France – a leader for restoring ‘true nature’ in Europe

Non-intervention conservation – the French connection gathers momentum

With its great scale, bio-geographical variety and management expertise France is destined to be a leader in restoration of ‘true’ wild nature. Recent growth in support for non-intervention practice is making this a reality.

Coordination Evolution Libre (CEL), literally meaning coordination of free evolution, is one such entity. Founded scarcely 3 years ago by a group of distinguished naturalists, writers and scientists, it is evolving rapidly from a core of 15 organisations, linking to a network of initiatives in the field and a significant group of supportive MPs in the French Parliament. 

Summarised in the clarion call “Let’s make room for true nature”, CEL draws on Wild Europe’s definition of wilderness – areas of natural ecosystem – calling for non-intervention to be the keynote for President Macron’s vision of “protection forte” (strong protection).

Alongside this thriving CEL initiative is the Working Group on Wilderness and Wild Nature (aires à haute naturalité et de la nature férale) of IUCN France. Based in Paris, this has developed a series of principles for wild nature, identifying the environmental, social & economic benefits from adoption of non-intervention management. Its research and policy perspective forms an good complement to CEL’s activist approach, and Wild Europe is an active member of both organisations.

Promoting ‘free nature’ at national RNF conference

The momentum was further underlined at a 40th Anniversary conference of Reserves Naturelles de France (RNF) outside Dijon in May 2022. This is the official national network involving some 360 protected areas. 

Some 200 RNF managers were addressed on issues of free nature and non-intervention by Pascal Cavallin, Chairman of the IUCN France Working Group, Francis Halle of the Halle Foundation and Toby Aykroyd of Wild Europe (presentation attachedEnglish version available). 

Participants showed considerable enthusiasm for extending the concepts across their network.

RNF managers give enthusiastic welcome to non-intervention management practice

Global support for non-intervention ‘free nature’ in France

Calls for such large, connected natural ecosystem areas in France are supported more widely:

  • IUCN has a non-intervention target for 75% ‘core’ areas in national parks, while Resolution 127 from its Marseilles Congress in 2021 cited non-extraction of timber as a key feature of its call for improved protection and restoration of old growth forests across Europe. Based on Wild Europe’s 2019 Protection Strategy for Old Growth Forest, this Resolution was voted by a massive 674 members, 93 being Category A which includes governments.
  • A central objective from the CBD’s COP15 in Montreal (November 2022) was aimed at improving “ecosystem integrity” – meaning precisely the naturalness that enables biodiversity recovery and most appropriate address of climate change through both mitigation and adaptation
  • A key outcome of the EU Biodiversity and Forest Strategies has been a focus on the practice of ‘strict protection’ for 10% of Europe’s land and sea areas, and scientific logic clearly indicates that total non-intervention should be the default management mode here
  • To enable retention of the much higher levels of stable carbon storage characteristic of undisturbed forest, wetland and other habitats, together with higher levels of sequestration, flood mitigation, water purification, water table retention and ecotourism potential than areas where management intervention and/or material extraction occurs
  • To maximise opportunity for natural adaptation and resilience of species to climate change – hence the ‘free evolution’ epithet in the CEL acronym – alongside general biodiversity recovery
  • To provide the most cost-effective form of management by natural processes across large areas of natural ecosystem – crucial given limited conservation budgets and the geographic scale needed
  • Conversely because scale and richness of ecosystem services enables the most effective fund-raising opportunity from the non-extractive Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) agenda

Notwithstanding non-intervention as the default for ‘strict protection’, full allowance can still be made for interventionist conservation where this is necessary to protect endangered species or secondary habitats – both within the 10% area, the 20% earmarked for protection and the remainder of non protected nature areas

Economic & environmental rationale for “true nature”

There is the usual array of opposition from forestry and agricultural interests keen to safeguard ‘security of production’, with the added cultural twist that has long favoured active management of all areas in France for the national interest. This was one of the reasons behind President Macron’s original 2016 vision of “haute naturalité” (complete naturalness) morphing into the more prospectively diluted version of “protection forte”.

The situation has been further undermined by increased use of Article L125 of the French Rural Code which can enforce reinstatement of the productive use of ‘abandoned’ land – usually of marginal economic productivity – undergoing regeneration of natural habitat, by subsidizing ’scrub clearances’. Such clearances are expensive, lead to immediate increases in carbon emissions, destroyer-emerging biodiversity and produce minimal extra food production.

A visionary President for wild nature in France (source:

Yet there is ample scope to reverse these tremors in the French vision. In the face of accelerating climate change and biodiversity decline there is growing realization of the value of ecosystem services from large areas of untrammeled nature. 

This translates into significant potential funding from carbon and biodiversity credits, utility contributions and tourism earnings. All offering private sector finance to supplement official grants – and more sustainable livelihood and employment opportunity for local communities and land holders than the status quo.

Contrast that potential with the uneconomic nature of much traditional forestry and agricultural land use, particularly in marginal areas, and the growing costs from inadequately addressed climate change for the 97% of gross domestic product (GDP) that does not come from such use.

For ‘making room for true nature’ the irrefutable argument is economic as well as environmental.