In defence of the tree:

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Save Our Picture Postcard – Halt the Mass Cull Of Shade Trees Lining France’s Rural Roads

Tree-lined country roads bathed in soft hues and bough-streaked sunshine crisscrossing breathtaking landscapes have been a cliché as identification shots in French films for decades.

Grez sur Loing L'un des accès au village (credit @lain G, Flickr creative commons)

These same shaded highways are an equally important poster boy in promoting France’s valued tourist industry to the thousands of motor home travellers — the horse-drawn coaches and caravans of the modern age — who each summer meander through France’s enchanting countryside. France after all is the world’s number one tourism destination.

But the venerable, gnarled, leafy icons — these beacons of a certain French terroir, are under threat — as indeed they have been for nearly half a century … from motorists and the road safety lobby.

Partially at the urging of road safety campaigner Chantal Perrichon of the League Against Violence on the Roads, Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve announced January 26 he was considering restarting a nationwide cull of roadside tree.

An earlier destruction campaign between 1999 and 2001 saw more than 500 plane trees removed from a road stretch near Caen together with systematic destruction of 21,000 leafy sentinels that had lined secondary roads in the sparsely populated western part of the Gers department (SW). The felling only petered out when road traffic deaths dropped dramatically (largely due to a crackdown on speeding, and drink driving rather than tree removal).

The respite was but brief however and government is readying its chain saws for a fresh assault on tree-lined secondary road networks around France. This time there is a double pretext: road safety and the devastating virulent incurable canker stain disease attacking plane trees around the country. See here and here for more on this eco-disaster.

An even earlier effort in 1970 by the government of Jacques Chaban-Delmas to embark on the mass destruction of avenues of roadside trees was only curtailed by the prompt intervention of then president Georges Pompidou who wrote an icy and timely note to the minister concerned (see below).

Once more activists are up in arms and have launched two petitions demanding a halt to the “arbicide” — or tree murder — as they call it. Their campaign carries more weight than it did in 1999 as new research suggests roadside trees can in some cases be used beneficially in cutting down road deaths.

Speaking in March this year to John Lichfield of the Independent  Chantal Fauché, president of the Association for the Protection of Roadside Trees, accused “successive French governments of creating an anti-tree psychosis among road users. ‘Trees are actually helpful in warning about bends in the road and keeping speed down. People feel they are driving faster if the trees are rushing past,’ she said”.

Tree-lined road in Vaucluse near Apt (Credit Wikipedia Joseph Plotz)

Indeed concerns about the fate of trees deserve to be widespread. Again according to theIndependent: “The Earth has lost more than half of its trees since humans first learned how to wield the axe, scientists have found. A remarkable study has calculated that there are about 3 trillion trees on the planet today but this represents just 45% of the total number of trees that had existed before the rise of humans.”

Chantal Pradines, an expert on landscape issues with the Council of Europe, has worked and campaigned for years against the mass destruction of France’s roadside trees. The problem she insists is driver behaviour on the road, not the trees. In July 2014 she submitted a report to the French Parliament, noting specifically: “Various studies have shown the positive effect of trees for road safety, particularly as trees are effective signallers of bends, intersections, and approaches to residential zones while helping drivers measure their speed against trees flashing by. This of course is apart from their natural beauty and aesthetic value. These factors, she noted, actually result in a significant lowering of vehicle speeds and force drivers to take extra care (…) suggesting the issue of road safety can and should be tackled differently and not by cutting down trees. In Norfolk in the UK, she said, experiments involving the planting of more trees on roadsides obliging drivers to take more care, led to a 20% decline in accidents. According to 2012 road safety figures, 9% of those who died on the roads had collided with a tree which means that in 91% of cases, such roadside trees are harmless. It is driver behaviour that needs to be modified not trees that should be destroyed.”

She and other nature conservationists reiterate that unwary motorists could be easily protected by installing safety rails along the lines of trees. She also cited successful outcomes in protecting roadside trees in Sweden, Luxembourg, Germany, the Czech Republic and the UK.

However she noted the battle to save French trees faces a significant obstacle — the might of the telecoms operators who with government backing want to “clear” the trees to enable them to bury fibre optic networks along roadsides. For by using the public road reserve rather than encroaching on farmland they will save the cost of paying compensation to farmers for rights of way over thousands of kilometres of countryside in France.

Georges Cingal a member of the European Parliamentary Economic and Social Committee says that tree-lined roads enjoy a positive microclimate acting as traps to capture and store CO2 emissions, partially blocking pollutants and playing a public health role.

Petitions to save the lime, chestnut and plane trees that line French roads can be found here andhere.

As the Independent newspaper (see earlier links) reported: “Officials have been ordered to list all trees that present a danger to motorists and to chop them down. Two petitions circulating on the internet beg the government to change its mind. The many miles of roadside trees, often more than a century-old, are not just beautiful but are also a vital habitat for birds and insects, the petitioners say”.

And so they should.

For as our nature and environment correspondent Mike Alexander points out trees have high environmental value:

The importance of trees and man’s relationship with them has been highlighted recently in some rather unexpected ways. A study reported in the New Yorker entitled “How trees calm us down” quoted a 1984 study by Roger Ulrich which revealed that just the sight of trees can have a calming effect on our psyches. This might have been put down to just another wacky scientific study aimed more at sensationalism than true academic advancement were it not subsequently backed up by dozens of other similar studies all pointing to the importance of trees both in terms of our health and our finances.

We all know that trees play an important role in absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen during the photosynthesizing process. This role is becoming more important as we continue to pump carbon dioxide into the environment in ever increasing quantities. Less known perhaps is the effect street trees can have on property prices.

Street trees in Oregon are estimated to have increased property values by USD1.35 billion whilst another recent study in Toronto estimates that living on a tree-lined street may have health benefits equivalent to being seven years younger or receiving a USD10,000 pay rise. See “Introducing ‘treeconomics’: how street trees can save our cities.

Not only do trees help cool cities, provide cleaner air, absorb noise and limit the risk of flooding, it now seems clear that they provide both health and economic benefits as well. Their mere presence seems to add to our general well-being.

In 2013 the Melbourne City Council came up with the idea of giving street trees individual e-mail addresses so citizens could report on any issues relating to them. Instead of being kept informed of risk from falling branches or other potential arboreal problems, the council was surprised when it was inundated with love letters to the trees!

At the same time residents in Sheffield in the UK are engaged in a battle with the council to prevent them cutting down 11 limes and in Brighton also in the UK moves are afoot to have their mature elms given World Heritage status.

Whilst the French might not yet have taken to dashing off romantic love notes to their favourite oak, they do have the privilege of being the third most forested country in Western Europe with 29% of the country given over to trees. This figure has doubled since 1850. Each year 80 million trees are planted which equates roughly to one tree every 2.5 seconds. These trees store 1.208 million tons of carbon.

In cities the picture is not quite so rosy and with two thirds of the world population expected to be living in cities by 2050 it is the urban environment that needs to be tackled most aggressively.

Paris plans to plant 20 000 trees by 2020 but though this might seem a large number it still lags behind London where that city’s current Mayor Boris Johnson, has overseen the planting of 20,000 trees over the last seven years.

Both these figures are however dwarfed by Toronto’s mayor John Tory who has been responsible for the planting of 40,000 trees and promises to plant another 3.8 million over the next decade.

Many of the mature urban trees in France are London plane trees many of which are succumbing to the deadly wilting disease sweeping the country and which has already seen 13,000 shade trees felled along the banks of the Canal du Midiworld heritage site. It is estimated that up to 90% of the plane trees that help make this canal such a popular tourist attraction are now infected and may have to be cut down.

In 1552 King Henry II issued ordinances for the planting and maintenance of trees in Paris. In the 1700s the roads to Palais des Tuileries, Cours de Vincennes and Versailles were built and lined with trees which led to a rise in the popularity of promenading. The French have been arguing about trees ever since.

At present a group called the European Environment and Social Committee (CESE) is running a petition to save roadside trees across France. Some 400 motorists a year are killed after colliding with tress and the government has ordered that trees within 1.5 metres of roadsides should be removed. So far some 7000 people have signed the petition.

But as President George Pompidou said: “France does not exist solely for people to drive around in cars. The requirements of road safety should not disfigure the French countryside.” In fact he went quite a bit further as the full quote here shows:

France is not made solely to allow the French to drive their cars, and regardless of the importance of road safety, this should not result in the disfiguring of the country’s landscape. Safeguarding the trees planted on roadsides – and I think particularly of the beautiful roads lined with plane trees in the Midi (south) – is essential to the beauty of our country, and for the protection of nature and the human environment. Modern life, increasingly surrounded by concrete, asphalt and neon creates more and more desire and need for people to escape to nature and beauty. The rural roads, (as opposed to motorways designed for speed) must become for the motorist of the late 20th century what the country path is to the walker or horse rider: a route along which one meanders without haste, enjoying the beauty that is France. So let us guard against this systematic destruction of that which is (an important) ingredient of this beauty!

Furthermore French researchers have advanced some persuasive reasons for planting more trees alongside roads. According to a report in Rue89: “Planted in long lines along the roadside, wild cherry, birch and plane trees offer a different perspective to a winding road. When a small side road is about to join a larger national road, the line of trees enables the motorist traveling on the main road to identify the upcoming intersection,” says Matthieu Holland, head of the security division and design at Cerema- Centre d’étude et d’expertise sur les risques, l’environnement, la mobilité et l’aménagement“.

At the same time, “the trees reduce the visibility of the driver on the secondary road and force him to take a more cautious approach to the intersection,” he says. Implicitly indicative as they are of an intersection ahead, or of a changing in levels, or an entry to a built-up area, trees play a crucial role in making the route more readable for the motorist”.

In doing so, they improve safety. In fact, three out of four driver mistakes are due to “poor collection and processing of information,” according to the report ‘Landscape and road legibility’ published in 2006 by the technical studies department of France’s Road Service and Highways Authority now absorbed by Cerema. In the same document, researchers point out that “the landscape, often modified to meet road safety requirements, can also be created, composed, and retained for these very same purposes of road safety.”

A new phrase is beginning to take hold in the world of concerned environmentalism: “Natural capital” . Its an expression that will be heard more and more as we debate the value of our natural resources and try to put a value on things that we may well have taken for granted for far too long.

Trees will be high on this list.

By way of a footnote a frequently cited “fact” — that the planting of the trees in question — which began in the 16th century — was ordered by Napoleon to shade his armies, has been disputed by at least one researcher.

Alan Waterman, a photographer in Poitou-Charentes writes on his blog: “The notion that Napoleon wanted the roads tree lined so as to provide shade for his marching troops is very often cited in articles but without much evidence … If you think about it the planting of trees along quite wide roads is not going to result in much shade for at least 30 to 50 years depending on how quickly the trees grow, so Napoleon’s troops would certainly never have benefited from the shade.

“…Road building was well underway before Napoleon got into the act. The major players were Orry and Trudaine and the work was set in motion around 1738. Here is an extract from an article detailing this phase of road building in France … ‘by 1750 the most important construction operation ever undertaken in France was about to begin … The roads from Paris to the main seaports were to be 19.5m large, the other important roads were to be 11.8m large. On each side of the roads, a ditch was to be dug and trees planted. The corvée des chemins was to be ended by Turgot (February 6, 1776) and the roads constructed after that were smaller as many complained that they were too good and expensive for crossing some empty country’.

“Another important player in the construction of the typical tree lined avenues we associate with France was Pierre-Marie-Jerome Tresaguet. He is widely credited with establishing the first scientific approach to road building about the year 1764.”

The oldest tree in France at AllouvilleBellefosse (Credit Wikipedia)

Located in the French farming village of Allouville-Bellefosse France’s oldest tree, dating back to the reign of Louis IX, houses tree house chapels within its trunk.

Writer: Mike Alexander

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