Stuart Goodall said he was optimistic about the £1 billion sector's future in Scotland after giving evidence to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee at Holyrood - and he expressed hope that the forthcoming Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee inquiry at Westminster will kick-start a similar understanding of the sector's value in England.
The REC committee looked in detail at Scottish Government support for forestry, taking evidence from Stuart Goodall as well as Rodney Shearer from Alba Trees, Willie McGhee of the Forest Policy Group and Jon Hollingdale from the Community Woodlands Association.
Confor had submitted evidence to the inquiry in advance and this was circulated to committee members before the meeting.
The panel was clear that there would need to be an increase in the forestry budget for 2017/18 if the Scottish Government's ambitious tree planting targets - 10,000 hectares per year – are to be met.
The panel also confirmed that there was the land and the interest in planting trees to meet the annual target if the grant process worked efficiently and the funding was available in the Scottish Government budget.
Rodney Shearer said that tree nurseries in Scotland could provide the plants needed, but that nurseries had to have the confidence that if they grew the plants then sufficient planting applications would be approved to make use of those plants. There was agreement that the Scottish Government should look closely at the resources made available for Forestry Commission Scotland - especially given that the private sector demand and the political will from Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing is there.
The focus turned to Forestry Commission Scotland's repositioning programme (which allows it to sell off parts of the National Forest Estate and buy land in areas, such as on the edge of towns, to create new woodland) and MSPs quizzed the panel on its aims and objectives of this programme and whether it had been effective.
The opportunity for communities to buy NFE forest was highlighted by John Hollingdale and Stuart Goodall advised that purchasers of productive forest should demonstrate how they will manage that forest productively, as communities have when they have purchased forest from the NFE. There was speculation about sales of NFE land being used to raise funds to plant land previously owned by coal firms, and on the transparency of the process. Expect 'repositioning' to be a major theme when MSPs consider the Scottish Government's new Forestry Bill in 2017.
For the Conservatives Peter Chapman MSP said he thought Brexit offered the chance to rethink countryside policy and integrate forestry more closely, for example with support for agriculture. The four panellists all agreed that Brexit was a big opportunity for forestry as it provided a range of economic and environmental benefits without the need for ongoing subsidy, and a flexible support system could enable sheep farmers, for example, to plant trees while maintaining sheep production.
The committee intends to follow up this evidence session by questioning Forestry Commission Scotland and Scottish Government officials next on their budget plans. This will increase the pressure on the Scottish Government to ensure funding is in place to deliver the tree planting central to their forestry expansion plans.
Stuart Goodall said: "It was great to hear the committee say that forestry is a priority and that they understand its scale and importance as a significant rural enterprise delivering £1 billion in annual economic value and providing more than 25,000 jobs."
He added: "I will be giving evidence to the EFRA committee at Westminster on 6th December. We have highlighted the potential for forestry to deliver 7000 new jobs and to reduce carbon emissions in our evidence and in an earlier Confor report - as well as its potential to reduce flood risks, encourage biodiversity and provide tremendous social and recreational opportunities.
"Scotland has really grasped the nettle and understood the wide-ranging benefits of forestry - and we are working hard to ensure that Westminster politicians do the same."