What is the price of popularity? John Leonard looks at plans to protect New Forest sites of particular sensitivity and interest.
If you go down to the woods today you can park for free. But soon visitors to the New Forest may have to pay Pounds 2 to use the more popular car parks in this, one of Britain's most pressured wildlife sites, where the tradition of unrestricted access has now come under question.
Charging for parking at certain sites is one of several Forestry Commission strategies aimed at different types of leisure user - including riders, walkers, cyclists, dog-walkers and campers - to try to manage the estimated eight million people who visit the New Forest each year.
The FC, which controls about half the forest area, is gathering responses to its recent document, A Framework for Recreation, which proposes controls to protect the region in the face of increased leisure use.
Meanwhile, the Council for National Parks has published its own report, An Agenda for Action, which includes a fresh call to make the New Forest a National Park - thus providing the same special protections available to the existing 10 parks established during the 1950s.
The organisations' policies and roles differ, but they share a concern for the future of the unique geography of the area, the last major "wild place" in the south of England.
Now bordered by the urban centres of Southampton and Bournemouth, and an easy destination for motorists using the M3 direct from London, the New Forest dates from 1079 when the land was designated as William the Conqueror's royal hunting ground. Strict laws prohibited enclosure or partitioning and the resident commoners had to work and live within a framework of local rules that have preserved the open landscape.
The term "forest", retaining this older meaning, covers a range of lowland habitats, including ancient pasture and lowland heath as well as woodland. Its most popular attractions are the deer and ponies which roam the heathlands, their free movement still protected by grazing and usage rights administered by the ancient Court of Verderers, which meets in Lyndhurst every two months. The Verderers' Court must now decide whether car park charges are acceptable to a community which still guards its old freedoms jealously.
Commoners' rights to grazing and access still arise through property occupancy in the forest. Day-to-day administration of the ancient laws and the practical aspects of managing the use of the land falls to the "Agisters", officials appointed by the Verderers' Court.
The court's decision, due in May, on the FC's proposal for car park charges is loaded with significance. Under the 1968 Countryside Act the FC nationally is required to provide for recreation, but other legislation ensures the Verderers' local consent must be obtained for the provision of leisure facilities in the forest.
Michael Seddon, the FC's recreation manager, says: "We welcome people to the New Forest but we do also recognise that some existing freedoms may not be in the best interests of the forest. Some of these freedoms might have to be slightly curtailed - we are talking about positively channelling people into the more robust areas and away from the more sensitive habitats.
"Leisure usage is a responsibility the FC has to carry here. We spend about Pounds 4.5m a year and make an income of approximately Pounds 3m. About half of that comes from tree production and about half from leisure use, chiefly campsites.
"We must not lose sight of the fact that tourism contributes a huge amount to the region - perhaps as much as Pounds 100m. But once we have explored all the positive measures to influence visitor traffic, we come to the question of whether it is right to ask certain users to contribute something back to the cost of managing this environment and the repair and conservation of it. We feel that certain user groups, as well as having a 'right', should also have a responsibility to help - and that could be financially."
At the Council for National Parks, Vicki Elcoate, director and author of the charity's report calling for a New Forest National Park, says: "National Parks receive resources from the Government for managing beautiful landscapes and promoting understanding and enjoyment of these areas. The New Forest, which is under a lot of pressure for development and tourism, would get good Government support and a higher protection status than currently. It is a very beautiful area of semi-wilderness which many people visit so we ought to guard it in this way."
For Louise Bessant, education officer at the Lyndhurst's New Forest Museum and Visitor Centre, the debate about future status is the chief question for many visiting school groups.
"We get many A-level groups using it as their field-study site. They go out each day on to the ranges, but use this centre's facilities because we provide the social history input. The chief benefit of this museum as a learning centre is that we are independent of the various agencies responsible for managing the forest and can be totally open about management issues."
She adds: "We are at a very interesting stage - who knows what a Labour government would bring, especially the impacts on the FC. If the Conservatives remain in power, who is to say the Commission would not be privatised - with all the implications that might bring to an environmentally sensitive area?" Education Officer, Forestry Commission, The Queen's House, Lyndhurst, Hants, SO43 7NH. Tel: 01703 283141 Education Officer, New Forest Museum Visitor Centre, High Street, Lyndhurst, Hants, S043 7NY. Tel: 01703 283444 Council for National Parks, 246 Lavender Hll, London SW11 1LJ. Tel: 0171 924 4077