The mismanaged forests invading rural France

By Aurore Staiger

With the steady desertification of many areas of rural France has come a parallel invasion of forests reclaiming abandoned land. A combination of unsustainable and mismanaged forests, many hurriedly planted to provide timber for the post-war reconstruction, and the division of private forestland into myriads of tiny plots has resulted in disfigured landscapes and villages overrun by fir and spruce trees. The problem is nowhere more acute than in the Puy-de-Dôme département in central France, from where Aurore Staiger reports on the efforts of local officials to claim back the landscapes of the past and to reorganise woodland within a diverse and sustainable environment.

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The village of Saint-Éloy-la-Glacière is situated in the vast Massif Central region in central France, lying at an altitude of about 1,000 metres in a sub-region called Le Livradois. The permanent population of about 60 inhabitants is doubled, even tripled in the summer months by holidaymakers drawn to an environment of thick forests of fir and spruce trees.

Jean-Luc Coupat is the local mayor, a former post office worker who grew up in the village. “My parents were small farmers,” he said. “When I was small, you could see the hamlet opposite. It’s been 30 or 40 years now that you don’t see it anymore. There was a major reforestation after the war, and the landscapes became closed in.”

When he was first elected mayor, in 1994, his commune was one of the most forested in the surrounding Puy-de-Dôme département (equivalent to a county), with 90% of its 12 square kilometres covered in trees. “The branches came right up to the sides of houses, it was unliveable,” Coupat recalled. “With all these coniferous trees in lines, it’s gloomy in winter. They block roads and cut electric cables. When the forest is too predominant, it chases out mankind.” Today, the amount of land taken over by the forest has been cut down to occupy just 86% of the surface area of the commune.

Stemming an invasion: woodpiles in the village of Saint-Éloy-la-Glacière. © Nell van den Bosch Stemming an invasion: woodpiles in the village of Saint-Éloy-la-Glacière. © Nell van den Bosch

The Livradois is the most forested hill range in the Puy-de-Dôme, with 65% of its surface area covered by woods. “When I hear talk of too many forests, it is often people passing by who mention it,” said Vianney Taing, an official with the Livradois-Forez natural park authorities. “But I have also heard it talked about in my village. I agree, there are too many forests within the proximity of villages, it is an ‘attractivity-killer’. It can also limit the potential for agricultural installations.”

Mathilde Massias is the head of the local regional department for forestry services, wood and energy, the DRAAF. “The forestry laws are very protective concerning felling and the regulations are very well regarded by the wider public,” she insisted. “There is a strong attachment to forests, but the most wooded surfaces are not necessarily the most productive.”

The problem of forestry invasion affects a number of rural territories in France, and is the consequence of desertification of the countryside together with former policies that encouraged non-sustainable wood plantation and also an excessive amount of small holdings in forested land.

“Forests become too much when they are massive, when they have been grown without consideration of people and when they are not managed,” said Yves Michelin, a geographer and deputy scientific director of the VetAgroSup school of veterinary and agricultural engineering studies in the central town of Clermont-Ferrand. Michelin has studied the use of land in the region during the Napoleonic cadastral system. “A minimum of forested land was attained between the years 180 and 1850,” he said.

During that period, forests covered just 10% of the local region, where the fertile plain of Limagne was almost free of any woodland, and the chain of extinct volcanoes that make up the Massif Central was covered in heathland.  In the middle of the 19th century, the village of Saint-Éloy-la-Glacière had a population of 650, ten times more than today, while woodland accounted for just 25% of its surface area.

But reforestation picked up in the latter half of the 19th century. “It was not bad, but it was carried out in force,” explained Michelin. “There was re-plantation on common lands, the small farmers could no longer use them.” Between the two world wars, while the trend of a rural exodus grew, the first reforestations became used for collecting wood, and after World War II, when wood was needed for the reconstruction of France, a National Forest Fund, the FFN, was launched by the government in 1946 to develop the timber industry and reforestation.

The FNN campaign led to the creation of 2 million hectares of forested land in the Massif Central according to Dominique Jay, local head of an organisation dedicated to private forestland management, Forêt Privée Française. “Local politicians complained that there were too many forests, that the forests were displacing farmers,” he said. “But among the requests for [financial] aid submitted to the FNN, more than 90% of the plots of land concerned were parcels that were agriculturally abandoned. The forest was installed there where there was no longer anything left.”

The forests created by the FNN programme in the Livradois and the volcanic chain of the Massif Central have today reached maturity. Much of the woodland was never felled for timber, and in the absence of any thinning of the forests they make up a dense woodland where light barely passes. “It is the lack of management that has brought the problems to the area,” explained Vianney Taing. He recognises that the FFN programme was beneficial for local industries, “but it was mono-functional, with inconveniences for the landscape”.

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