Fergus Ewing: This is what devolution of the trees means for Scotland

Yesterday I was proud to welcome the passing of the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill. This landmark legislation completes the devolution of forestry to Scotland, a process that started nearly 20 years ago.

Fergus Ewing - Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy & Connectivity. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.

I am proud to have been the Cabinet Secretary responsible for introducing this historic bill, the first forestry legislation since the Scottish Parliament was reconvened in 1999.

The Forestry Commission, which was established in 1919 to expand forests and woodlands after these were depleted during the First World War has achieved much throughout its existence in which we will remain proud but administrative arrangements need to change with the times. Now with forestry functions fully devolved, we need an organisational structure and arrangements which reflect that and take us forward into the future. This government has big plans for forestry and woodland creation with the most ambitious tree planting targets of any part of the UK.

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With the passing of this historic bill, the powers and duties held by the Forestry Commissioners, insofar as they relate to Scotland, have been transferred to Scottish Ministers and the management and regulation of forestry in Scotland now becomes fully accountable to the Scottish Parliament.

This bill modernises the statutory framework for the development, management, regulation and support of forestry in Scotland, which is the right thing to do for a sector worth nearly £1 thousand million annually to the Scottish economy and which supports 25,000 jobs.

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For the first time, there will be a statutory requirement to prepare a national forestry strategy and a duty to promote sustainable forest management. These measures give us the policy framework with which to put forestry at the heart of our determination to drive forward the rural economy.

Forestry is vitally important to Scotland. It is a vibrant sector, one we want to expand in order to deliver a broad range of environmental outcomes, in particular climate change mitigation. But woodland also plays a key social role – it provides places for us to walk, play, explore, and even holiday, helping boost and maintain the health and wellbeing of everyone who lives in and visits Scotland.

Now the bill is passed, we can get on with activity needed to complete devolution – the new arrangements come into force in 1 April 2019 and there is much to be done.

This includes working with UK and Welsh Governments to complete the new collaborative arrangements for cross-border functions – it is important that we continue to work across the UK on key issues like research and tree health. There is also substantial work required to ensure that there is a smooth transfer of staff from Forestry Commission Scotland and Forest Enterprise Scotland to the new arrangements. Valuing and investing in the skills, expertise and experience of the staff in both organisations is key – they are vital to helping deliver my future plans for forestry and I want to get on with ensuring they get the certainty and clarity they need about their employment arrangements. That includes recruiting someone to fulfill the newly created role of the Chief Forester.

So I am committed to continuing to engage with staff, trades unions, stakeholders and the Parliament as the work to establish the new arrangements progresses.

This new Forestry Act also includes and improves measures to protect trees, and the wildlife and other plants, our woods and forests help to support. That includes new offences to prevent illegal felling and to temporarily stop felling activity which threatens to harm the environment or any living thing.

In its entirety, we have a new Forestry Act designed in Scotland to meet Scotland’s needs and interests which will work in conjunction with existing policy and strategy on biodiversity. As a government we are wholly committed to harnessing the potential of all our natural assets while protecting and enhancing our natural environment.

This Act will enable us to meet our ambitious planting targets, while also enabling our National Forest Estate to be cherished, maintained and developed for current and future generations. It will allow us to increase timber supply to support growth in timber-related products – paper, furniture and houses. Creating more jobs and opportunities for business in Scotland.

With this Act, we have seized a once in a generation opportunity to create a new, modern statutory framework that will support the realisation of our ambitions to plant more trees, create more woodland and sustain our forests.

I am determined that planting trees becomes a shared national endeavour with a role for everyone to play in every community – now we have devolved fully the functions of forestry to Scotland, we have the powers we need to get on with delivering that.

Fergus Ewing is the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity.