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Forest of Fontainebleau: From Royal Hunting Grounds to Public Treasure

The Forest of Fontainebleau, once the exclusive hunting grounds for French royalty, has transformed into a cherished national treasure accessible to all. 

This 50,000-acre expanse, located 37 miles south of Paris, is now France’s second-largest national forest and part of the Fontainebleau & Gâtinais UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The forest, with its rich history and diverse landscapes, attracts 15 million visitors annually.

Historically, the Forest of Fontainebleau was prized by French kings and emperors for its exceptional hunting opportunities. Today, it draws millions for activities such as bouldering, trail running, and forest bathing. 

According to Sophie David, an archaeologist and Forêt d’Exception project manager with the National Forestry Office (ONF), the forest’s history and biodiversity make it a unique destination. 

“We have traces of mankind and engravings dating back tens of thousands of years,” says David. “That history is exceptional, but so is the 12,000 species of plant and animal life that make it among the richest sources of biodiversity in Europe.”

The forest’s geological diversity is another major attraction. Millions of years ago, the area was covered by a sea, leaving behind sand dunes and sandstone rock formations, as reported by The Indian Express.

These formations, such as those found at Les Sables du Cul du Chien, provide unique landscapes for visitors to explore. Lucien Martinez, an elite climber and editor-in-chief of Grimper, notes, “That sandstone is a big part of what makes this forest such a mystical place.”

In the 19th century, the forest’s picturesque landscapes inspired artists like Camille Corot and Jean-François Millet, leading to the establishment of the Barbizon school of painting. 

This movement marked a significant shift, with nature becoming the main subject of their works. Around the same time, Claude-François Denecourt promoted the forest as a destination for public enjoyment by creating the world’s first signposted trails, known as les sentiers bleus.

Recognizing the need to preserve the forest, Napoleon III issued a decree in 1861 that made Fontainebleau the world’s first nature reserve. This protection ensured that over 3,954 acres of forest were preserved for public and artistic use, a move that predated the establishment of Yellowstone National Park by 11 years.

Today, the forest faces challenges from its popularity. Eroding trails, litter, and unauthorized camping are common issues. The ONF is actively working to raise awareness among visitors about their impact on the environment. 

“Families who picnic, remove their trash and stick to official paths certainly have a different impact than, say, the mountain bikers who skid all over or the climbers with chalk and crash pads,” David said. 

With the upcoming Paris 2024 Olympic & Paralympic Games, the forest is preparing for an influx of visitors, updating communication materials and advising on good park stewardship.

Efforts to protect the forest may gain further momentum as the French Ministry of Culture supports its bid to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. This designation could provide additional funds and protections, ensuring the forest remains a treasured site for future generations.

As the Forest of Fontainebleau continues to welcome millions of visitors, balancing public access with conservation remains crucial. The transformation from a royal hunting ground to a public haven underscores the importance of preserving this unique natural and cultural landscape.

Featured image by the Fontainebleau Tourisme

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Hi, you might find this article from Modern Campground interesting: Forest of Fontainebleau: From Royal Hunting Grounds to Public Treasure! This is the link: https://moderncampground.com/europe/france/forest-of-fontainebleau-from-royal-hunting-grounds-to-public-treasure/