The regional government of Castilla-La Mancha is considering selling tens of thousands of hectares of protected land to private developers for hunting and fishing, according to environmental protection groups.
Ecologists in Action and SEO/Birdlife say the region's Popular Party-controlled administration has commissioned its forestry department to prepare viability studies on around 50 sites. The proposal has already run in to opposition from civil servants, who have begun collecting signatures to prevent it going ahead. The regional government, headed by Popular Party (PP) secretary general María Dolores de Cospedal, has denied any plans to sell off publicly owned land.
Sources in the regional government say that two weeks ago, provincial forestry departments in Castilla-La Mancha were tasked with preparing reports on protected land. The regional government wanted to know if there were any existing buildings that could be converted to residential use and if fencing could be installed to keep animals to be hunted inside the land.
María Delores de Cospedal has denied any plans to sell off publicly owned land
"The removal of forest land listed in the public utility register would only happen if these lands had lost the characteristics that led them to be registered in the first place, and if those characteristics could not be recovered, or the reasons for them being registered as public land were no longer applicable," reads one of the reports prepared by Castilla-La Mancha's forestry department. "None of the forest land awaiting removal from the catalogue for sale meets any of these criteria."
In a statement, the forestry department of Castilla-La Mancha says that much of the land in question was taken over by the state from private owners in the late 19th century: "The sale of land in previous times proved a disaster for the local economy, society, and the environment. Thousands of hectares of public land sold to individuals were deforested, suffering erosion and losing their ability to protect against flooding. The forests that were not sold off and are now in a register of public use created in the 19th century have been, and continue to be, the basis for the conservation of this country's environment."
The Environment Ministry says there are 6.57 million hectares of publicly owned land in Spain, equivalent to 13 percent of the country. Legislation passed in 1859 setting up a register of publicly owned land, says such areas are: "inalienable, cannot be proscribed or transferred, and are not subject to tax." Selling such land would either require new legislation - which the government in Madrid is now working on - or proof that it no longer met the criteria that led it to be included in the register in the first place.
Miguel Ángel Hernández of Ecologists in Action says he met with the head of Castilla-La Mancha's forestry department, Javier Gómez, last week. "He confirmed that a viability study on the sale of publicly owned forest land is being carried out within the context of the regional government's efforts to raise money by selling off assets under its name." Castilla-La Mancha's public deficit is among the highest of any regional government, at around 400 million euros. The PP ousted the Socialist Party in the regional elections of 2011, and began implementing deep spending cuts and selling off assets.
Castilla-La Mancha´s public deficit is among the highest of any region
Hernández says that among the areas likely to be sold off are three in Toledo that the regional government stripped of protected status in October of 2012 and can now be used for hunting: Quinto de Don Pedro y Cardeñosa, Nava de Don Diego and el Dehesón del Encinar, in the Tiétar Valley. Vast swathes of Toledo and Ciudad Real province in Castilla-La Mancha are already private hunting areas, with no public right of way.
The regional government of Castilla-La Mancha owns 228 forests covering 171,228 hectares. Ecologists in Action says the regional government wants to sell up to a third of them. The price would vary considerably: between 1,500 euros and 6,000 euros per hectare.
"The sale of this land would mean the destruction of decades of work, and would not be good business," says the organization.
Margarita Hernández of the Forestry College says selling off the protected areas will not be easy. "If these lands are simply owned by the local municipality, there is no real problem. But if they are included in a register of public-use land, there will be a report on why the land is being protected, whether it is for environmental reasons, or because of the flora or fauna therein... In which case, the regional government would have to provide reasons for removing them from the list."
Jaime Lamo de Espinosa, a former agriculture minister and now head of a construction company, has been pushing regional governments to sell publicly owned land as a way to reduce their debts. In late 2011, shortly after the PP won the general elections, he said selling a third of such land would bring in between 1.4 and 2.4 billion euros.
The regional government of Catalonia sold a 90-hectare estate in the Aiguamolls de l'Empordà park, in Girona, in 2012. In the same year, in Andalusia, the Socialist Party administration put 20,000 hectares of farmland it owned up for sale.