A French connection to Michigan's forests

The forests of France and Michigan have some commonalities. The mixed farm and forest rolling hills of France make a resident of the Great Lakes State feel quite at home.

Trees in France.
All photos by Bill Cook, MSU Extension.

The forest was dominated by towering white oaks, over a next generation of maples and beech. The 45-acre stand that I was exploring was surrounded by fields and pastures. A multitude of birds were sounding their claims on territory and preferences for mates. This describes some of the forests of Michigan. However, I was in central France, near Tours. I was walking through a woodland granted by Louis XIV to one of his mistresses in the 1660's/ That's also when the French Voyageurs were plying their way through the Great Lakes. 

On the larger, 250-acre estate, I resided in a renovated carriage house, next to a small chateau. The buildings dated back to the 1700's and several massive Cedars of Lebanon graced the landscape. The current owner, a spry man in his late eighties named Guy, thought the oaks were planted around 200 years ago. "Maybe", I thought. Some of them were over 30 inches in diameter and at least 50 feet to the first branch. Monsters. 

Like many Michigan forests, this French woodland had not been managed for a long time, if ever. My first thought was the need to reduce the stand density and canopy cover. More light was needed to encourage oaks, for which I would choose to manage. There were many oak seedlings, but no oak saplings. Could deer browsing be an issue here? Possibly. There were well-established deer paths crisscrossing the woodland. Guy told me there were about 18-20 resident deer. Annually, two or three were harvested, but he wouldn't shoot them. The network of numbered deer stands suggested a management group of some sort. 

I was itching to have a paint can in-hand to mark the poorer quality trees, as well as some of the very mature oaks. I would hope that some of those ubiquitous oak seedlings might grow into saplings. Alternatively, perhaps, I might remove 30-40 percent of the canopy in a shelter-wood harvest, hoping for the same oak sapling result. I could see that maple, hornbeam, and beech would be stiff site competitors, possibly some horse-chestnut, too. Holly and butcher's broom might be shrub contenders as well. Growing oaks can sometimes be a challenge. 

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Guy casually invited me back for the summer to manage his woodlands, allowing me full use of the house. A tempting offer, but I don't speak French, have no knowledge about the markets and I'm unfamiliar with logging contractors and procedures. I was reminded of my two summers working and studying in the Black Forest of Germany. Guys offer was indeed tempting but alas, not practical for me. Driving through the large public forest near Orleans, I felt very much at home. The forests appeared to be well-managed. Log decks and firewood piles were common sights. Public trailheads were along the roads, along with signage and maps posted. 

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France is a largely deforested country, with only about 28 percent of the landscape remaining in forest most of that privately-owned. Compared to that of Michigan being 53% covered in forest, with about 62 percent of those woods being privately owned. 

Many European forestowners trend towards the precepts of the "Pro-Silva" organization regarding all-aged forest management, trying to better emulate natural processes. The Germans call it "Dauerwald", with the British dubbing it "Continuous cover". The French "Irregular silviculture and we call it "Selection silviculture", which comes in different forms. I remember several years ago, I helped show a pair of French foresters how we manage Northern Hardwoods in Michigan. However, I think they were more intrigued by the pasties, home-baked apple turnovers, and local red wine that I had arranged to be delivered in the woods for lunch! 

A year later, one of the foresters sent me a draft book to review about "Futaie irrégulière". That project was quite interesting. I still have the draft book and thought about it as I strolled through Guy and Chrisitane's woodland. 

France is about the combined size of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Lake States have about 53 million acres of forest. France has around 45 million. About 200 years ago, France had much more forest than today, as did the Lakes States. The French forests took a heavy hit after the Revolution in 1789. Many of the forests owned by the deposed (and beheaded) aristocrats were converted to farms and pastures. Our regional forest took a heavy hit in the late 1800's and early 1900's for different reasons. However,m farming across much of that landscape failed and forests grew back. This trend continues today, although at a declining rate. 

Prior to the Revolution, forest area across France and most of Europe ebbed and flowed. During the 1300's and 1400's, the Plague and the famines during the Little Ice Age allowed much of the European forest to grow back. There was a huge decline in the human population. 

Michael Williams wrote an intriguing book about the "Deforesting the Earth". He describes much of the forest history in different regions of the world. He wrote a similar text for the USA titled "Americans and Their Forests". Both are insightful and detailed reads. Just like learning another language helps one better understand English, learning about other forests helps one better understand our own forests. Human activity has had a powerful influence on forest. In many ways, the future forests are also in our hands. 


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