Interview: Shireen Chambers, executive director, Institute of Chartered Foresters

Men in tweed suits. This is the image that the Institute of Chartered Foresters (ICF) is determined to shed. And as trees and forestry climb up the political agenda, with very public backing from the Government last week, the resonance of the profession with a new generation is likely to increase.

Shireen Chambers, executive director, Institute of Chartered Foresters. Image: ICF
Shireen Chambers, executive director, Institute of Chartered Foresters. Image: ICF

The scientific backing of the role of trees and forests in adapting to climate change - evidenced by a team of scientists led by the University of Sheffield's Sir David Read - will help, according to ICF executive director Shireen Chambers. Not only was the team's report commissioned by the Forestry Commission, it gained the support of Defra secretary Hilary Benn.

"Climate change adaptation and mitigation are the biggest issues for trees at the moment," Chambers explains. "Mitigation is less important in terms of cities and urban trees because you need an awful lot of woodland before you can talk about mitigation. But adaptation to climate change is where urban trees will be extremely important in terms of issues such as flooding and cooling."

Despite being formed in 1925 as a society for foresters, the ICF has changed its direction somewhat. Echoing the Forestry Commission, there is now a stronger focus on urban forestry and street trees.

"My background is more in urban forestry and I think that was a statement the ICF was making after quite a period of stagnation and navel-gazing," Chambers reveals. "They wanted to get away from being seen as the men in tweed suits. Government policy has changed to emphasise biodiversity and ecosystems as well as recreation, so as a result our members have changed."

The "broad church" of members now includes environmentalists and those involved in education, she adds.

Chambers believes there is a role for the ICF alongside the Arboricultural Association, saying the organisations' missions are "complementary". "Many of our members are also part of the Arboricultural Association," she says. Co-ordination on issues facing those working with trees will help the whole sector raise its profile, she notes.

"We try to influence decision-makers, but we are not a lobbying body in the sense of the Confederation of Forest Industries," she explains. The membership of industry figures such as Forestry Commission director general Tim Rollinson and chairman Lord Clark of Windermere means the ICF "can actually have that influence", Chambers reasons.

One of the major frustrations for the sector is a lack of leadership, along with organisations pulling in different directions. That has already prompted Treework Environmental Practice principal Neville Fay to work with the Forestry Commission on developing a single "Charter for Trees" that will allow bodies to work together.

But there needs to be action from within government offices, Chambers urges. "There is a feeling at the moment in the arboriculture profession that there's a lack of leadership," she says. "They look enviously at forestry because there's a government department - the Forestry Commission. Communities & Local Government is the official body that would look after urban street trees, but it only has one professional arboriculturist."

One of Chambers's primary reasons for beginning a career in forestry was the notion of travelling to different countries and sharing British forestry. "I've always loved travel and was taken with the idea of British foresters setting up forestry departments all over the world," she laughs.

Her ambition was realised with a stint working for the Government of the Bahamas on launching a new forest department, a role that involved Chambers learning to pilot a plane to get around the many islands in the region.

More recently, she attended the 13th World Forestry Congress in Argentina. "There are a lot of Latin American countries interested in setting up professional institutes," she explains.

"There's a feeling our voice is not being heard when governments require advice on forestry situations, despite the fact that, globally, climate change is centred on forests."

An International Union of Forestry Societies is now being relaunched ahead of this month's Copenhagen climate change talks with the aim of reversing that trend. However, the uncertainty of a deal being reached means concern for its effectiveness.

On a more local level, Chambers says local authorities must put forward a strong argument to Government for prioritising more urban trees and their management. She points to the example of New York's parks department, which leveraged $220m (about £133m) by outlining trees' costs and benefits.

"Local authorities need to push the fact that canopy cover is helping climate adaptation and they need to pressure those holding the purse strings that increasing canopy is meeting government objectives," she urges. "We need to speak in the language that financial managers understand."

CV
1985 BSc in forestry/soil science, University College of North Wales
1985-87 Assistant manager, Tilhill Forestry
1987-91 Forest officer, Government of the Bahamas
1991-97 Operations manager, Central Scotland Countryside Trust
1997-2004 Managing director (Northern Ireland) and part-time business development manager (Scotland), Greenbelt Group
1998-2000 Chief executive and director (part-time), Edinburgh Green Belt Trust
2004-06 Chief executive, Open Space
2006 to date Executive and technical director, Institute of Chartered Foresters


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