ONE of the world’s oldest conservation bodies has warned that Government plans could result in more commercial activity in the New Forest.

The 146-year-old New Forest Association (NFA) has voiced grave concerns about the area’s future following a ministerial announcement about woodland across the UK.

Environment secretary Owen Paterson has confirmed that sites run by the Forestry Commission would not be sold off.

But he also announced that a new independent body, working alongside the Commission, would have greater freedom to “maximise its income through commercial activity”.

The statement has alarmed the NFA, which has been watching over the New Forest since 1867.

The charity’s chairman, Peter Roberts, said: “While the Government has agreed not to sell the forests, we could be considerably worse off after this statement.

“Legislation to form a replacement forest body carries with it huge risks that the unique needs of one of the nation’s most important heritage forests will be lost.

“There are presently five Acts of Parliament and a Minister’s Mandate that cover how the New Forest is governed.

“Surely this should be enough to make Parliament see the need for a special case?”

Mr Roberts said the NFA was planning to lobby MPs on the issue.

He added: “Sustaining the New Forest depends on retention of the powers vested by the New Forest Acts.

“Those of us valuing the forest will require great vigilance to ensure that those powers are not eroded by new legislation or the amendment of those Acts.”

Mr Paterson’s announcement was based on one of the proposals made by an independent panel that produced a report on the future of forestry.

Mr Roberts said: “The panel made clear recommendations as to the powers and duties of the body.

“However, these seem to have been ignored in favour of taking the short-term view of income at any cost to the environment.”

Mr Paterson gave a series of assurances when he made his announcement last week.

He said: “A new, independent body will ensure our woods are held in trust for the long-term benefit of future generations, nature and the economy.”