The French Region Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes uses satellite information for sustainable forest management

The Regional Forest Directorate (the DRAAF)

The Directorate for Food, Agriculture, and Forest of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes Region is a regional executive body of the French Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forests. Notably, it applies the Ministry’s national strategy in the region, where the forest covers a total of 2,514,000 hectares (i.e. 15% of the national forest). One of its main responsibilities is to keep in check the balance between the exploitation of the wood and systemic environment standards. Wood is a major economic resource for the region, with €5 million m3  harvested every year for private heating, the construction sector and the paper industry. The Directorate must deliver harvest authorisations and penalise illegal clear-cutting with these imperatives in mind.

The challenge

80% of the regional forest is private. Beyond a certain minimum total surface, a Sustainable Management Code applies to harvest authorisations, whether in private or public forests. But monitoring both large and smaller forest areas is not always easy. Field inspectors have only a fragmented view of the situation on the ground, since they cannot physically cover all the area by car, and even less so on foot. Furthermore, wood companies can sometimes buy wood from private owners in an “oil stain” pattern: they harvest in neighbouring plots belonging to different owners, which means that even if the total harvested area is over the limit of what is allowed, individual owners cannot be penalised. Finally, wood heating has been strongly encouraged in the region, notably through subsidies for such heating systems. This creates the risk of deforestation hot spots on the mountainous ranges situated next to urban centers or factories exploiting wood.

The solution

Since 2015, the Regional Forest Directorate uses a service provided by Géosud – a French Platform of satellite data freely available for public authorities in the country. As a complement to the high resolution images from RapidEye, Spot, and other Earth Observation satellites, that Géosud provide, the Directorate also uses coarser Landsat images; the combination allows them to annually compare high-resolution maps of the forest so as to monitor the evolution of forest coverage and to identify illegal forest cuts.

The result

Over the period 2013-2014 (evaluated in 2015), the Directorate detected 1600 illegal cuts in the forest, of which 250 were larger than 1 hectare. While no forest owner was fined at that stage (since some changes were spotted after the legal penalisation time-lapse), a vast communication campaign was implemented to inform owners of irregularities and the negative impact of cuts on the regional forest. It had the merit of acting as a deterrent to those who cut illegally on purpose, and as an awareness-raising tool for owners of small forests who were oblivious to such dangers. The system is currently being adapted to be able to exploit Sentinel data, but the success of the methodology already implemented means that such surveys could be extended to the whole of France in a couple of years, on decision by the Agriculture and Forest Ministry.

Satellite images are not just for policing the forest. It is also in the best interest of forest owners that they make the best of it, and we have a strong policy to support them in doing so by encouraging sustainable management practices.
Laurent CHARNAY, Director of the Forest and Sustainable Management Department
DRAAF Auvergne Rhône-Alpes – SERFOBE