Forests targeted by farmers’ party

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The small but powerful political party best known for representing Norwegian farmers chose an unusual weekend to roll out its latest, often unpopular demands. Just as organizations promoting hiking and conservation were urging folks out into the great outdoors, a top Center Party official was saying that the forests were less important than agricultural land, and should be used for more housing projects.

The forests around Oslo, like this one in Krokskogen overlooking the Tyrifjord, are protected from development. The Center Party thinks it's more important to protect agricultural land, and is proposing that some forest land be used for more housing projects. PHOTO: Views and News

Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, who just took over as agricultural minister in June, raised a media fuss after telling newspaper Aftenposten that the very law preserving forests around Oslo and which his own Center Party (Senterpartiet, Sp) voted for just three years ago (Markaloven) should now be watered down. He thinks the border set up around the forests to protect them from development needs to be adjusted.

Vedum thinks more forest land needs to be used to build new residential neighbourhoods, to meet increasing demand for housing. Norway’s population is growing, especially in the cities, and he thinks land used to grow food must get more protection than land use for hiking or skiing.

His party’s proposal to ignore the newly installed barriers against development in marka comes in the midst of other debate over the party’s demands to raise import tariffs to protect Norwegian agricultural products. The new land demand has sparked harsh reactions from local environmental organizations, Vedum’s own government colleagues in Norway’s left-center ruling coalition, and from opposition politicians as well.

While the Center Party was proposing residential development in local forests, hundreds of outdoor enthusiasts were lining up to buy the new "Kjentmannsmerket" book published by skiing association "Skiforeningen." The book features 50 new posts of interest in the forests surrounding Oslo, that are used as the goal for hikes, cycling trips or ski treks. PHOTO: Views and News

“This looks like really sloppy political handwork,” Bjørn Faafeng of the local chapter of Friends of the Earth (Naturvernforbundet) told Aftenposten. “It very strange that a government minister wants to change such a law, just a few years after it was approved. It’s actually unheard of.”

Vedum’s proposal also has been met with strong opposition from his government colleagues in the Socialist Left party (SV), with concern from colleagues in the ruling Labour Party and with amazement from politicians in the Conservative Party. SV’s Audun Garberg, a state secretary in the environmental ministry, stressed that the law preserving marka “is permanent” and not up for renegotiation. Labour wasn’t quite as determined but said there were still plenty of other options for housing developments aside from either agricultural or forest land. Stian Berger Røsland of the opposition Conservative Party, who leads Oslo’s city government, said there would be many conflicts over building on forest land and there are “strong interests” for preserving it.

A new public opinion poll shows that Vedum’s Center Party currently commands just 3.9 percent of the vote, not enough for representation in Parliament, so they may not be able to wield as much power as they’d like. That may be good news for the thousands who turned out for the outdoor organizations’ recreational activities in marka on Sunday and the hundreds who showed up Sunday morning to buy a new book featuring 50 posts of historic, geographic or scenic interest in marka. Hiking, biking or skiing to the posts, set up in all the forests surrounding Oslo, will enable those collecting at least 15 of them to earn pins known as Kjentmannsmerke, in bronze, silver and gold. The program, aimed at spreading knowledge and active recreational use of the forests, is organized by local skiing association Skiforeningen and attracts thousands of marka enthusiasts.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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