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France's forests

J. Gadant

Jean Gadant is Secretary General of the Organizing Committee of the Tenth World Forestry Congress.

The Organizing Committee of the Tenth World Forestry Congress has prepared a description of the state of France's forests.

Our statistics show that France has 14 million ha of forest. A further 8 million ha are found in the overseas territories, mainly in French Guyana. Overall, one-quarter of France's territory is under forest cover. The varied configuration of our forest heritage is reflected in our wealth of climates, which range from mild and humid oceanic conditions through to the extremes of the continental land mass and arid Mediterranean and harsh mountain climates, and in our geological diversity ancient granite soils, dry limestone and fertile alluvial loam.

More than ecological constants, however, the passage of time and successive generations of foresters and forest users have left their indelible mark on the physiognomy of our forests. Today, forestry must look to its past and discover how these forests originated and the way in which they evolved.

A brief sketch of the past

Total tree cover in France has increased as a result of policies favouring tree planting and spontaneous regeneration on abandoned agricultural lands

Two thousand years ago, France was covered by a dense, inhospitable forest. Neolithic societies tried to live in harmony with the forest by practicing hunting and gathering. The forest long remained a hostile and mysterious place, unexploited and cut off from the civilization which would later expand at its expense. Indeed, the word "forest" comes from the Latin, foris, meaning "outside".

Then came the advent and development of agriculture, while the population began to increase. Agriculture now took the place of the forest's meagre food production. This was the start of farmers' Herculean combat to drive the forest back with their ploughs and herds. Forest clearing, which occurred on a particularly vast scale during the Middle Ages, was to come to symbolize a victory for civilization - a fight against hunger which relegated the forest to the least fertile lands.

What forest was spared from clearing for cropland was converted for grazing or used to meet the growing need for fuelwood to heat homes and fuel the first factories. Looking back only two centuries (the age of an old oak), 8 million ha of forest - almost one-half of today's area were degraded, overexploited and burnt-out.

It is interesting and even reassuring to reflect on this today. The alarmist reports we read about the appalling degradation of tropical forests are exactly the same as those expressed then. The causes, too, are basically the same: population growth, poverty and the need for cropland.

The slow recovery of the forest

Amid great disorder, the forest began its recovery with the promulgation of the inevitably harsh Forest Law of 1827 and the establishment of a forest protection authority headed by the forest custodians. Recovery involved major reforestation (particularly in the Aquitaine massif and Sologne) and the exemplary work of montane rehabilitation. The objectives were ecological and entirely geared toward protecting the environment. The aim was not to produce wood, but to reestablish forest cover on eroded slopes and control torrents whose floods were devastating lowlands.

The forestry work of the nineteenth century was resumed after the Second World War on the initiative of forest owners and with financing from the National Forestry Fund, established in 1946. The Fund was replenished through a tax levied on forest and sawmill products, and earmarked for production forest investments. It served to make the country's forests self-financing and their area grew by 2 million ha in 40 years while their condition was greatly improved.

In the face of the rising foreign trade deficit of the timber subsector, the economic aim of these plantations was to upgrade the lands left untilled as rural people drifted to urban areas, and to produce wood and create jobs in underprivileged areas. Because present day Europe faces a major timber shortage, and crop surpluses are once again laying more farmland idle, the opportunity appears ripe for forest expansion.

Among the broad-leaved species, oak is dominant

Successive, ambitious reforestation policies and spontaneous afforestation of abandoned farmland have increased forest cover to 25 percent of the total land area (against 15 percent in 1880 and 18 percent in 1900). France's heritage of 14 million ha today comprises forests of greatly varying quality: good, productive and accessible forests account for about 10 million ha of the total. But there is no reason why large, unexploited areas of woody wildland - maquis, garrigue and copse - could not be put to other ecological and leisure uses.

French forests today

French forests have four main features: they are unevenly distributed throughout the territory; they are heterogeneous in terms of stand types and species; they are multipurpose; and their ownership status is highly diversified.

Unequal distribution

Forest distribution is very unequal throughout France. Forest cover exceeds 40 percent in four regions: the Jura and Vosges mountain ranges, the Provence Alps, the Massif Central and Aquitaine (the highest figure - 60 percent - is in Les Landes), but less than 10 percent of the western departments of Brittany and Normandy are forested (the lowest rate 5 percent - occurs in Vendee).

Forest expansion through afforestation has been greatest in Brittany (still the least-wooded region), Auvergne, Limousin and the southern Alps. Reforestation was at first random on land made available at the initiative of individual owners. In some areas, abandoned in the rural-urban exodus, forest regrowth was excessive and sometimes chaotic. The advance of the forest over farmland had to be regulated by a ban on planting. On the other hand, the retreat of the forest cover near towns and in highly developed tourist areas also had to be checked: here the approach was to regulate clearing and confer protective status on forest areas as part of town planning efforts, and so forth. Gradually it was realized that it would be better to plan the advance or retreat of the forest as part ot overall development and land rehabilitation.

French forests vary widely from region to region: sumptuous silver fir forests in the Vosges mountains; flaming red pine forests in Aquitaine; dry, sweet-smelling, but fire-prone marquis and garrigue in Provence; world-renowned oak and high beech forests: with copse and undergrowth reclaiming the lands abandoned by human beings.

Stand diversity

The fact that France boasts such forest diversity is primarily because of its range of climates and soils, but silvicultural techniques also play a part:

· coppice and coppice with standards, which in the past satisfied an enormous demand for fuelwood as well as artisanal timber requirements;

· broad-leaved species which have progressed significantly in the wake

· conifer plantations and rows of poplars to supply the timber for industry and reduce the major wood deficit.

These silvicultural interventions have altered the forest landscape. But though the human hand has marked the face of the forests, they still have a natural feel, and the old, broad-leaved, Celtic forest species continue to prevail.

Classified according to their main usage, three types of forest predominate: production forests (Vosges, Aquitaine); protection forests (mountain areas); peri-urban forests (Île de France). The National Forestry Inventory has mapped this diversity, dividing France into 30 homogeneous forest regions. The smallest, in the Pyrenees, covers 12 000 ha and the largest - the immense Aquitaine massif covers 1 100 000 ha.

Species diversity

While France cannot claim the wealth of tropical forest ecosystems, the floral diversity of its forests is nonetheless impressive. The Forestry Inventory lists 66 native woody species, yet eight alone (four broad-leaved and four coniferous species) account for 90 percent of forest trees. A further 16 species were introduced some time ago with varying degrees of success, enriching the composition of our forests: Douglas fir, Atlas oak, Robinia, Austrian pine, Japanese larch, Vancouver fir, etc. Douglas firs are more numerous than spruce in softwood plantations.

Over the past 30 years, poplars have become an important species of forest conversion and reforestation policies; and

Broad-leaved species dominate overall. Oak is king, followed by beech, hornbeam, chestnut, and the cohort of hardwood species. Numerous poplar stands have been planted over the past 30 years to meet industry's growing needs. Among the softwoods, maritime and forest pines dominate, followed by fir and spruce.

Diversity of functions

The Forestry Inventory gives a very wide definition of forest: it must provide at least a 10 percent cover, i.e. 500 trees/ha: with copse included from the age of five years. One indication of the extent to which French policy is aware of the diversity of forest functions is the addition of highly productive high forest to natural forest areas as a result of growing recognition of their ecological and social importance. Our society is becoming increasingly and rightfully demanding with regard to forests. It has become common to cite the three basic uses of the forest: economic, ecological and social. Forests must now be a protective cover for soils; a sponge that regulates the flow of springs; a landscape that provides scenery; a game reserve; a wood-producing plant; a place for strolls and fun; a valuable gene pool; an oxygen-producing lung; an enormous air-conditioner; and a dust and pollutant filter.

Nature lovers demand that the environmental and social aspects of the forest be favoured. Economists would like this heritage to contribute more to economic activities and employment. Foresters have to contend with all these conflicting interests; they know that improvement felling and regenerating exploitation is necessary to maintain the prime beauty of forests.

Types of forest ownership

Three types of owners share this legacy: the State (Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry) owns 2 500 forests covering 1 700 000 ha, i.e. 12 percent of the total forest area; 11 000 (out of 36 000) towns and villages own forests covering 2 500 000 ha, i.e. 18 percent of the total; and private forests, which have increased steadily in an ever-more fragmented form since the French revolution and which today cover 10 million ha.

The social function of forests is important in France

The origins of State forest assets are diverse: ancient Crown forests and Church properties; vast reforestation efforts on expropriated lands in the past century; and tracts purchased from private owners. Most communal forests arose from rural communities' user rights over forests belonging to the Crown, nobility or clergy.

A public survey, published in 1980, put the number of private forest owners at 3 million, sharing some 10 million ha-an indication of the scale of fragmentation and a detriment to good management. Efforts to enhance the value of these forests range from highly intensive wood production programmes to total neglect. But this is a rather sweeping statement which needs qualifying. While it is true that two-thirds of these owners hold less than 1 ha (8 percent of the total), almost one-half of the 10 million ha is well managed by owners who spare no effort to improve organization and productivity.

Forest management

The 4.2 million ha of state forests - one third of France's forest assets - are managed by the National Office of Forestry, a public body established in 1965 under a very protective forestry regime.

Private forests, on the other hand, are managed by their owners who may, if necessary, seek the assistance of an expert or management cooperative, provided they agree to apply certain legal provisions concerning forest protection (the ban on clear-felling in some areas; permits for clearing and felling; etc.); and to establish basic management plans (this applies to forests of more than 25 ha held by a single owner). Private forest owners are served by 17 Regional Forest Property Centres. These public bodies were established in 1963 to extend forest management techniques, encourage cooperation among owners, prepare regional production guidelines and approve the owners' basic management plans. Owners have, furthermore, grouped themselves into unions and set up their own development and training bodies.

Nature lovers may be repelled by the cutting of forest trees, but improvement thinnings and regeneration fellings are necessary to maintain the full beauty and health of forests. Fellings are programmed, in time and space, over a period of 15 to 20 years, as part of management programmes for state forests and simple management plans for private forests, which come under the 1963 law. These plans and programmes are based on tree stand inventories. Their aim is to quantify the volume of wood to be cut as well as balance harvest with growth, maintaining constant volumes of standing trees and steady yields. There are in fact two types of bad management: overcutting, which erodes production capital; and undercutting, which produces overaged stands and threatens natural regeneration.

Forest products

About 40 million m³ of wood is harvested annually: 20 million m³ of timber (supplies have increased constantly in recent decades); 10 million m³ of industrial wood, mainly pulp for the paper and panel industry; and about 10 million m³ Of wood for fuel and charcoal, for which the statistics are rather vague.

However, France's annual wood consumption is about 50 million m³, and so 10 million m³ are imported either as logs (tropical broad-leaved species), sawnwood (tropical and softwood species), or wood-based products (furniture, pulp for paper, and paper).

Sawmilling holds an intermediate but strategic position between forest exploitation and the wood industry, since it is the first stage of timber processing (timber accounts for 90 percent of the value of marketed wood). Sawmills, furthermore, convert 90 percent of the timber supply into sawnwood, with the remainder earmarked for slicing and peeling.

Finally, edgings (accounting for 50 percent of timber logs), produced by the sawmills, are an important input for the pulpwood industries.

Some traditional outlets for timber are on the decline: railway sleepers, mine shaft beams, electricity and telephone poles, etc. Others, especially the construction sector, are stagnating despite the advantages of wood. But new, highly performing wood-based products are appearing such as fibreboard, particleboard, butt-jointed board, plywood and mouldings. Glue-laminated techniques, which are used for long-span roof beams, harmonious curves and sophisticated carpentry, are also making good progress.

France's entire wood chain (all activities which depend on the forest and wood) comprises a highly complex sector. Some 50 000 companies of all sizes employ about 550 000 people in more than 50 different wood related jobs - from nurseries to wood industries.

French forests obviously suffer from the problems so clamorously reported in the press: air pollution; forest fires in the Mediterranean region; an increasing number of climatic disasters (drought in 1976; devastating storms in the Massif Central in 1982, in Vosges in 1984, and in Brittany in 1987; cold spells in 1985); insect invasions (leaf-eating caterpillars), cryptogamic diseases (Dutch elm disease); etc. But behind all these well-known problems lies the fact that French forests have been remarkably successful. They have doubled in area, and the volume of standing wood has quadrupled over the last 200 years. According to the National Forestry Inventory, which monitors forest surface areas, composition and output, they have never been so extensive or so productive. The forest grows bigger and richer each year, and still remains underexploited.

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