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WEE SHERWOOD FOREST MAY RISE AGAIN

SHARE WEE SHERWOOD FOREST MAY RISE AGAIN

Sherwood Forest, once the fabled haunt of socially conscious thieves and a villainous sheriff, is hardly big enough to hide Friar Tuck these days.

Timbering, farming, coal mining and urban sprawl have cut the once majestic broad-leaf forest down to a single stand of ancient woodland, barely enough for a decent chase scene. In fact, a walk through the wood takes a mere 20 minutes with nary a glimpse of deer."People come here expecting more. The forest has all but disappeared," said Austin Brady, director of the Sherwood Initiative, a government-financed program set up to replant and protect the forest.

Brady hopes to restore the forest, but his success will depend on persuading private landowners to plant trees.

A single stand of ancient woodland covering less than three-quarters of a square mile is all that remains of the patchwork of forest and heath that once stretched 20 miles from Nottingham to Work-sop in a swath 5 to 8 miles across.

At its heart is a visitors center with trails that lead to sprawling 1,000-year-old Major Oak, where Robin Hood and his Merry Men were reputed to have hidden from the Sheriff of Nottingham.

"I can just imagine Kevin Costner or Errol Flynn jumping out of that tree," said Ian Cameron, 39, of Dearborn, Mich., one of the million visitors a year.

Cameron said he was surprised by the size of one of the world's most famous forests. "I thought it would be big, real big. But it's still nice."

The Sherwood Initiative plans to spend nearly $40 million to replant oaks, silver birches and yews of Sherwood Forest. Funds will come from the government's Forestry Commission and private donations, Brady said.

Brady, 33, hopes that by the end of his life, new forest will have grown to nearly 4 square miles and more than 2.5 million trees will have been planted.

"The new trees will first be carefully planted in strategic locations around roads and footpaths to create avenues of forest," he said. "These avenues will in turn connect larger areas of forest."

The Sherwood Initiative already is growing seedlings for planting.

"To ensure the new forest is still Sherwood, we are cloning oaks and birch cuttings from trees in the existing forest," Brady said. Those seedlings should be resistant to local diseases and shouldn't infect old stands with new diseases.

The ugly slag heaps and scarred earth of six closed coal mines will eventually be returned to woodland, Brady said.

The project has the backing of the County Council of Nottinghamshire, 150 miles northwest of London. Tourism is now tied with textiles as the No. 1 contributor to the local economy - each worth 25,000 jobs and $370 million in annual revenue.

"Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest are pivotal in our tourism campaign," said James Ber-res-ford, the county's assistant director for tourism.

Whether the reforestation program succeeds depends largely on whether the biggest owners of open land - farmers - agree to plant trees instead of crops.

"It's right that we should start doing it, but we can't afford to do a lot of it," said farmer Robert Bealby.

The Forestry Commission pays farmers the equivalent of $825 to plant an acre with broad-leaf trees, plus $160 an acre annually for 15 years.