FORTY years ago leading conservation bodies in the Yorkshire Dales – CPRE, The Ramblers, YHA and several others were united in fighting against a “green tide of confers” that threatened to blanket the Dales. It was all about tax breaks for the rich.

If you were a millionaire popstar or TV personality, by investing in trees, you could avoid paying income tax on your vast wealth, by planting of huge plantations of fast growing Sitka spruce and Japanese larch, all alien to the Yorkshire Dales. The Cam Fell and Greenfield plantations caused such upset that there was a letter to the Times by celebrated author as JB Priestley stating that covering the Dales with spruce trees would change the landscape forever.

Yet when the Yorkshire Dales Society first came into being in 1981 (next year is the society’s 35th anniversary) the problem suddenly ended as the Government realised that there was little strategic need for softwood timber – used for wood pulp and pit props – which could be grown and harvested at far less cost in the great forests of Scandinavia. When tax concessions were removed, mass afforestation ended.

So why is the Yorkshire Dales Society now all in favour of more trees in the Dales? These are not mass huge plantations of alien conifers, but smaller scale native woodlands and shelter belts. A new, well-argued Policy Statement ( - Campaigns) explains why. Though woodland only covers a small part of the Dales, trees are an essential part of the beauty of the landscape and the natural and cultural history of the Dales.

The society wants to see careful management of all existing woodland, especially the few remaining ancient and semi-natural woods, because of the many benefits tree cover brings – biodiversity, carbon capture, enhancement of water quality through reduced runoff, as well as the economic value of woods to landowners and local communities.

Woodland and hedges have real benefits for upland farming, including shelter belt provision, flood-risk management as well as timber production. Public access whenever possible to woodland is desirable. Forestry Commission woodlands are already open for public access but the society would like to see other public and private woodland made accessible for walking, riding, cycling, and non-motorised recreation. Any new woodland planted on what is now public access land under the CROW Act should have that access protected.

Biosecurity in new woodland is also vital, with saplings and young trees being sourced from verifiable local provenance with a history of being grown in mainland Britain. This is an important issue given the increase in diseases affecting individual tree species, most alarming chalara or ash die-back, diagnosed in the southern Dales this spring.

But when it comes to large-scale commercial plantations of unsightly, monoculture conifer forests, as occurred in the Dales in the 1960s and 1970s, the society not only wishes to see no more mass plantings of unsightly, monoculture forests, but existing coniferous plantations better managed for biodiversity and access.

A new problem is extraction of timber from existing commercial plantations. This was simply not thought about in the 1970s. The controversial use of the historic Roman Cam High Road in Ribblesdale, which also carries the Dales Way and Pennine Way, for timber waggons to haul trees out of Cam Forest, has transformed this ancient green way into a wide, stone-chipped forest access track along Cam Fell, creating an intrusive scar on the landscape, visible for miles. The trees from nearby, far larger Greenfield Forest will soon use this same historic route.

A part of our Dales heritage has been lost, although, as consolation, additional access by foot into the replanted forest by a new network of permissive footpaths has been promised by the owners.

This low-value timber only recently became commercially viable to extract because of rising demand for wood pellets for “renewable” bio-mass fuel for domestic or office wood burning stoves. But if the environmental costs and massive carbon footprint of felling and hauling out the trees up steep gradients by huge timber waggons is included in the equation, there could be an overall environmental loss. For this reason, it is urged that rail transport be used whenever possible, for example from Ribblehead quarry siding, rather than road haulage.

When such forests are re-planted, replanting plans should take account of biodiversity, public access, and water quality, utilising a variety of different native species of trees, of different ages, with wide glades to encourage increased biodiversity and access opportunities. Surely, in a National Park landscape protection should be prime aim of woodland management not mass production of heavily subsidised fuel?

It is recognised that the Yorkshire Dales is an area which, compared with other upland areas in Europe, lacks tree cover. The great natural forests that once covered the Pennines, through centuries of human occupation, constant clearance, burning and animal grazing, and in more recent times, heather management, have been almost entirely lost. Even though the excellent Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust recently planted its millionth native tree in the Dales, this has only scratched the surface of the denudation of the landscape by human activity and lack of replanting or natural regeneration.

So more native trees, not on the summits of the hills, but on the hillsides and in the gullies, could do much to enhance the landscape, the ecology, the biodiversity and the economy of the Dales.