LONDON, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- Thousands of acres of British woodland would be leased to commercial interests under a plan unveiled Thursday by Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman.
The government says allowing exploitation of government-owned forests would raise millions of pounds to fund other environmental initiatives, The Independent reported. But the furious reaction from environmentalists
and polls showing 85 percent of the public opposes the plan prompted the government to change details, including 150-year leases instead of outright sales.
Spelman said there would also be a new category of "heritage forests." It would include the New Forest, which was new in 1079 when William the Conqueror turned it into a royal hunting preserve, and the Forest of Dean, which might be put in the hands of conservation trusts.
Spelman insisted leasing the forests would allow public access to be maintained and environmental values protected. She said local government bodies and conservation groups could also take on leases.
About 250,000 people have signed a petition against the sale, the Daily Mirror said. Judi Dench, one of England's best-known actresses, and other celebrities have come out against the plan.
"The outrage at this issue has highlighted the public's love of a woodland walk, and we must work together to ensure that, whoever owns the land, the public's access is protected," said Tom Franklin, head of the walking group the Ramblers.