The forest

Situated at the gateway to Paris, just 60 kilometres further south, between Brie and Gâtinais, the ancient forest of Bière has been known as the forest of Fontainebleau since the seventeenth century. The woodland around Fontainebleau consists of two national forests : Trois Pignons and Fontainebleau, with stands of deciduous and softwood trees.

While the forest of Fontainebleau was one of the royal estates from the tenth century onwards, the forest of Trois Pignons was private until it was finally bought by the state in 1983, bringing the surface area of state-owned woodland to more than 22,000 hectares. Bordered by three rivers, the Seine to the east, the École to the west and the Loing to the south, most of the forest (19,200 hectares) lies in the département of Seine-et- Marne. To the west, in the Trois Pignons forest, some of the woodland (800 hectares) lies in the département of Essonne.

The second-largest national forest in France, it is concentrated mainly on the municipality of Fontainebleau. Fontainebleau is the largest forest area in the Ile-de-France region and boasts the distinction that more than 98% of its territory is occupied by two national heritage attractions: the château of Fontainebleau and the national forest of Fontainebleau. Major regional planning and development measures have affected the forest, which is crossed and fragmented by numerous communications infrastructures, such as the N6 and N7 trunk roads, the A6 motorway, the Paris-Lyon railway lines and high-voltage electricity lines.

A bit of history
A bit of history

Formerly a royal forest, Fontainebleau was long renowned for hunting and the production of wood for heating, and castle, cathedral and ship-building.

In times gone by, this was a hunting estate highly appreciated by the kings, who came there from the tenth century onwards for deer and bird hunting. Shooting was practised from the time of Louis XIV. From the tenth century, most of the sovereigns up to Napoleon III stayed at Fontainebleau primarily for their love of the hunt. Fontainebleau was chosen for its vast swathes of forest, its abundant game and, above all, its proximity to Paris. Hunting was a genuine royal hobby, the kings viewing hunting as excellent training for war.

Fontainebleau was chosen for its vast swathes of forest, its abundant game and, above all, its proximity to Paris. Hunting was a genuine royal hobby, the kings viewing hunting as excellent training for war. It was also the reason why the château of Fontainebleau was originally built and gradually extended, including its woodland, which at the time extended over some 8,000 hectares – scarcely half its current surface area. Hunting has always strongly influenced the management of the forest and its facilities. The star-shaped crossroads, the forest pathways, the Faisanderie and the Grand Parquet are some of the witnesses to the forest’s keen hunting past.

Historically, the forest’s principal purpose until the 19th century was economic, providing a means of subsistence (grazing, sandstone and silica quarrying, and wood).

Its clearings were used for :

  • animal-greezing
  • sandstone was exploited on large scale to make paving stones for the streets of Paris (3 millions of these were extracted in the early nineteenth century)
  • and its extremely fine, pure, sand with high silica was used for art glass (Murano and Baccarat) and prized for advanced optics.

The forest has also always been a source of wood. Reputed for its technical characteristics, the best oak from Fontainebleau is greatly appreciated by stave-cutters to make barrels for ageing the most prestigious wines.

An outstanding natural environment to protect at all costs
An outstanding natural environment to protect at all costs

The forest of Fontainebleau is home to an outstanding living, natural heritage. It offers a patchwork of landscapes and forest ecosystems, resulting both from its vegetation (moorland and timber forest), its relief (hills, valleys and gorges), its climate (Atlantic, continental and even Mediterranean influences), and its geology (ranging from fine sand to sandstone rocks and limestone plateaux).

It is a bio-geographical crossroads, comprising exceptional biotopes. As a result of these unique ecological circumstances, a wealth of fauna and flora abounds here.

From the 17th century on, this biological reserve attracted renowned naturalists, such as Tournefort, then Jussieu and Linné. Moreover, in 1948, a UNESCO conference held at Fontainebleau resulted in the creation of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (UICN).

The forest and the artists
The forest and the artists

From the mid-nineteenth centuries, painters, writers, film-makers and photographers fell in love with the forest of Fontainebleau and forged its reputation.

Sandstone landscapes with evocative shapes recalling elephants, tortoises, dogs and other animals give way to boulders, sandy deserts, plateaux, gorges, heaths and stands of deciduous or softwood trees, and from the nineteenth century onwards attracted numerous artists. This use of Fontainebleau as a subject of art and for tourism and leisure steadily developed, transforming it into a place of recreation, inspiration and relaxation.

Inspired by its remarkable natural heritage, landscape painters moved to Barbizon and set up their easels in the forest. Corot, Millet, Rousseau and many others succeeded one another, joined by the pioneers of photography, Le Gray, Cuvelier and Balagny, in search of a studio in the heart of nature. This is not to mention the Naturalist and Romantic writers and poets (Senancour, Sand, Musset, Flaubert, Hugo, Stevenson and others), who were the first to discover the place and loved to give voice to its elegance and greatness.

In 1861, a handful of painters from Barbizon, writers and walkers very much in tune with the fashionable theses of Romanticism succeeded in creating an Artistic Reserve of more than 1,000 hectares. So it was that even before the creation of the first national park – Yellowstone in the US – the forest of Fontainebleau became the first natural conservation area in the world !

This was the period when the young film-making industry was beginning to abandon studio sets in favour of more natural settings, which they found on a number of occasions in the forest of Fontainebleau. Since then, the film industry has made frequent use of the forest (Cyrano de Bergerac, Brotherhood of the Wolf, Asterix and Obelix Meet Cleopatra, etc.), inspired by it just every bit as much as the writers and artists.

The cradle of many outdoor activities
The cradle of many outdoor activities

After that, it was the turn of cyclists and horse-riders to occupy the forest, not to mention rock-climbers, who traced out numerous climbing courses during the early twentieth century. These attracted the pioneers of mountaineering, including internationally renowned rock-climbers (Casella, Prestat, Wehrlin, etc.), who came to train in preparation for their attempts to conquer the Himalayas.

It was at this period that the visionary Claude François Denecourt, who was enchanted by the beauty of the forest, invented nature tourism: in 1842, he created the world’s first marked rambling trails, called sentiers bleus, or “blue pathways”. His work was continued by his disciple, Colinet. They created a total of 150 kilometres of walks.

Viewed until then as an inhospitable environment, the forest became a popular destination for walkers thanks to the arrival of the railway and the publication of the first ramblers’ guides, written by Denecourt (1839). Nature tourism was born and developed throughout France from Fontainebleau.

With increasing urbanisation and free time and the growth of transport, city-dwellers discovered and rapidly adopted the place. Fontainebleau became a favourite place for Sunday walks and sports and recreational activities for the people of the greater Paris region. More than 1,500 kilometres of pathways, 400 of them marked, and nearly 200 climbing courses – the world-famous ‘Fontainebleau rocks’ – could be explored in the forest, which was accessible to the public. This major social role triggered massive frequentation: 9 million visitors came here in the 1970s.

The forest today : a place of production, leisure and conservation
The forest today : a place of production, leisure and conservation

The forest of Fontainebleau still supplies 40,000m3 of wood per year. As a material or a source of energy, wood is a part of everyday life. The numerous species at Fontainebleau, with their different characteristics, qualities, grain, colours and texture, serve a variety of purposes. From the noblest to the most ordinary, they are used for everything from construction to refurbishment, furnishing, packaging, writing and heating. Wood is an excellent carbon trap, and a natural, eco-friendly and renewable material. It offers a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels and concrete.

Consequently, the forest of Fontainebleau is unlike any other forest. It is an emblematic place with a rich past and a history-steeped heritage which must be protected, but also left open for its multiple uses.

From the creation of the artist reserves in 1861 up to the present day, numerous conservation measures have been implemented to protect these spaces and maintain their habitats.

Today, the forest is protected by numerous legal and environmental measures. The forest enjoys “protected forest” status, is a listed UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, a classified Natura 2000 site and, in the case of the national forest, a listed site of which the planning document is approved by the Ministries of the Environment and Agriculture. All these measures ensure lasting protection for the woodland and safeguard its outstanding ecosystems, biodiversity and landscapes, thanks not least to the creation of the Integral Biological Reserves (1,062 hectares) and Managed Biological Reserves (1,305 hectares).

Multiple issues (social, economic, landscape, environmental) are at stake in the management of this prestigious forest, and this calls for high technical standards, great professionalism, ongoing dialogue with the different local stakeholders (elected representatives, associations, scientists, local governments), and suitable modes of governance. Governance is exercised by a number of strategic committees: the Scientific and Users Committee, inherent to Fontainebleau’s “protected forest” status, the Outstanding Forest steering committee, and the Natura 2000 steering committee. Other, more technical committees allow active concertation between all the partners in the territory covered by the forest.

The different sports and leisure activities that have been practised here for decades (walks, rambles, orienteering, cycling, mountain biking, rock-climbing, riding, golf, hunting) are practised side by side and with respect for the environment thanks to the agreements and codes of conduct enacted by sports federations and associations in coordination with the National Forestry Office (ONF).

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