France: Timber industry in south gets recognized for a mono-crop windfall

The storm that hit France and Spain last weekend felled as much as 70
percent of the pine trees in parts of the Aquitaine region, French
forest groups said today. France’s southwest accounts for about a
third of the nation’s lumber production, and forests cover about 1.5
million hectares (3.7 million acres) of Aquitaine, mostly privately
owned pine.

Large areas are flooded and the priority is to unblock
drainage channels and roads to allow felled trees to be moved, French
Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier said. The storm, the strongest in
the region since 1999, killed at least 15 people in France and Spain,
toppled walls, overturned trucks and closed airports in both
countries. Storms in December 1999 destroyed about 4 percent of
France’s forests. “The forest business has been very badly hit,”
Barnier said at a press conference in Paris. “The urgency in this
crisis is to recover the affected timber.

We have to recover the
lumber and store it, probably for a longer period.” About 1 million
hectares of Aquitaine’s forest is pine, 95 percent of which privately
owned, said Thomas Formery, head of France’s National Center for
Forest Ownership, in an interview. Of that area, 300,000 hectares have
been “seriously hit,” with 60 percent to 70 percent of trees felled,
he said. The Aquitaine, Dordogne and Pyrenees regions in France’s
southwest account for about 30 percent of French timber, Formery said.
Barnier said earlier that the storm felled 60 percent to 70 percent of
forests in the southwest region. ‘Dramatic Consequences’ Damage is
estimated at more than 600 million euros ($791 million), the French
Insurers’ Association said, according to Le Figaro and L’Expansion. At
least 30 million cubic meters (1.06 billion cubic feet) of timber in
the Aquitaine region has been felled, said Henri Plauche Gillon,
president of the Private Foresters of France federation, following a
meeting with Barnier.

“The storm has had dramatic consequences for
certain forested areas,” the French Ministry of Ecology said in an e-
mailed statement two days ago. “The observed winds were as strong as
in 1999, but due to the rain of the past days, the soil is waterlogged
and the trees are even more vulnerable.”

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Deane RimermanJanuary 31st, 2009 at 4:33 pm

After the storm: French forests
After the storm: French forests

Friday January 30th 2009

Hurricane-force winds hit south-west France and Spain last weekend, a nightmare repeat performance of those that devastated the area in 1999. For the inhabitants of Biscarrosse, a small tourist resort south of Bordeaux, it was the third time around; the pine woods were laid low by a mini-tornado in 2003. Michel Belliard, whose family has worked in the forest for generations, explains why he is so bitter

Friday January 30th 2009

Lead article photo

Belliard stands before his devastated trees. Photograph: Jacqueline Karp

I didn’t think I’d ever be glad my campsite pines were blown down in 2003. But last weekend, I counted my blessings. Nothing has had time to grow back, so my chalets are still standing. One worry less. People have been wonderful helping each other out here.

We’ve spent a week without electricity, collecting people’s freezers and linking them up to private generators, distributing water, doing the rounds to find out who needs what. People are so isolated here. To get electricity back everywhere could take weeks; cables are tangled up with fallen trees, pylons broken.

Three times in under 10 years, that’s what’s so hard. It’s not just the money, we’re all coping with that too, but our world has been destroyed. Close to the coast, the dunes have protected the forest. The tourists won’t notice the difference once we’ve cleared the debris. Drive a few kilometres inland and it’s a different picture. When I open my shutters in the morning I don’t recognise the view. We’re all in a state of shock.

I’ve managed to get to my woods, but we can’t even check on my father’s. The access is blocked. Not that we need to get closer. We can see the horizon has changed, just the odd tree sticking up here and there.

All our lives we’ve been widening access routes, making firebreaks. Our big fear was fire. But how do you prevent storms? As for insurance, who would be fool enough to insure us? So no one has the money to start again.

There are three vital questions right now. One: will we be getting aid to clear the unusable timber? Two: is the Aquitaine region, or France, or Europe going to help? Three: should we replant? Landes maritime pine is good quality, used for parquet floors and furniture and panelling, but if it can’t grow to maturity, it’s only good for pulp – at best pallets. So we need to sit down and decide what future we want for the Landes, and for our children.

Biodiversity? Why not? We’ve tried Portuguese pines. They can’t survive our winters. Marsh-grown oak is only good for pulp. Quicker-growing pine will need chemical fertilisers. We don’t mind experimenting. But what about the government? They made so many promises for the environment but all we have is incentives to buy greener cars. This is a major catastrophe. The Landes is one of Europe’s largest forests. It’s the largest man-made forest in the world.

These fallen trees are the work of two generations, 40 to 50 years’ work. Not like beech, that can take a hundred years, but even here you need 30 years for a pine to be fully-grown, 50 for it to mature.

For my father, it was important that I went into the forestry business. Studying to be an agricultural engineer wasn’t the same thing for him. He wanted his sons out there in the woods. He was a resinier – he tapped the pines for resin – and my grandfather and great-grandfather before him, but the chemical industry put paid to that. So in the end, I came back to Biscarrosse; whatever tragedy it may bring me, the forest is still part of my life.

Back in 1999 the Spanish housing market was booming. We sold all the fallen timber there. January 2009 is a different scenario. There’s a crisis on. No one wants it. Then there’s the competition. If I look around at the new housing, there are no rafters built with local wood. It all comes from China or northern and eastern Europe. It’s like the clothing industry. Where are the government incentives for people to buy local? If they can do this for cars, why not for us? Of course, it won’t happen, so we’re left with a strong feeling of injustice, of having been left to our fate.

Last Friday not only destroyed 50 years’ work, it destroyed the future as well. I’m 49 this week. You don’t plant trees for yourself at my age, you plant for the next generation. This time though, there’s a difference. My father simply couldn’t imagine the tradition dying out, but I can. Our son is studying electronics, and I’m not encouraging him to follow in my footsteps.

• Michel Belliard was speaking to Jacqueline Karp.

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