All Commentary
Friday, April 1, 1994

The New Forest

Things Haven't Changed Much Since Robin Hood Escaped to Sherwood Forest

John Chodes is the Communications Director for the Libertarian Party of New York City.

Robin Hood is not a legend. He was a real person. If he were alive today, he would feel just as at home in our national parks as he did in Sherwood Forest in the 1300s, and for the same reasons. The regulations that filled Sherwood Forest with outlaws and enemies of the state way back then are at work today and may provide a clue to some consequences of our own ever-expanding environmental laws.

This comes to mind because of a recent decision by the U.S. Forest Service to end logging in many federal woodlands, which provided 7.3 billion board feet of timber last year, roughly 12 percent of all timber used in the United States. This reduced supply means wood prices may climb further and create profound changes in communities where lumber-related jobs will be lost.

These new logging decrees add another layer of codes which protect wildlife from being hunted or fished, and in some cases prevent human beings from ever entering the woodlands where these beasties live.

This leads back to the Robin Hood connection. He was born Robert Hood, in 1290, during the reign of Edward II. Like today, Sherwood Forest and many of the vast royal wildlife refuges in England had once been productive, food-producing farmland. Like today’s “wetlands” and “environmentally fragile” zones, where citizens are ejected from their property, supposedly to save nature’s ecosystems, the medieval kings expropriated huge tracts of agricultural country in Hampshire to create what they called “The New Forest.” It was allowed to deteriorate to its original uncultivated state and no one was allowed to pursue the game inside without the king’s permission.

To maintain that wilderness, an army of royal rangers, foresters, and keepers (including the Sheriff of Nottingham) made sure that the laws to keep out humans were administered swiftly and severely.

Of course, with the loss of their life-supporting farms, the commoners were denied the means to survive. While the royal forests were filled with game, hanging was the penalty for any person who killed a doe or boar to eat. Everything in the forest was sacred. To cut a single tree branch was a major crime. Ironically, the only place that a common man could escape the brutal arm of the royal law was in the same place that caused the infraction: Sherwood or Barnsdate forests. They were so inaccessible that even the army of bureaucrats could not find the culprits in there.

Robin Hood’s life as an outlaw began not from killing a protected species, but from being on the wrong political side. He joined the Earl of Lancaster in a rebellion against Edward II. At the battle of Boroughbridge, Lancaster’s army was crushed. Robin Hood was officially proclaimed a traitor and his property was confiscated. He fled into Sherwood Forest to avoid the hangman’s rope.

As in Robin Hood’s time, today’s answer to such authoritarianism is: Return the confiscated lands back to their rightful owners. Expand, not reduce, the ability of private companies to create jobs and produce products from the forest. Private control does not mean havoc. As has been repeatedly shown, the paradox is that the profit motive guarantees a more rational and environmentally sound use of the land. Private control demands prudent management of the forests, precluding wholesale exploitation now. This means simultaneous cutting and growing so there will be trees for lumber next year and for the next generation.

This can be verified even in Robin Hood’s day. Dr. Robert Laxton, of the University of Nottingham, in a detailed study, found that in the fourteenth century, the cash-strapped English monarchy allowed private logging in certain portions of Sherwood Forest. The evidence shows that prior to this, the royal woodland management was poor but that private ownership encouraged far better conservation.

Today’s federal government also is the cause of havoc, often shocking environmentalists by the betrayal of their vision. Uncle Sam has often high-handedly deforested huge areas by letting forest fires rage out of control as a matter of policy. Uncle Sam has exterminated both peaceful and predatory beasts, often more than hunters or fur trappers, in the name of “maintaining an ecological balance.” Neither man nor forest has benefited.

If the process continues, as it did in Sherwood Forest, the “protected” species such as the spotted owl won’t be safe and private property and other human civil rights will continue to slip away.