Multi Functional Forestry includes allowing access to the public and there is one section of the public or ‘Forest User’ who regrettably ruin things or have the potential to, for all.
It is one of the more unsavoury aspects of the work of the forester, particularly the forester working near or in larger urban settings, that they are also charged with having to clean up and even manage the result of what having a large area, easy to hide in, yet open to all, invites to certain members of our population.
The detritus left behind by some human activity is enough to illustrate what some woodland is used for; from fly tipping of any anything and usually rubbish that is costly to dispose of, through to nappies, condoms and the waste from alcoholic or drug abuse.
Many of us can live with the fact that fast food wrappers will be thrown out of a car window, or even bagged up dog poo, (the FC find a stick and flick it idea being a brilliant campaign to help curb the build up of bagged dog poo hanging from branches, often out of reach for easy clean up). I have even heard of volunteer teams willing to clean up such mess – but the more unsavoury and potentially harmful to human health waste is a different matter.
This is a universal problem and one which has been studied in many countries. But when most other countries have much larger public forest estates, it is an easy option to simply ‘dissuade’ public access from woodland that suffers habitually from such problems. It also has to be recognised that simply hiding the visible sign of what had occurred the previous night is not enough to deal with a much bigger social problem where activities by a few effect the access of a majority. It is not enough to just accept these things happen, when other members of the public find it offensive and thus no longer visit particular woodland. The result is a fast decline into an area that becomes labelled as ‘no go’ to many habitual local users. Management invariably suffers as a result and the woodlands usually become clogged with invasive weeds and fringed by a hedge of fly tipped waste.
Last week, in a meeting of practitioners in France discussing such issues, much commentary was given to how the National Trust in England, dealing with similar problems at coastal sites and some other local authorities, (the work of Prof Liz O’Brien was also heavily quoted), had tackled the issue head on with diplomacy and some measures allowing ‘mauvais’ users to form an argument for their own activity needs. This sociological approach was considered relevant to much more central woodlands, such as the Bois de Boulogne, where the problem has become so inherent and even traditional that is simply regarded as the cheap alternative to the ‘all on offer’ and more in Pigalle as soon as night descends. The police will be responsible for the ‘diplomacy’ required – as they are in the UK and indeed this rarely cited role of the police is one that should be given more credit, quite literally, as it adds ecosystem service values or maintains such values by enabling large portions of urban or peri urban woodland suitable to all users.
These issues are usually hidden to the public, multi functional forestry means that access is a public service and as such usage is a measurement of the success of woodland. When such usage results in the banning of all users then solutions must be found and found quickly.
In the 1990’s onwards there was a huge surge in facilities for the public; car parks and street furniture were introduced into woodlands as part of a drive to increase the public access value to woodlands. Many private woodland owners had to oblige in order to continue to enjoy ‘Annual Management Grant’ payments. And the hardstanding used to stockpile extracted timber was easily converted into a carpark, this has become a problem of late with the rising popularity of wood burning stoves and easy access to huge quantities of timber has resulted in significant quantities being stolen.
Other elements of public access from picnic benches through to interpretation panels have become established points of nocturnal activity and I don’t mean badger’s foraging. Some fairly graphic photos in the meeting last week showed some highly inventive new functions for interpretation panels and other installed equipment, by some of the latest huge influx of immigrant prostitutes to Paris.
But urban fringe woodlands and those further into the countryside of which there are many, have only one option: Close the car parks within a wood, roadside parking only. There is no way that the FC with the cuts it is facing can cover the costs of having to lock all car parks up nightly, let alone provide the necessary maintenance and policing required. One only has to talk to car park providers in the city to realise the large staff costs involved for car parks. It will affect public access and restrict numbers but there is little choice. And even before cuts the costs involved were a significant part of woodland budget’s for the private sector as well as public forest estate. The insurance costs alone against vandalism, fire risk etc., for urban fringe woodlands are extremely expensive and often result in such woodland being unviable financially to investors.
Voluntary wardens cannot be utilised in place of paid, trained staff – to consider this as an option would be dangerous. Police who are facing cutbacks also cannot be expected to pick up the reins.
Thus as we head towards the final decisions of the forestry panel, we must accept that large scale new urban fringe planting may simply be pointless unless realistic attention is given to the cost of policing by way of a warden or ranger. Public access for all will suffer due to the costs needed for necessary policing. And we might also have to expect that alongside the FC cuts, considerable amounts of unsavoury rubbish will appear more frequently in the English countryside. It is not the sign of a new phenomenon, merely the visible reality of what budget cuts to the FC workforce means.
Forest rangers are one of the oldest land management professions, with an increasingly important yet increasingly hidden role. To further promote woodlands for all, we cannot allow this vital element of woodland management to disappear, the consequences will become upsettingly obvious very quickly indeed.