Leading article: Safeguard the wood and the trees

It is a measure of the lack of trust in modern politics that no one seems to believe the Environment Secretary when she says that England's forests will be safe in the hands of private owners if the Government goes ahead with selling them off. A sale would be bad for wildlife and restrict public access to the land, the public feels. The minister, Caroline Spelman, says measures will be put in place to prevent that. But 75 per cent of voters polled oppose the plan to sell off half our forests in the largest change of land ownership since the Second World War. And there is more to this than a romantic attachment to the idea of Britain's ancient woodlands.

The Forestry Commission, which manages almost a million hectares of land, was set up after the First World War to create a strategic resource of timber. Forest area doubled. But the commission's focus has since shifted from seeing forests as timber factories to places for public recreation and the conservation of wildlife. The commission is now Britain's single biggest provider of outdoor leisure, with man-made mountain-bike trails as well as places for hill-walking, horse-riding and even venues for pop and classical concerts.

Some in the industry say the land is not as well managed as it could be. Certainly progress has been slow in replacing the early heavy plantings of conifers with mixed deciduous species of the traditional English woodland. But there is no reason to suppose that private ownership will accelerate that programme. And though it makes sense for the timber production side of forestry to be in the hands of the private sector, campaigners understandably fear that privatisation would be the start of a slippery slope to change-of-use – with holiday villages, windfarms, biofuel crops and even greater diversification. As for the right-to-roam, it is salutary to note that only 38 per cent of private woodland in England is open to the public.

In the 1990s, the Conservative government under John Major abandoned a less ambitious sell-off in the face of a public outcry. Perhaps the public mood will change as cuts begin to bite. But for the Government to push this idea now is ill-advised.