Launched in September 2022, the AXA Forests for Good initiative aims to restore damaged forest ecosystems while making them more resistant to health risks and climate change. This 3-year program will be implemented on 400 of the 15,000 hectares of forests owned by AXA in France. The goal is to restore 87 plots in six forests that are being attacked by bark beetles across three French administrative departments: Meuse, Jura and Nièvre. To implement this project, AXA is supported by a group of active stakeholders, led by Reforest'Action and composed of AgroParisTech, two entities of the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRAE Renfor and Biogeco), France Nature Environnement (FNE) and four local associations. They will combine their environmental, social, technical and educational expertise to support forest restoration.
The need to adapt forests to climate change and natural disasters is at the heart of the AXA Forests for Good initiative
Climate change and natural disasters are forest ecosystem disruptors
"Our ecosystems are disrupted by numerous things: while climate change, which destabilizes the traditional natural balance, is a main component, manmade commercial and international exchanges are another, as they cause an increase in the spread of diseases and tree pests such as bark beetles," wrote Hervé Le Bouler, a specialist on climate change’s impacts on forests in France and member of the AXA Forests for Good Project Consortium for Reforest'Action, in his book "Forests – Roots and Men". Temperate forests are therefore increasingly affected by changes related to climate change, such as droughts linked to rising temperatures and less summer rainfall, which lead to a high risk of fires, a risk of increased tree mortality and a weakening of trees, which become more vulnerable to other natural disasters. The health of temperate forests is also weakened by diseases and exotic insects imported due to globalization. Pathogenic fungi and pests account for most of the damage observed in French forests. Climatic change and natural disasters: these phenomena, which can happen at the same time, directly affect the multifunctionality of forests. When degraded, forests no longer provide their ecosystem services which are needed for the well-being of all living things.
AXA Forests for Good: a program dedicated to finding solutions to help forests adapt to climate change and health risks
The aim is to find solutions to restore damaged forests and enable them to regain their multifunctionality in the long term. "The forest manager must take action right away, because the urgency of forest decline calls for swift action, especially seeing as the world of forests definitely lives for a long time. A forest manager knows full well that their decisions and actions are irreversible, that they will affect the future for decades," added Hervé Le Bouler. Spread over a period of three years and made up of four components, the AXA Forests for Good initiative’s goal is the following:
- Study the impact of climate change and soil artificialization on the loss of forest biodiversity through field measurements by Consortium experts.
- Restore forests. Within six forests owned by AXA (Mauboux-Rosemont and Saint-André in Nièvre; Vaudrey, Pont du Navoy and Souvans in Jura; and Donquenay in Meuse), 87 plots impacted by bark beetle attacks will be involved in this program spread across a total of 400 hectares. After experimenting with several restoration options, the Consortium will make recommendations for species and silvicultural routes that promote the multifunctionality and resilience of restored forests.
- Strengthen AXA's leadership on climate and biodiversity issues. The practices developed in this program will be subsequently rolled out at the French and European level and shared with the scientific community and the private and public forestry sector.
- Contribute to a better understanding of forests’ role. The Consortium's stakeholders will raise awareness among schools about biodiversity and AXA will offer awareness-raising actions to its partners and employees.
A Consortium of stakeholders, led by Reforest'Action
To implement this project, AXA is supported by a group of active stakeholders, led by Reforest'Action and composed of AgroParisTech, two entities of the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRAE Renfor and Biogeco), France Nature Environnement (FNE) and four local associations. As the Consortium’s leader, Reforest'Action has two major roles. First and foremost, structuring and coordinating the Forests for Good initiative. Thibaud Poulain and Côme Marret will manage the project internally. They have structured the project framework with AXA, allocated the Consortium's roles, and are in charge of leading the workshops, the production of deliverables, the organization of awareness-raising actions in the field, and the administrative management of the program. Second, guaranteeing operational and economic feasibility. With the expertise of Hervé Le Bouler, a specialist on the impact of climate change on forests, and Pierre Hermans, a forest management specialist, Reforest'Action ensures the practical implementation of silvicultural routes (choice of species, work to be carried out on plots) and coordinates with the members of the Consortium, taking into account IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) conclusions regarding the impact of climate change on the forests of France’s Greater East, as well as the different practices put in place at the European level to combat bark beetle attacks. Reforest'Action’s steering makes it possible to meet the AXA Forests for Good Consortium’s goal of combining the environmental, social, technical and educational expertise of all its stakeholders to support forest restoration.
A co-constructive approach, carried out following a Living Lab approach, for AXA forests
A multi-stakeholder thought process to come up with ways to renew forests: the AXA forests case study
Today, more and more private forest owners are looking for solutions to adapt forest ecosystems to health risks and climate change. The AXA Forests for Good initiative, particularly with the expertise of AgroParisTech, is based on a multi-stakeholder understanding (Regional Natural Parks, communities, owners, naturalists, managers, NFB, citizens, etc.) which aims to come up with ways to renew forests to rehabilitate AXA plots damaged by the spruce bark beetle. The aim is to gather varied and complementary expertise, and to collectively design the best way to restore these plots.
This study will be carried out according to a Living Lab approach, which has been specifically adapted to meeting forestry challenges since 2018 by Maxence Arnould, teacher-researcher at AgroParisTech Nancy. This co-constructive and collective intelligence method, which is very new and innovative in the French forestry sector since the work of Maxence Arnould, makes it possible to co-construct innovative and collective solutions with, for and by forestry sector stakeholders. "As part of the AXA Forests for Good project, the Living Lab approach led by AgroParisTech will be conducted with collective intelligence methods that will aim to co-design technical roadmaps for AXA forests damaged by the spruce bark beetle," explained Maxence Arnould. "We will implement collaborative workshops that will bring together a wide variety of local forest stakeholders. This process aims to complement, in parallel, that of the experts and researchers of the Consortium composed of Reforest'Action, FNE, INRAE and AgroParisTech. Where the Consortium provides technical expertise, the stakeholders gathered as part of the Living Lab approach provide knowledge related to local specificities. It is a truly collective and collaborative process aimed at creating links and sharing around topics that are open to debate.”
The adapted Living Lab approach as part of the AXA Forests for Good initiative
Simply put, each of the six forests involved in the AXA Forests for Good initiative is the subject of the Living Lab approach developed by Maxence Arnould. The first local workshops aimed at establishing a diagnosis for each forest will take place between May and June 2023. The second phase of workshops will take place during the summer and fall of 2023 and will consist of analyzing the needs and expectations of stakeholders on the subject of forest renewal in a context of climate change. This will be followed by two other phases in 2024 to come up with forest renewal actions and to suggest ways to implement them. At the end of these co-constructive workshops, a final deliverable will be submitted to AXA by AgroParisTech, including all the workshops’ conclusions as well as an action plan ready for implementation. After the AXA Forests for Good project, the goal is to broadcast and transfer the results of the Living Lab approach to other forest owners and managers so that they can recreate this approach within their property.
Research for strengthening forests
Experimental plots to test different restoration techniques
As part of the AXA Forests for Good initiative, research is also being conducted by the INRAE Renfor R&D team, a member of the Consortium, in certain plots of one of the forests involved in the project, in order to identify the most effective restoration techniques. "The objective is to offer the forest manager the best possible restoration option, depending on the desired level of intervention on the plot, and the necessary adaptation to the constraints of the site," explained Catherine Collet, a forestry researcher at INRAE in Nancy. To do this, plots in the Donquenay forest, in the French administrative department of Meuse, will be divided into several sections by the researchers, in order to apply different restoration methods over several years, and then the results will be compared to draw a conclusion about the best possible technical roadmap. Within these experimental plots, INRAE Renfor's recommendations will also focus on methods to remove site constraints in order to facilitate planting, as well as on the work to be carried out to control competition (for water, light and minerals) among plants. Another objective is to reduce tilling the soil by working mainly around the plant and not the rest of the plot, in order to reduce soil and environmental disturbances, to respect micro-fauna, bacteria and microbial diversity, and to limit carbon destocking.
Proposing roadmaps adapted to each plot of the AXA Forests for Good initiative
At the same time, the Consortium led by Reforest'Action will make roadmap proposals for all the other plots involved in the AXA Forests for Good initiative, in order to ensure the best possible development of forest ecosystems. The owner, AXA, as well as its project-associated managers, will benefit from the expertise of the Consortium's researchers and recommendations from several silvicultural roadmaps, which will explore several methods: assisted natural regeneration (where the plants will come from the seeds of the previous stand), reforestation (where the seedlings will be produced in nurseries), a mixture of assisted and improved natural regeneration or independent forest islands.
Strengthening forests through species diversity and adapted forestry
The choice of suitable silvicultural roadmaps will allow restored forests to be better adapted to climate change. "Thanks to the research conducted upstream of restoration work, we can anticipate changes in the ecosystem related to climate change and adapt the future forest stand to make it more resilient," said Catherine Collet. The prevention of health risks will be taken into account in the choice of species to be planted on each plot, carried out by all the members of the Consortium during the winter of 2023. The diversity of tree species chosen makes the restored forests more resistant to possible diseases or pathogens, as Catherine Collet pointed out: "As certain tree species are more sensitive to certain types of health risks, the diversity and mixing of species is certainly an asset in a plot because, should a health threat occur, certain tree species will be better adapted to resisting it." The diversity of species and the identification of key forestry settings to reduce risks in the forest environment will be the subject of two studies carried out within the Consortium by Hervé Jactel, research director at INRAE Biogeco.
Biodiversity at the heart of forests’ multifunctionality
A multifunctional forest is a forest rich in biodiversity
A multifunctional forest is a forest whose mix – species, functions, audiences – allows it to provide a wide variety of environmental services (CO2 capture, biodiversity, air and water purification, etc.) and also to provide essential economic (wood production, tourism), social (employment, leisure, resourcing, etc.) and landscaping functions.
One of the foundations of this multifunctionality lies in the preservation and development of biodiversity. Part of the Consortium, France Nature Environnement (FNE) brings its expertise on the protection of biodiversity, ecosystems and the preservation of ecosystem services, in order to ensure the multifunctionality of restored forests. Nicolas Oddo, project manager at FNE, explains why the diversity of forest species is key to ensuring the maintenance of a forest's multifunctionality. "Living species provide services to each other and it is collaboration between species that provide all the services in an environment. As for forest ecosystems, for example, some tree species have a better capacity to store water or, inversely, to evacuate excess water into the soil. The choice of species when restoring a forest will therefore have an impact on its ability to survive droughts or floods. Similarly, animal species contribute to the ecosystem services of their environment. In this way, pollinating insects have a key role in the proper functioning and balance of an ecosystem.” In short, the resilience and multifunctionality of a forest directly depend on the biodiversity it supports.
A biodiversity evaluation to adapt forest restoration actions
In the 6 forests involved in the AXA Forests for Good initiative, an evaluation will be carried out in spring 2023 to take an inventory of the biodiversity in the forest plots (fauna, flora and their potential habitats) and to keep these elements in mind as part of the restoration roadmaps to be chosen. "The idea is to include biodiversity when the Consortium brainstorms in order to better promote them during restorations," asserted Nicolas Oddo. "For example, project plots show traces of natural regeneration that will need to be protected so that they can develop, be optimized and supported by forthcoming human interventions." As an expert in the study of ecosystem balance, FNE provides its recommendations to the Consortium to define sustainable forestry management for use on plots. The goals is for the forests restored today to still be in place in 30 years and to contribute to the long-term resilience of rural areas when combatting climate change and health risks.
Raise awareness and give forestry training to the public to preserve biodiversity
Because the AXA Forests for Good initiative also aims to raise awareness among different audiences about the importance of restoring multifunctional forests and to promote stakeholders’ use of forestry methods, FNE will organize workshops for school audiences and wood industry students, but also for forest managers and AXA employees to raise awareness about this forestry practice, even outside the plots to be restored as part of the initiative. A white paper will be written by FNE throughout the project and used in these awareness-raising workshops.
The AXA Forests for Good initiative illustrates AXA's desire to set an example for implementing multifunctional forest management. With the Consortium’s expertise, led by Reforest'Action, the initiative brings three key parts of forest restoration and adaptation together to combat climate change and health risks: science, supported by INRAE and AgroParisTech and focused on experimentation and research; economics, to better represent the interests of forest owners and guarantee the socio-economic services provided by forests (wood production, recreational spaces for the public, etc.); and the environment, supported by FNE, protecting forest ecosystems’ balance and biodiversity. The goal of this dialogue is to implement a project that meets the challenges that are at the heart of forests’ multifunctionality. The synergy of the Consortium's stakeholders also makes it possible to open up the program to the outside world by integrating a plethora of local players into the process via AgroParisTech's Living Lab method, and by communicating with different audiences on all the work done thanks to the FNE’s white paper. The purpose of the Forests for Good initiative? Crowdsource thoughts and strategies drawn up as part of the initiative, in order to profoundly change private forest management in France into forestry methods capable of reducing the risks and impact of climate change and natural disasters locally while increasing their resilience in the long term.