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Britain halts forest sell-off plan after protests

The British government has slashed funding for libraries, tripled university tuition fees and laid off thousands of workers. But for many people, chopping down trees was a cut too far.

In one of the biggest U-turns since Britain's coalition government took power, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman announced Thursday that a plan to sell off 600,000 acres (250,000 hectares) of England's forests was being scrapped after an outcry from nature-lovers and environmentalists.

"I am sorry. We got this one wrong," Spelman told lawmakers in the House of Commons.

It is an unexpected defeat for Prime Minister David Cameron's budget-cutting administration, which has ordered 80 billion pounds ($128 billion) cut from public spending in a bid to slash Britain's deficit. One proposal called for the privatization of government-owned woodland, which amounts to almost a fifth of English forests.

The land has been state-owned since World War I, but Cameron argued that it would be better managed by others, including conservation groups and charities.

The plan called for "heritage woodland" like the 1,000-year-old New Forest in southern England to be protected, but also proposed raising 250 million pounds ($400 million) by leasing tracts of forest to timber companies.

Despite government assurances that conservation and public access would be safeguarded, the proposal was fought by environmentalists, opposition politicians and celebrities including actress Judi Dench and singer Annie Lennox.

More than half a million people signed an online petition against the plan, which drew fire from across the political spectrum. Opposition Labour Party politicians condemned the move, but it also angered the rural base of Cameron's Conservatives.

Environmental groups said the plans could see forests razed for golf courses or holiday homes. They evoked images of Robin Hood — the archetypal symbol of forests as symbol of freedom and Englishman's birthright.

Religious leaders including Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams also criticized the proposal, while thousands of people rallied in local forests and inundated lawmakers with letters and e-mails.

Spelman said that "if there is one clear message from this experience, it is that people cherish their forests and woodlands and the benefits that they bring."

Long ago, much of England was covered in trees, but centuries of agriculture and urban development have left the country with less forest cover than many European nations. About 12 percent of Britain is forested, compared with 28 percent in France and about a third of Italy, Spain and Germany.

David Babbs, director of environmental group 38 Degrees, said the government's U-turn was "fantastic news for all of us who want to keep our forests safe in public hands for future generations."

Some people expressed surprise that trees had become such a hot-button issue. But Colette Barnes, 31, pushing her 6-month-old daughter amid the oaks and hornbeams of London's Highgate Wood, said the threat to forests seemed more tangible than many other government cutbacks.

"You can hear about jobs being lost because of government cuts, but you can't see them as well as you can see a forest being cut down," she said. "I want my daughter to know what it's like to go camping and hear the birds."

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Associated Press writer Tamara Baluja contributed to this report.