Meet the creator of France’s newest national park
The Connexion speaks to Hervé Parmentier, director of the Public Interest Group that has spent the last five years setting up France’s newest National Park
The 11th National Park in France was created this winter after 10 years in the planning to represent the deciduous forests of France, which had not been represented until now in any of the other existing parks.
The Parc National des Forêts de Champagne et Bourgogne, with 50 million trees, is on the plateau de Langres, straddles the Côte d’Or and Haute-Marne, covers 250,000 hectares, contains 127 communes, and is home to 28,000 inhabitants.
Why was this region chosen ahead of the other 17 options to become France’s newest national park?
It was chosen because it was found to be the most representative and the most remarkable example of a forest in France.
It is the most representative because it is typical of the forest that covers large parts of the north-east of France. It is absolutely remarkable for several reasons.
Firstly, because it is one of the rare forests which has been present since before the Revolution.
After the Revolution, forests were cut down for agriculture, and for timber, which was used for heating and for building homes and ships.
There were only 7million hectares of forest, whereas now there are 15million hectares.
Secondly, some of it is so old we find conditions that existed just after the period of the last Ice Age.
Thirdly, it has extraordinary examples of animal and plant life. We have the rare Lady’s Slipper orchid, the wildcat and 20% of the French population of black storks, which appreciate the calm of the region and the huge beeches for nesting.
There are also healthy populations of deer which appreciate the rich meadowland. Water is abundant, with around one hundred springs, 694kilometres of rivers and streams and unspoilt marshland.
It is also an area rich in human history and culture.
Some of the first monks built their monasteries here and there are traces of agriculture, forestry and metal work throughout the ages.
People working in forestry have said they are worried about their future in a National Park.
A National Park is a way of preserving an area. However, one of the main economic activities here is forestry and we have to find a balance between the two interests.
Commercial forestry will continue, but it will be managed so that the oldest forests will be preserved.
We have ambitions to change the ways trees are cut down, because present methods go against nature.
Now, we think the job has been well done when the whole forest is cleared, and dead trees and old branches are removed. An oak can grow for 700 years, but we tend to cut them after 200 years, when we think they are at the right maturity for floor boards and beams.
But this means we no longer have very old trees. When we have them, they shelter bats in their broken branches, and as they die and rot, they are a home for fungus, mushrooms and lichen.
If we keep old trees we will improve the biodiversity of the forest. So we want to allow trees to get older and to die naturally. This means 10% of the forest will be put aside and will not be able to be used commercially.
Woodsmen are worried they will have less timber, but we are convinced that managing woodland differently will make it more resistant in the long term.
Does this mean there will be areas of the forest where the public and woodsmen cannot go?
Yes. A National Park is a huge territory and at its heart will be a réserve intégrale made up of 3,000hectares of untouched ancient woodland only accessible to researchers, who will go there to study the evolution of the fauna and flora in a totally natural setting.
The trees will be allowed to grow and die without any human intervention and will be really wild. This is an experiment unique in France and, no doubt, the whole of Europe. We will be able to relearn how a forest functions.
We may also discover new species, which may lead to new technologies or medicines. For example, Velcro was invented from observing the way carnivorous plants open and close. There will be other woodland “islands” throughout the park which won’t be used commercially so they can be left to mature.
In France there are 54 Parcs naturels régionaux and 11 Parc nationals. What is the difference between the two?
A National Park is managed by the state and takes into account national and European strategies for the preservation of nature and the development of biodiversity.
The Regional Natural Parks are managed at regional and commune level and while they look at ways of doing things better, introducing sustainable development and having good management of natural resources, they do not have the additional regulations and protection found in the National Parks.
A National Park is in three zones: the aire d’adhésion which includes all the communes which agree to adhere to the charter; the coeur which covers 23% and where there are regulations covering economic exploitation; and the réserve intégrale which is the most highly protected zone.
You expect to attract more tourists. Why will they want to come?
It is an area that is still unknown to the general public in France and it has a great many treasures to reveal.
At present most of the 30,000 tourists who come every year are people who have left the region to work in the cities and come back to revisit their roots and may have a second home here.
We think that in two or three years we will have at least 100,000 visitors. It is astonishing that there are 22million inhabitants who live less than two-and-a-half hours from the park.
We are not far from Paris, Brussels, Lyon and Nancy. There is a huge opportunity to welcome tourists, above all for short-stay holidays.
My children live in Paris, my wife works in the south and at present I work here, and this is a good central place for us all to meet up and I think we will attract families who want to enjoy its peace and quiet together.
However, we must make sure that there are structures in place to accommodate them, without destroying the region we want to protect.
There are 2,000kms of footpath for walkers already in the area. But these are signposted differently in the two departments, so we will have to introduce a new park-wide system.
We will aim to have fewer footpaths, but manage them better, and make sure there are tourist services, like accommodation and food nearby for walkers.
We will develop activities and workshops, so that someone could go into the woods and collect truffles, learn to cook them, visit the local cave, because there are good wines here, visit cultural sites and have quiet time for reading. There is a huge demand for this type of tourism.
It was decided to turn this region into a National Park 10 years ago in 2009, and you took over as Director five years ago. Why has it taken so long?
It is a huge project which will change many things for this area, so we have taken time to make sure we do it properly.
It is one of the poorest regions in France with an average annual income of €18,300 per household compared to €22,000 for the rest of the country.
It has the oldest population with 5% more over 65s than in other areas. In the past 10 years it has lost 7% employment and 10% of its salaried population, and we want to do something to stop this decline.
Once we had decided on our plan to preserve the area and improve the economy, there were several stages of consultation and negotiation.
We spent two years alone just talking to people at national level, from the government and from the National Parks and also presenting our ideas to local people and groups representing the hunters, woodsmen, farmers etc.
We met people from 250 communes, departments and regions and then there was a public enquiry presented to 28,000 inhabitants.
In June 2019, we presented our final project and it was approved by 91% of votes. We know there will always be between 10 and 20% who will never be satisfied and nothing we can do will change their mind.
But we think we have found a balance between protection and development of the area.
Is it a region you knew personally before you came here?
No. I was born near Paris, and my first job was in the Alps. I worked in forestry for 20 years, and then in economic development for the National Parks.
I then became director of this project which has been an extraordinary adventure. More than 350 people worked with me to set up the Park, and the day it became reality was a special day for us.
Will you be Director of the Park?
No. That would be a mistake. I think when you create something you need to know to hand it over to others. There are many other adventures for me to get involved in.
Is it a region you have grown to love?
When I arrived here I knew very little about this region and I will leave it with a heavy heart. There are so many beautiful things to discover. You live at a different rhythm. You can take your time, and it is a privilege to have the chance to look at nature in this way. It is another type of beauty.
When you are in the Mercantour Park in the Alps or the Pyrénées National Park they are extraordinary and dramatic. But here it is much more intimate, you walk slowly, there is greater subtlety and there is just as much enchantment, joy and wonderment as in the other national parks.
Untamed wilderness idea borrowed from America
The 11 National Parks are, in chronological order, la Vanoise, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes (1963); Port Cros, Var (1963), les Pyrénées (1967), les Cévennes (1970), les Ecrins in Hautes-Alpes and Isère(1973), le Mercantour , Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and Alpes-Maritimes (1979), la Guadeloupe (1989), Réunion (2007), la Guyane, French Guiana (2007), les Calanques, Bouches-du-Rhône (2012), and the Parc National de forêts, Côte d’Or and Haute-Marne (November 2019).
The idea for a national park came from America, and Yellowstone was the first in the world to be labelled as a national park in 1872.
An artist, George Catlin (1796-1872) who specialised in paintings of native American Indians, had suggested in 1832 that the wonders of nature should be protected “by some great protecting policy of government... in a magnificent park... A nation’s park containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty!”.
Europe found it more difficult to find such huge wild open spaces, and the first French attempts were created in the 1920s in the then colonies of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.
The first one on mainland France was the Parc national du Pelvoux (1923) which later became part of the Parc national des Ecrins in 1973. In 1960 came the first law governing national parks, which wanted to ensure that human activities would work in harmony with the protection of nature. This was updated in the law of April 14, 2006 which decreed that a Parc national was to be made up of several parts, including the heart, adhesion zone and protected zone; a project, represented by a charter, and the people who ran it and lived in it.
It planned for three new parks to be created in six years: The Parc national de La Réunion (2007), the Parc amazonien de Guyane (2007) and the Parc national des Calanques (2012) and it launched the project for the Parc national de forêts, completed by the opening of the National Parc des Forêts de Champagne et Bourgogne in November 2019.