The forest of Alexandre Dumas, by Régine Touffait

Do you know Alexandre Dumas??? The Three Musketeers??? Most probably!!! But I think most of you ignore that Monsieur Dumas was born in Villers-Cotterêts, a little town situated 72km north-east of Paris. This charming shire is surrounded by one the largest national forests and some of the author’s intrigues took place there. I was not born in Villers, but it was where I grew up and I still carry in my heart bike rides, with my friends, in the surrounding villages during summer holidays. Hence, this article is to lead you through ‘la Forêt de Retz’.
Being no exception to the rule, the Retz Forest carries, like every forest in the world, its share of myths, legends and strange characters. There truly is a protective fairy of the Retz Forest, she only misses wings on her back and you can bet that with all her responsibilities she would love a strong pair. Mme Régine Touffait will tell you, behind every prosperous forest, hides an inflexible management and the strictest exploitation regime.

 

Mme Régine Touffait

 

 

Mme Touffait, who are you and what do you do?

I followed university training in natural resources management and then worked for the coast conservation in Caen. I undertook recruitment by competitive examination to become a Water and Forests Engineer. For a little background, this training began in 1346 under the reign of Philippe of Valois and was called the Water Corps and Forests Masters. I succeeded and once my training was completed, I was given the responsibility of the Retz Forest and I am now working for the ONF (The National Forest Organisation).

What is the ONF, its role and activities?

The principal mission of the ONF is to increase the productivity of French forests whilst minimizing the impact forestry practices have on biodiversity and the health of our forests.
Numerous management plans, laws and principles of administration of the forest constitute the foundation of the ONF. To protect natural habitats that are too fragile to assume a commercial function, the ONF centralizes profits, made on certain sites, to later allot money equitably to the entire country. This is the case of forests situated in mountainous regions that are not exploitable due to elevated risks of avalanche and erosion. They only assume a limited number of functions, such as biodiversity conservation, trekking and scientific research.
The ONF provides technical advice to shires in the management of their forests. It institutes management practices, authorizes timber to be felled, but also follows timber post harvest. For instance, only trees that have been marked can be felled and there are strict controls to follow up on the cuts, etc. In France, 4.4 million hectares of forest belongs to local collectivities, this represents 25% of the forests in the country. However, 70% is privately owned, considerably fragmented and composed of softwood, mostly pines. Consequently, the management and the protection of biodiversity is difficult. Softwoods are planted because they offer a ‘short term’ return. It takes 40 to 60 years to harvest pines, against 180 years minimum before you can harvest oak plantations.
The ONF produces documents to set objectives for long term production. It often has a negative image, yet it is the guardian of the natural heritage of French people. Its mission is to transmit to future generations not only a healthy forest, but to put in place a system for durable management that takes into account soil protection and biodiversity.
The ONF offers financial support to diverse associations and raises the consciousness of local populations of the need to protect our heritage.
I would also add and underline the fact that the principles of durable management are directly attributable to woodsmen, both past and present. Indeed, we are all passionate, we love nature and we take its preservation at heart. Nevertheless, love only, as we all know, does not suffice and well planned management is essential to run long term projects.

 

Could you tell us more about the Retz Forest?

The forest stretches out 13 400 hectares and belongs to diverse shires. However, it is the responsibility of the ONF to put in place an appropriate regime of management. This regime is based on a combination of rules and regulations that ensures a long term exploitation of our forests. There are different plans: long term (up to 230 years), medium term (20 to 50 years) and short term, such as annual activities. [Retour chariot]In 1214, under the reign of Philippe Auguste the forest was added to the royal domain. Its shape and size has remained practically unchanged since. Back then and up until recently, the forest was used for firewood and to feed pigs.

(the map located behing Mme Touffait shows the county and the green areas represent the Retz Forest)

What happens when a tree has to be cut down? What is the timber used for?

Once, it was decided that a plot was ready to be taken down each tree is marked with a special hammer bearing the armorial of the ONF. This hammer acts as legal evidence and trees that do not bear this seal remain untouched. Young trees are often numerous and foresters use a special paint to identify those that are to be felled. Bear in mind that controls are rather strict and operators are forbidden to work outside their plot area.  

 

 

 

 

 

Young trees are used in the paper industry, in reconstituted products (chipboard) and firewood. The objective of the Retz Forest is to get superior timber quality for carpentry, joinery and manufactured oak barrels.We predominantly have beech trees, which is not suitable for outdoor use. Research is carried out to increase the use of beech in outdoor situations.
Wood is a renewable material and its demand is constantly increasing. In order to keep up, we maintain what is called a balance of age categories. In other words, each age group is represented equally on the entire forest; we have an equal number of hectares of 0-20 year old trees, 21-40 year old and so on. This allows us to ensure a constant supply of timber for different industries and also to preserve our biodiversity.

(Imagine the headache for the foresters, as a beech grove is harvested every 160 years and an oak grove every 220 years. Not too bad especially when most of us do not know what we are going to do for the week-end. Mrs Touffait already knows what will happen within the next 250 years.)

 

Being exploited for commercial purposes, is the Retz forest threatened?

Today, the forest is under no threat and it is in good health. It is not perishing and not infected by diseases. Its biodiversity is incredible and the ONF is doing its best for its conservation, by running projects such as the protection of bat colonies. The bats are filmed using infra red cameras and people can observe them on the net at anytime.
Not all the trees are to be felled. Some are kept, as they are essentialal to the survival of some species of birds and insects. Entire parcels are left to quietly senesce. When we are restricted for space and cannot create such parcels, the ONF creates corridors. These corridors will enable species that are dependent on old trees for survival, to communicate and reproduce. As soon as a tree is inhabited by a protected species, it is left and carries a label to raise public awareness.

 

(Read: 'Tree conserved for the biodiversity')
 

The forest soils are rich and loamy, which is fantastic for tree growth, but it also means that the passage of logging equipment will inevitably lead to soil compaction. Fortunately, we are aware of the problem and are trying to improve our operating techniques to alleviate such negative effects.

 

Has global warming had an effect on the Retz forest?

Currently in the Retz Forest, we have noticed an increase of about 15 days during the growing season. Trees shoot earlier in spring and lose their leaves later in autumn. The increase of CO² in the atmosphere resulted in trees growing faster, but also becoming weaker.
Experts have predicted that violent winds and storms will be more frequent in the coming years. The ONF is already adapting and responding to the risks by putting in place a regime to develop a more resilient forest. Indeed, clearings are made to augment the space between the trees. This increases the light level, resulting in an increase of the tree canopy, to support such a canopy tree trunks become larger, shorter and are able to withstand stronger wind.

So would you recommend your career path to other women?

Yes, absolutely, it is an amazing profession. I work in a natural setting. Most importantly, I am now part of a lineage of foresters that is centuries old. I carry on work done in the past and I know that it will fructify in the future. My work makes sense; it is a richness to manage a natural heritage such as the Retz Forest. My colleagues and I often say that we have an amazing job.
We have difficult times trying to justify and explain our actions. The multi disciplinary aspects, such as the production of quality timber, having to deal with the public and the preservation of biodiversity are an everyday challenge, but it makes my profession richer. I recommend my job with no hesitation.

Thank you, Régine for sharing your thoughts on the management of the Retz Forest,

Aurélie Quade