At France’s newest national park, it’s all about the trees

A refuge to 50 million trees, the Parc National de Forêts is a model of sustainable tourism.

By Mary Winston Nicklin
Published 2 Sept 2020, 10:44 BST
Just three hours from Paris, France’s 11th national park protects a unique lowland leafy forest ecosystem.

Just three hours from Paris, France’s 11th national park protects a unique lowland leafy forest ecosystem.

Photograph by Philippe Desmazes, AFP/Getty Images

After a 3,500-mile migration from the West African coast, the black stork sets down in France’s Parc National de Forêts, building its enormous nests high in 40-foot oaks, far from human eyes. The bird’s a fitting emblem for France’s newest national park: Not only does this protected species represent the biodiversity of these mossy woods, but its discreet habits also reflect the character of a place that’s long been overlooked.

The nearby vineyards of Champagne and Burgundy ignite the imaginations of wine lovers around the world. But the richly forested Plateau de Langres—nearly 600,000 acres of which were named France’s 11th national park last November—is rarely visited.

That may change. Only three hours from Paris, it’s the closest park to the capital. And though the area has been plagued by rural exodus since the 1950s, the park’s charter includes a plan for local economic development focused on ecotourism and forestry research.

“The ‘national park’ label allows people to change their vision of the territory, elevating it and giving it value,” says Claire Colliat, mayor of the village of Saint-Loup-sur-Aujon, on the park’s eastern border. Colliat helped champion the park’s creation through the grassroots Oui au Parc campaign. “Residents now recognise its incredible wealth and resources: natural, cultural, human.”

In fact, the Parc National de Forêts provides a blueprint for how to create national parks today. It was a decade-long political process of negotiations with farmers, hunters, town councils, and local nonprofits—not without resistance.

The roots of an ecosystem

Europe is home to some 460 national parks. Building on a conservation tradition begun in the United States and adapted by Sweden, Switzerland, and Spain in the early 20th century, each country has developed its own unique park system.

France’s first national park, Vanoise, was created in 1963. Now 10 percent of mainland France—a country roughly the size of Texas—is protected as national park land. Free and open to the public, these parks do not displace original inhabitants. Instead, a “zone of adhesion,” comprised of villages and communes that embrace conservation values, circles the park’s core.

The Parc National de Forêts provides habitats for many rare and protected species, including the black stork.

Photograph by Fabrice Cahez, Minden Pictures

In 2007, a national environment roundtable decided on a plan to add new parks by choosing areas representative of the country’s emblematic ecosystems. After a two-year, country-wide search, the French Ministry of Ecology chose the future Parc National de Forêts to safeguard lowland leafy forest.

“The forest had been here since the Middle Ages,” says Sylvain Boulangeot, president of a local tourism office and manager of the nonprofit Maison de la Forêt, which offers orchid walks and tree-climbing activities. “The reason it wasn’t completely taken over by agriculture is because of the rocky soil. This limestone forces the trees to grow slowly, so the trunks of these 200-year-old oaks are not thick, but the strong wood is prized by barrel makers.”

Those trees anchor the ecosystem, providing habitat for birds, bats, insects, and mushrooms. Historically, famous naturalists studied on this plateau. And now the national park—dense with 50 million trees—is slated to become a European centre for forest studies. Its core protected reserve is the continent’s second largest and will remain completely untouched, a laboratory for the study of biodiversity and adaptation to climate change.

“Because there wasn’t big agriculture here historically, the biodiversity was preserved,” explains Marion Delforge, the park’s manager of sustainable development.

A prime example? The Marais Tuffeaux, a unique complex of limestone-layered marsh microhabitats dating to the last Ice Age. These marshes also contain plants usually found in the high-altitude Alps, such as alpine toadflax and marsh gentian. For centuries, residents have used many of these plants for medicinal purposes.

But the park’s star flora is a rare, spectacular orchid: the sabot de Vénus, or Venus slipper. At its namesake restaurant in Bure-les-Templiers, chef Arole Dupaty shows off the area’s edible delights, from foraged herbs and locally farmed trout to carrots glazed with honey from the restaurant’s beehives. Jamais on the menu? The protected orchid itself. Fines for picking it are up to 15,000 euros.

Dupaty—whose business also offers truffle hunting, catering, and guest lodging—is just one example of how locals run in harmony with the park’s mission of conservation.

The human element

During park negotiations, Delforge met with some 60 individual farmers. Despite initial resistance, the agricultural community came to understand the park’s goal of sustainable land management. By July 2020, 95 different towns had voted to become part of the park.

“There’s a different mentality now in the creation of a national park,” Delforge says. “[We’re] working closely with local actors on conservation and respectful agricultural practices.”

Burgundy’s picturesque Châtillon-sur-Seine is the largest town in the park.

Photograph by Parkerphotography, Alamy Stock Photo

Humanity has been present in this area since the Neolithic period. In 1953, archaeologists unearthed the spectacular Iron Age tomb of the Lady of Vix. Visitors can check out the “Vix Treasure”—including the era’s largest bronze vase—at a dedicated museum in Châtillon-sur-Seine, the biggest town in the national park.

Today a host of entrepreneurs are sharing their love of this land through ecotourism operations. Florence Guerin opened a forest therapy practice in Recey-sur-Ource. Beekeeper and yoga instructor Annette Dulion leads yoga sessions to the sound of buzzing bees in Busseaut. Michel Vuillermet and his wife Esther run Donkey’âne, a farm where visitors can participate in donkey hikes—including self-guided, multiday camping trips.

“We locals hadn’t necessarily been conscious of the area’s richness,” says Nathalie Pierre, an area native who transformed a 19th-century mansion into the elegant accommodations at La Villa 1892. “Now, the national park casts the area in a different light. New jobs will hopefully keep young people here, and I think entrepreneurial outsiders will also be an engine for local development.”

Mathieu Bouchard is one of them. A former baker in Dijon, he relocated to Rochefort-sur-Brévon and opened a bed-and-breakfast with his wife. “It’s an incredible opportunity to live in a national park,” he says. “The forest is my second home; it’s where I go to think, to reflect. And the starry nights, with little light pollution, are amazing.”

“This is the new El Dorado,” says Fabian Ansault, an artist who run Les Z’uns possible, a “curiosity cabinet” museum and café on the banks of the Seine.

Despite a slow start to tourism because of the coronavirus pandemic, the new national park is spurring optimism and energy in the area.

“A decade from now, my hope is that new families will have settled here, opening new businesses and activities,” says Claire Colliat. “I hope that we will be able to welcome generations of children, and their parents, so that they can have a unique experience discovering the forest and understanding how our future is linked to respect for our environment.”

Mary Winston Nicklin is a freelance writer and editor based in Paris. Find her on Twitter.

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