'Wales won't sell off forests', says minister

couple on woodland bench
Image caption The minister wants Wales' forest estate to "work for public benefit".

Wales' rural affairs minister has ordered the Forestry Commission to take a more "commercial approach" to managing publicly owned woodlands.

Elin Jones is expected to lay out plans where some areas of Welsh forest could be transferred to the private sector or to not for profit organisations.

But she has already ruled out the widespread sale of Welsh woodlands.

Forestry Commission Wales said it would explore the feasibility of transfer to the private sector case by case.

The minister told BBC Radio Wales she plans to "compensate" the public by buying new land for new planting or management if any forest was sold off on a case-by-case basis.

"I don't want any stagnancy in the forest estate. I want it to work for public benefit whether that's economic or environmental or access benefit," she said.

'Forest holidays'

"It's my view there should be no reduction in the publicly owned estate and I have asked the Forestry Commission to look at how it can make that estate work harder, provide a better return for the public.

"Whether that's in terms of public access, in terms of environmental benefit in the production of renewable energy or biomass potential or also in terms of the economic return from that forestry estate."

The minister is due to outline her plans to AMs during Tuesday's plenary session in the Senedd.

Further commercialisation being planned would include partnerships with the private sector for more forest holidays, wind farms and limited extraction of coalfield methane.

Around 37% of Welsh woodland comes under the Assembly Government Woodland Estate (AGWE).

A report commissioned by the assembly examined a number of options, including a complete sell-off of the land to the private sector or a not-for-profit trust.

It warned there were potential difficulties with both of these, instead recommending that a case-by-case approach should be taken to the future of Wales' forests.

Jerry Langford, the Woodland Trust's director in Wales gave a guarded welcome and said the plans were "considered and enlightened".

"If these changes do lead to more native woodland creation and a new urgency for the restoration of ancient woodlands planted with conifers, this could be the start of a new 'age of the tree' in Wales," he said.

Any sell-off in Wales would release resources to the FC to purchase other areas of land not currently under its management to increase their public benefit.

Overall, there would be no reduction in the size of the Welsh forests in public ownership.

The report states: "The minister agreed that FC Wales should adopt whenever possible a more commercial approach to its management of the estate and in particular to be pro-active and imaginative in exploring opportunities for deeper commercialisation when dealing with the private sector."

Forestry Commission Wales said it would "explore the feasibility of small-scale transfer to the third sector on a case by case basis".

A spokesman said: "This would be subject to proper safeguards being in place to ensure that the woodland continues to be sustainably managed and that it can continue to deliver key benefits such as access for the public."

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