to fit the land form, to look more natural, to fully benefit the wider environment, not to threaten it. The restoration of native woodland in areas like Glen Affric in Scotland and Sherwood Forest in England was widely welcomed, and these initiatives started to have a major and positive impact on the countryside. Foresters worked hand in hand with conservation groups. Wildlife projects helped protect bird species, the dormouse, pine marten and the red squirrel.  Consultation with people with an interest in the forest became an essential part of the forest managers’ toolkit.

These trends have continued to the present day with sustainability replacing the stewardship ethic. This move to understand - and then to put into practice - sustainable development has not been straightforward. It required achieving a new balance between the economic, the environmental, and the social values of forests.

We have had to define the principles of sustainable forest management, and then the criteria against which sustainability can be assessed and measured. Working with the industry, with environmental groups, and with other government agencies we produced a Forestry Standard for the sustainable management of forests in the United Kingdom. This was published in 1998. 

In parallel, work was proceeding to define a standard for certifying that wood products traded in the market places had come from sustainably managed forests.
A forest certification standard - the UK Woodland Assurance Standard - was published in 1999. Later that year the UK became the first country in the world to have all of its public forests independently certified.

The journey to put sustainable development into practice has not been an easy one. All areas of management, including forest planning, public consultation on management plans, the use of chemicals in forests, the harvesting of wood products, health and safety and employment practices have come under scrutiny.

As a critical watershed in the Commission’s history we were recognised as a world leader in sustainable forest management, receiving a ‘Gift to the Earth’ from WWF International in 2001 for our work on forest certification. Interesting, when you bear in mind that only 10-15 years earlier, the foresters and the environmental organisations had been locked in acrimonious battle.

Today, our relationships with environmental groups are positive and constructive. Indeed, some of the leading lights in the environmental movement have sat on our Board as Forestry Commissioners. ’Multi-stakeholder dialogue’ replaced the polarised debate. Different sides began to understand the others views. Often, they began to realise that their aims were the same!

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