7 November 2017
In 1918, in the dying days of the first world war, the country was ravaged by conflict, our young people had been sacrificed on the battlefield, and our economy was in freefall.
That was the context in which the Forestry Commission was born, with the aim of replanting, rebuilding and renewing a crucial asset that appeared impossible to replace.
The idea seemed to be oxymoronic.
How could we replace native Caledonian pine forests that were hundreds of years old?
However, in the 1920s and 1930s, those foresters of old did what it said on the tin: they replanted our forests with fast-growing and mainly, though not exclusively, non-native species.
As we all know, the picture today is very different.
Our living forests play a number of roles in climate change mitigation, industry and construction, job creation, biomass, housing, leisure and biodiversity.
That is why today’s debate is so important.
The bill includes devolving forestry to Scottish ministers, and it is my hope that that will offer the opportunity to better integrate forestry with other rural land uses in Scotland.
We must recognise the important economic benefits from forestry.
Rural areas are often the most vulnerable, and as a Highlands and Islands MSP, that is very close to my heart.
However, forestry offers us so much more. It provides leisure spaces, carbon sequestration, flood mitigation, erosion reduction, water quality improvement, timber production and a biodiverse habitat for many of our native species.
Many of our native woodlands provide a home for at-risk species in Scotland, whose population has been in decline, so it is not just the area of forestry that we need to improve, but the quality. Increased tree planting for the sake of it is not enough.
It must be done in the right area, and with the right tree species, or it could do more harm than good. In its excellent briefing, the RSPB makes the point that biodiversity and environmental benefits are not always fully interlinked, and that they must be kept separate in order to support both.
That is true for rural and urban areas.
The word “forestry” brings to mind acres and acres of trees, but it also covers tree planting in urban areas, which is very important for increasing green spaces, which can help with the mental and physical health of local communities.
The powers are moving to Scottish ministers, but it is vital that the skills and the knowledge of Forestry Commission Scotland staff are maintained.
The very nature of forestry involves long-term planning—many of our man-made ancient forests exist only because of the forward thinking of our forebears. As the Greek proverb goes:
“A society grows great when old men”— and women—
“plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
This has been an excellent debate, started by the cabinet secretary, who stressed the importance of sustainable management in forests, with new commissioning and funding across the UK to expand timber supply.
I, too, welcome the strategic timber fund.
I am sure that the cabinet secretary will say a bit more about that in his winding-up speech.
If I picked him up correctly, I understand that the plan is to transfer a further 700 acres to community ownership this year.
Edward Mountain made an excellent speech as the convener of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee.
He talked, quite rightly, about keeping—and increasing—the skills of foresters; he also talked about having a long-term strategy with objectives that are reviewed.
I also agree with his points about the need for more clarity on the definitions.
A common theme among members was the need to get the IT systems right.
How many times in this Parliament have we touched on a new IT system that has failed?
Let us get it right in this instance.
Peter Chapman made a number of points with which I agree.
For example, an amendment to the bill about the cross-border work on tree health is vital, and a review of progress on planting expansion timescales must be reported to Parliament at an appropriate stage.
Rhoda Grant set the context of the devolution of the Forestry Commission.
A common theme in the debate was the creation of the important role of the chief forester, who will effectively fight the corner of foresters within the Scottish Government.
As Rhoda Grant said, it is crucial to look at the socioeconomic role of forestry and the needs of local communities.
As always, Stewart Stevenson was entertaining.
He talked about his time fighting the first world war—or maybe I misunderstood that.
He certainly talked about the important role that timber played in the first world war.
He made the interesting point that he counts as one and a half members within the SNP group—nobody in the Parliament has ever doubted his important role.
John Scott—quite rightly—raised the need for clarity on the definitions, particularly the definition of community bodies.
Overall, this has been a first-class debate.
We know the big picture—the forestry industry needs stability to allow it to invest and to grow to ensure that it thrives for future generations. It also needs knowledge.
I restate my earlier point: although civil servants are specialists in what they do, it is important that the knowledge held by foresters within the commission is not lost.
On behalf of the five trade unions that represent Forestry Commission Scotland, I would appreciate it if the cabinet secretary could assure me that the skills of the staff will be maintained and that the unions representing them will be fully engaged during the negotiations about all aspects of the staff transfer.
Labour’s position is clear : we support the general principles of the bill. I urge all members to support it.
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