Described as a "vast ribbon of woodland cover" by Environment Secretary Michael Gove, the United Kingdom has announced plans to plant more than 50 million trees across major swaths of northern England. Called the "Northern Forest," the 120-mile-long project, encompassing some 62,000 acres, would follow the M62 motorway from Liverpool to Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Chester and Hull.
"A new Northern Forest could accelerate the benefits of community forestry, support landscape scale working for nature, deliver a wide range of benefits, including helping to reduce flood risk, and adapt some of the U.K.’s major towns and cities to projected climate change," Austin Brady of the Woodland Trust, which is overseeing the project in collaboration with the Community Forests Trust, said in a statement. "The North of England is perfectly suited to reap the benefits of a project on this scale."
A critical piece of the U.K.'s government's forthcoming 25 Year Environment Plan, the Northern Forest is also an attempt by officials and non-profits to slow the loss of woodlands. Northern England currently has only 7.6 percent of tree cover, below the U.K. average of 13 percent and drastically behind the European Union average of 44 percent. By planting many of the tree in river valleys, its also expected that the project could save more than 190,000 homes from future flood risks, as well as locking up more than 7 million tons of carbon.
“Progress is being made," Prime Minster Theresa May said. "We’re investing over £3bn in improving air quality, tackling marine pollution by banning harmful microbeads and increasing sentences for animal cruelty to five years. But to create an environment fit for the future we can’t stop there, and that is why we are supporting the creation of this new northern forest and will shortly be setting out our ambitious vision to further support the environment and protect its good health for generations to come."
While any tree planting initiative is certainly welcome news, there's one aspect about this story that throws a bit of cold water on the project's expected 25-year timeline: cost. It's currently estimated that the price of creating the Northern Forest will be in excess of $670 million in U.S. dollars. So far, the government has chipped in less than $8 million, with the Woodland Trust good for another $14 million. The mind-boggling remainder will reportedly be made up from donations by charities.
Other critics that noted that while new trees are a step in the right direction, they shouldn't come at the cost of ancient woodlands threatened by modern developments. Paul de Zylva, a senior nature campaigner for Friends of the Earth, told the BBC that it's with no shortage of irony that tree planters will receive funding from HS2, a planned high-speed rail line that threatens 35 ancient woodlands.
"You simply can't compare the biodiversity value of new sticks in the ground with ancient forest," he said. "If the government really cared about woodlands it wouldn't be routing a high speed train through them. And it wouldn't be allowing this weight of this project to be carried by charity."
Work on the Northern Forest is expected to begin in March in the Greater Manchester town of Bolton.