Coal Field to Forest: “People Seem Happier”

March 20, 2018


Today is International Happiness Day.

This is not Rocket science.


Former miner Graham Knight puts his cup of tea down on the cafe table and looks out through the large glass windows. Trees frame every view; a small herd of cows meander through a copse of silver birch towards a distance lake.

“It is quite difficult to put into words what’s happened here and the impact it has had on people,” says the 73-year-old. “Perhaps the best way to think about it is that people seem … well, more happy somehow.”

The cafe is in the heart of the first new forest to be created in the UK for 1,000 years, with 8 million new trees stretching over 200 sq miles of rolling Midlands countryside.

Knight, who worked in one of the area’s many coalmines before they were shut in the late 1980s, says the forest project has transformed an area ravaged by the loss of the mines into an increasingly vibrant – and beautiful – place to live.

“Twenty-five years ago all this was an opencast mine,” he says waving his hand towards the distant hills. “Mud and dirt with hardly a tree to be seen. Now just look, people want to live here, they are proud to be from here – it has totally changed how people feel.”

The first tree in the National Forest was planted more than 25 years ago and now much of the land that spans Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire is unrecognisable.

John Everitt, the chief executive of the National Forest Company which oversees the project, says the simple act of planting trees has sparked a dizzying list of spin-off benefits, from tourism to a nascent woodland economy; from flood management to thriving wildlife; from improved health and wellbeing to housebuilding and jobs.

“We have embedded trees in and around where people live and made sure they are accessible rather than as a distant thing that they can visit occasionally. And we are seeing the benefits in all sorts of ways – and they are multiplying all the time.”

Everitt, an ecologist by training who has been heading the project for the past three years, fires off an impressive list of figures to back up his claims: the forest attracts 7.8 million visitors a year, it has brought about 5,000 new jobs with hundreds more in the pipeline, woodland industries from firewood to timber businesses are springing up, craft food and beer businesses are flourishing and thousands of people cycle or walk the hundreds of miles of pathways and trails each year.

But he says some of the most important benefits the area has witnessed are more difficult to quantify.

“People now have a sense of pride in this place and a sense of belonging and wellbeing. Children who were maybe nervous of the outdoors are benefitting from being able to walk or cycle or simply play in the woods.”

As part of the forest project Everitt wants to get a outdoor woodland classroom and a qualified forest schoolteacher into every primary school to embed what he says is a cultural change in the local community. There are also plans for a woodland festival next summer.

“So far about a quarter of the schools have these in place but soon we want all of them to offer this. Hopefully this will embed what we are doing in the next generation … they will learn to cherish it and appreciate what we have here.”

There is a growing acceptance that trees and access to countryside can benefit not only the economy and environment but also people’s sense of wellbeing and happiness. This weekend, the environment secretary, Michael Gove, said the government was committed to planting 11 million new trees in England and global leaders at the climate conference in Bonn reiterated that trees had a vital role to play in the fight against climate change. Meanwhile, in Somerset last weekend campaigners, scientists and policymakers met at a special tree conference to work out how best this can be achieved.


Life has a chance these days in Inner Mongolia’s Kubuqi Desert, around 18,600 sq km of golden sand dunes that plunge south in an arc from China’s Yellow River. Centuries of grazing had denuded the land of all vegetation, and the region’s 740,000 people were wallowing in isolated poverty. “In the past, if people built a house, they used mud and straw bricks,” sighs the 60-year-old Meng. “We had a tough life.”

But it is one that is now improving. In 1988, the Chinese firm Elion Resources Group partnered with local people and the Beijing government to combat desertification. Almost three decades later, one third of Kubuqi has been greened. Special plants have been grown to grip the shifting sands and to prevent the dunes encroaching on farms and villages.

The cattle have returned, and secondary industries have sprung up, with tourists flocking to new locally-run hotels and restaurants, eager to explore the dunes on boards and buggies. “Before, if we needed a box of matches, it meant a day’s ride to the shop by camel or donkey,” says Meng’s 39-year-old son Kedalai, who runs a thriving restaurant serving local specialties like yoghurt candy and platters of roast lamb. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates the Kubuqi Ecological Restoration Project — to give the greening of the desert its formal name — to be worth $1.8 billion over 50 years.

Kubuqi’s transformation burnishes China’s credentials as an environmental leader at a time when Washington is retreating from its international commitments. When President Donald Trump refused to reconsider U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate agreement, which he announced on June 1, France’s newly elected President Emmanuel Macron said it flat out: “Now China leads.”


6 Responses to “Coal Field to Forest: “People Seem Happier””

  1. Sir Charles Says:

    China leads… and Tramp is bored…

  2. Sir Charles Says:

    The former Republican congressman from Hawaii says he can no longer remain in a party led by Donald Trump.

    => Charles Djou: Why I’m Leaving The GOP

    But I am most disappointed by the failure of the GOP to clearly and consistently condemn Trump’s childish behavior. Sadly today, too many Republicans either applaud Trump’s tirades or greet them with silent acceptance. This leads to an implicit ratification by the GOP of Trump’s undisciplined, uninformed, and unfocused leadership as a core part of the Republican Party. This is something I cannot accept and will not be a part of.

  3. J4Zonian Says:

    Not buying it. Not without a word concerning toxicity. I’ve worked on “reclaimed” coal mine land–any mention of supposedly reclaimed mines brings back memories–the colors and smells of the acid pits and subtle signs of degradation and continuing disruption, 20 years after being planted as “forest”, which was some time after the mine closed.

    Just some of the substances left over that may be making the forest more and less than it seems: Pb, As, Cd, Zn, Mn, Cu, Ni… Many of these substances and others physically or bio-accumulate, causing problems for human and ecological health decades after the mines are closed–or just abandoned, like the 5,000 coal mines abandoned in the US with no attempt to reclaim them at all. Trying is better, but I’d like to know about the ugliness under this. I suspect a greenwash.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      You got it about the “ugliness underneath”. It might look better, and “woods” are fun to walk in, but folks should be hesitant about eating any fish, game, or veggies that grow there, and should definitely be leery of drinking well water.

      We have a coal ash dump problem here in NO VA—-ground water is badly polluted in the Possum Point area along the Potomac River. Testified recently at the EPA hearing in Alexandria VA on relaxing the CCR rules—-people there from OH, PA, NC also, with horror tales aplenty—-some folks in NC are going on 1200 days of drinking bottled water.

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