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Putting Something Back

T.J.D. Rollinson
Director General of the Forestry Commission


I chose my career in forestry out of a deeply-felt desire to ‘put something back’. This theme is one that recurs continually as I lead an organisation that operates across the whole of Britain. The Forestry Commission was originally tasked with restoring the nation’s timber resources following the First World War – putting something back on a huge scale. The Forestry Commission now looks after more than one million hectares of public land, many located in some of Britain’s most beautiful and special places. They are hugely popular, making us the largest provider of public access and countryside recreation. We are also the largest producer of wood – a renewable and sustainable raw material.

Our aim is to manage our estate as an exemplar of sustainable development, which I think of in terms of what we pass on to future generations. I believe passionately that we are genuinely in a position to pass on forests and woodlands that will actually be better than those we inherited. That belief, and a determination to make it happen, is enough to ‘sustain’ me in my work.

As the theme of this piece is about putting something back, let me use one of the most exciting and personally satisfying examples of our work. The Forestry Commission is currently involved in putting trees and woodlands onto land around the fringes of some of our most damaged urban areas. These include areas that are blighted by their industrial and social past.

Today, the Forestry Commission is at the forefront of the development of multi-purpose forestry and we are expected to manage our forests to achieve economic, social and environmental benefits. The expectations of society, and the politicians we serve, are continually increasing. We have to respond continually to what individual groups want, and this is constantly changing ! One of my first acts as Director General was to commission Richard Worsley’s ‘Tomorrow Project’ to look at the changes that are taking place in society and how things might look like in the next 20 years. What role will a future Forestry Commission have ? What services will be expected of it ? How will our staff need to develop to deliver these future services? What skills will they need ? Answering these questions is essential for an organisation with a record of delivery, professionalism and expertise. But this is something we can’t take for granted. Addressing the ‘skills gap’ is a key issue. Underpinning this is a need to be both innovative and enterprising. Forestry, like agriculture, has relied in the past on a ‘productivist’ rather than an ‘enterprise’ approach. The historical emphasis on volume production alone has had to change. Today, research and innovation are pre-requisites and I am putting a new focus on Forest Research to support greater innovation and development.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for the Forestry Commission is to balance our books. We are expected to meet social and environmental objectives and have developed new programmes on the land we manage. But while the woodlands and forests make important contributions to social and environmental sustainability, none of them can be delivered unless we are also financially sustainable. A key challenge is to improve profitability. The decline in world timber prices has hit the sector hard, but hit the Commission’s budget the hardest. Producers, growers and processors must expect to operate in tougher conditions still. World forecasts suggest that the next 20 years will see increasing global competition in wood supply as highly industrial plantations in Asia and South America increasingly supply world markets. As its economy booms, China is now a bigger importer of wood than the UK, but China is also manufacturing furniture on a huge scale, leading to reports of the closure of traditional furniture manufacturers in the US.

While the challenges are real, I am very optimistic about the outlook for British forestry and the wood sector. This optimism rests on the fundamental sustainability of what we do. Our forests, properly managed, can be infinitely sustainable. The products from them – whether wood, recreation or clean air and water – contribute to the quality of everyday lives, and can be produced sustainably.

However, I do think that the sector under-exploits this natural advantage. With political momentum to pursue sustainable development, we have real opportunities to promote the potential of wood and woodlands in delivering sustainable solutions. We need to do more to exploit these advantages, whether in developing new markets and products, or developing the traditional markets. But while we now have a new awareness that wood is renewable and sustainable, wood products are still losing ground to concrete, steel and plastic. So how do we go about developing these natural advantages? Technical innovation is clearly important, to reduce manufacturing or production costs; to improve product quality and create new uses and markets. But what else needs to be done ?

First, we need to demonstrate that our wood comes from sustainably managed sources. Simply claiming this is no longer good enough. It needs to be backed up by real evidence. This is as much a marketing issue as an environmental one. It is a challenge that we’ve risen to in developing the UK Woodland Assurance Standard that is the envy of many countries. The Standard has been developed by – and therefore has the support of – industry, government and environmental groups. With the introduction of a chain of custody schemes, we are now able to verify that wood comes from sustainably managed sources, backed up by third party, independent audits and product labels.

Second, we need to get government to take wood seriously, and procure only from sustainable sources. That is now happening, and the government is implementing policies for sustainable buildings. The natural advantages of wood as a sustainable raw material can now be exploited.

Third, we need greater investment in research and development. The Forestry Commission currently spends about £2.5 million a year on research on forestry resources and industry. About £200,000 of that is spent on wood quality work. This levers in quite a lot more funding, but other sectors are spending substantially more on innovation. The Forestry Commission will continue to play its part but the sector needs to do a lot more.

Fourth, and perhaps more important than anything, we need to raise the profile of wood as the sustainable solution: the natural material of choice. The Forestry Commission supports the Wood. for Good campaign, which is getting the key messages across, targeting retailers and specifiers, especially architects. The current budget for Wood. for Good is around £2 million a year, but the concrete industry is spending about 3 times that and promoting concrete as a sustainable solution!

Having done these things, we need the whole sector to work together more cohesively to exploit this natural competitive edge. This has not been happening. The sector has often been pre-occupied by internal debate, and sometimes conflict, for example, broadleaved forestry supporters take on supporters of coniferous forestry, or supporters of continuous cover do battle with supporters of clearfelling ! We need a much more co-operative approach, not only to ensure that key messages are coherent and consistent but also to avoid wasting resources on infighting rather than promoting the sector.

I want to finish with a few words about our standing internationally. UK forestry is held in high renown around the world for our lead on issues such as sustainable management, forest certification and research. One of my aims is to enhance this reputation. In October 2004 I spent a week chairing a meeting at the United Nations about the shape of future international arrangements on forests. Should we have a global Convention on Forests to tackle issues such as deforestation ? Our task was to prepare advice to the UN Forum on Forests, which will meet in 2005 when Ministers from all countries will make decisions on the future arrangements. I was invited to chair the meeting, in recognition of the high standing of the UK internationally. I also chaired a further meeting in January 2005 and will report to governments when they assemble in New York in May.

Also internationally, there is perhaps no better example of the theme of ‘putting something back’ than the Forestry Commission’s involvement in the WWF’s and IUCN’s global Forest Landscape Restoration programme. It is now supported by many governments and international organisations. We were approached because, in addition to our high international standing, we also have nearly 100 years of experience of restoring forest cover. This, and the lessons we learned are highly valued where people are working to restore forests - ‘putting something back’ – for future generations.

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