Way back in the late 1960s and 70s, before the existence of the Yorkshire Dales Society, one of the greatest threats to the Yorkshire Dales was mass monoculture afforrestation.
Thanks to generous tax concessions, millionaire property developers and pop stars were advised by their financial consultants to reduce their tax commitments by investing in trees. Specialist companies such as the Economic Forestry Group could purchase or lease vast areas of upland grazing in Wales, Scotland, the Northern Pennine and eventually the Yorkshire Dales on behalf of their clients for planting trees.
The reasons for such generous tax concessions were outdated strategic ideas to ensure timber for pit props and paper making were available in case of a World War and U-boat blockades. This was despite the fact that timber on the scale needed is grown far more economically and efficiently in many other parts of Europe, notably in the huge renewable forests of Scandinavia.
Species selected were those which were fastest growing and therefore “economic” even though the timber was of poor quality – sitka spruce and lodgepole pine, alien to the Dales. There was even a special Government quango known as the Northern Pennines Rural Development Board to encourage forestry with powers to overrule the National Park Authority in terms of forestry projects in the park.
Areas such as the whole eastern side of Ingleborough were threatened by projects which would have totally transformed the character of the landscape as well as losing open access to fellsides. When the massive scheme in the heart of the park at Cam Fell was approved in the 1970s, no less a figure than J.B. Priestley wrote to the Times to protest about the damage that would occur.
So serious was the threat that it became a prime motivation for the eventual formation, in 1981, of the Yorkshire Dales Society.
Yet by the 1980s the threat had vanished, as a result of a Treasury ruling, responding to pressure from amenity groups such as CPRE and the Ramblers, to remove the tax advantages from large scale conifer afforestation. The strategic reasons were seen as nonsensical, the tax advantages only benefiting the already affluent.
But a ticking time bomb remained. As we said 40 years ago, what would happen in 40 years time when the crop planted in such remote locations had matured and had to be felled and removed?
Those 40 years have passed and we were proved right. Until recently low timber prices made it uneconomic to “harvest” timber in the Dales and the problem did not arise. But a recent 34% surge in prices, ironically largely driven by new interest in fuel for “renewables” such as wood pellet chips for wood burning stoves, have now made it worthwhile to pull the trees out. Many sites, such as Cam Forest and the even larger Greenfield Forest close by, are extremely difficult to access, requiring highly damaging and visually intrusive access roads, capable of carrying heavy machinery and haulage trucks.
In the case of the already controversial Cam Forest, the location could hardly be worse.
Planning permission is now being sought from the National Park Authority to use the ancient Cam High Road, as the main access route for huge timber trucks heading for Ribblehead. Cam High Road is a former Roman Road and medieval highway, used by packhorse trains and stage coaches between Ingleton and Hawes until the mid 18th century. It now carries two of Britain’s most popular long distance walking routes – The Pennine Way and the Dales Way, and part of the new Pennine Bridleway. This ancient green way now carries a Traffic Regulation Order to prevent its damage by motor cycles and 4x4s. Soon huge, slow moving trailers carrying up to 30 tonnes of logs could be trashing its ancient surface, turning it into deep, muddy ruts, noise echoing for miles as trucks struggle up valley sides, or lumber down behind walkers heading towards Gearstones. Over three miles of the Dales Way would be blighted by mud, danger and noise for up to five years.
But surely if there is no other way of getting the timber out, then Cam High Road has to be sacrificed? There are no easy or cost free alternatives such as taking the timber trucks eastwards through the village of Gayle and Hawes, or building another lower level access track towards Horton in Ribblesdale.
This is a National Park, an area set aside by Parliament for the prime purposes of landscape and nature conservation and quiet enjoyment of natural beauty.
Huge monoculture plantations in the heart of the National Park were a planning mistake and ecological disaster. Prone to disease and wind damage, their dark interiors inhibiting light restricts bio-diversity. Conservation is about the longer term not quick profit.
When the National Trust acquired a similar poor quality commercial plantation at Darnbrook, above Malham, it took the decision to fell the timber, let it fall and rot to become a marvellous insect-rich wildlife habitat to be replanted gradually as conservation woodland with native trees.
If the timber at Cam cannot be extracted without a huge environmental cost, the best long term solution would be to leave much of the poor quality timber where it is or extract it piecemeal as in forests in German National Parks, using horses to penetrate the trees to pull the logs and smaller scale vehicles to minimise damage. The least accessible areas could be left to mature. The aim should be to manage the area not for quick profit, but as a nature reserve in the heart of the National Park, a sanctuary for wildlife and biodiversity, an oasis of quiet in an otherwise overpressurised world, not a place to grow quick cash crops for wood burning stoves. The National Park Authority, hopefully supported by Natural England, needs to show vision and courage, to work with the landowner to transform Cam Forest not into a clear felled nightmare to be replanted with yet more alien species, but something that the landowner himself and future generations can be truly proud of.
And to leave the ancient road along Cam Fell crest as it should be left; a witness to the lives of past generations, and for present and future generations, a wonderful place to ride, walk, cycle and experience one of the truly great landscapes of England.