CAMPAIGNERS battling to keep Forest of Dean woodlands out of private hands are rallying forces.
Government environment secretary Caroline Spelman wants to sell half the country's Forestry Commission land by 2020, according to information leaked to the media.
Sold-off woodland could be used for commercial logging, or cleared to build golf courses or holiday complexes such as Center Parcs.
A ministerial statement from Defra is yet to be made on the proposed fate of the 26,000-acre Forest of Dean estate, but The Forester is primed for action as today we launch the Hands Off Our Forest campaign.
While Forest MP and Cabinet member Mark Harper said he will not comment on press speculation, Labour peer Baroness Jan Royall of Blaisdon said she believes the report has substance and fully backs the HOOF campaign.
She is set to lead the Opposition in the House of Lords to the Government's Public Bodies Bill, due to be published today or tomorrow. The Government revealed this month the proposed law would include "substantial reform" of the Forestry Commission and details will be revealed later this autumn.
Baroness Royall said the proposed law could pave the way for the selling off of Forestry land.
"People are right to say that our voices should be heard now," she said. "As a society we have a duty to protect and manage our forests and woodlands. Our Forest is irreplaceable and must not be sold off as part of the Government's desire to generate quick cash."
A battle against the Thatcher Government's plans to sell the Forest was won following a big campaign, and culminated in the Forestry Act 1981, retaining special protection for the Forest of Dean that has existed since the 11th Century.
However, no law would need to be repealed to sell woodland outside the Statutory Forest: south and west of Bream and Lydney, west of Coleford, east of Cinderford and Mitcheldean.
Pressure group Dean Forest Voice is due to meet with the Forest's MP tomorrow. It will decide its strategy on Monday. Spokesman Keith Morgan said organising public meetings and forming an alliance with other groups were in the pipeline.
Mr Morgan said: "We mobilised against the closure of the Dilke hospital, and the same thing would have to happen this time. We could lose our commoning and freemining rights, along with everything else.
"I bet Center Parcs and the like are licking their lips thinking about getting in here. Once any of the Forest is lost, it's gone forever and that's why we have got to fight against any sale."
Forestry Commission Trade Unions secretary Allan Mackenzie confirmed: "Our position is that we are opposed to the sale of any Forestry Commission land. Jobs would be lost as private landowners employ fewer people and public access may be restricted.
"The areas of the Forest of Dean outside the Statutory area would be particularly vulnerable to a sell-off because of the high value of the land and its potential to raise revenue. I have to believe the reports are reliable, although we are still waiting for a ministerial statement from Defra."
Averil Kear, conservation officer of the Forest of Dean Local History Society, said: "We have been through all this before with plans to privatise the Forest and a huge public protest stopped it – a huge protest can stop it again. The Forestry Commission does more than manage the trees, it is responsible for preserving the integrity of the Forest. Even if this sell-off plan is only a whisper, we need to nip it in the bud."
Cinderford district councillor Graham Morgan said, referring to the Dean Forest Riots of 1831: "I predict another Warren James-style uprising, with fences being torn down. You'll see me at the front of the barricades."
Cinderford shopkeeper Alan Bowkett has set up a Facebook group called Stop The Forest Of Dean From Being Sold Off, and there is a national online petition at www.38degrees.org. uk/page/s/save- our-forests#petition