A CAMPAIGN to persuade Natural Resources Wales (NRW) not to close Gwent’s biggest tourist attraction in order to chop down thousands of diseased trees has gathered more than 3,000 members.

Rob Southall set up the online campaign in reaction to what he described as “the unnecessary devastation” planned by NRW in removing disease-ridden larch trees from Cwmcarn Forest Drive.

We reported in May that the seven-mile drive will close in November to carry out large-scale felling of trees affected by untreatable larch disease across 400 acres.

Peter Cloke, from NRW said closing Forest Drive was “a very difficult” decision but was necessary to make sure work was carried out safely.

But Mr Southall, who is also Coleg Gwent branch chairman for the Institute for Welsh Affairs, claims that there are “a number of inconsistencies” with NRW’s approach and said there were “ample” harvest roads around the Nant Carn valley which could be used to remove the trees, rather than close the whole drive to tourists.

Other areas including Cwmcarn forest, the footpaths, mountain bike trails, “glamping”, the play area, gift shop, Raven’s café and the visitor centre are to stay open for business.

But it is not yet clear how walkers will be prevented from walking across the road, or how much revenue could be lost from the closure, leading to speculation that the drive may never reopen.

“What needs to be removed via the drive could easily be done during the winter closure period,” he wrote on the Campaign to Save Cwmcarn Forest Drive Facebook page.

“However NRW say that the job will not be completed until 2018 and after this the drive may not reopen due to funding issues.

“This campaign may be our first and last chance to save the drive. The Forest Drive needs friends and I am reaching out to you all to protest and not simply accept the closure.

“It must not be allowed to happen,” he said.

Andy Schofield, regional land manager, from Natural Resources Wales, said: “We understand the concerns of local people about the closure of the forest drive.

“All of the larch trees in the forest are dead, dying or likely to be infected and we have to fell them in order to try and prevent further spread of the disease. We recognise the impact that the closure will have on some of the sites users.

“However, the approach we are taking will ensure that the visitor centres, mountain bike trails and play areas will remain open so it is still a fantastic place to visit.

“The decision to close the Forest Drive, which is the only part of the forest which will close for a prolonged period, has not been taken lightly. The felling and removal of timber by lorries, will be taking place on an unprecedented scale and it would not be safe to undertake these operations with the drive open to public vehicles.

“Our intention is to reopen the forest drive once the felling and replanting work is completed but, as there is financial pressure on the public sector, we cannot guarantee that this will happen.

“Our aim is to start replanting as soon as possible so that we can create a forest that is more diverse, more attractive for visitors and a better habitat for native wildlife.”

Felling starts later in year

AN AERIAL survey in 2013 showed widespread infection by Ramorum disease of larch at Cwmcarn Forest, one of Wales' biggest urban forests made up of 78 per cent larch trees.

Dead or dying trees will need to be felled over the next few years and replaced by oak, rowan and beech to make the area more resilient to disease.

The forest, which is a plantation producing timber, is managed by NRW on behalf of Welsh Government.

The area attracted 253,000 visitors to its Visitor Centre in 2013 and 25,000 visited the Forest Drive. It costs £5 per car or £25 per season ticket to access the track.

Starting in November work will be carried out across 400 acres of forestry remove over infected 50,000 tonnes of timber.

In a statement the body said they will keep visitors informed of planned trail closures or diversions via their website, newsletters, social media and the visitor centre.

“No decision has been made about the future of Forest Drive yet as it will require considerable investment to repair following our felling and haulage operations,” said the statement.

“However, we are keen to reopen it if feasible and we’ll be exploring all possible funding options to do this.”