Loire - Conservation

Conservation

The Loire has been described as "constantly under threat of losing its status as the last wild river in France". The reason for this is that due to its sheer length and possibility of extensive navigation, which severely limits the scope of river conservation. The Federation, a member of the IUCN since 1970, has been very important in the campaign to save the Loire river system from development.

In 1986, the French government, the Loire-Brittany Water Agency and the EPALA settled an agreement on flood prevention and water storage programme in the basin, involving construction of four large dams, one on the Loire itself and three on the Allier and Cher. The French government proposed a construction of a dam at Serre de la Fare on the upper Loire River which would have been an environmental catastrophe, as it would have inundated some 20 km (12 mi) of pristine gorges. As a result the WWF and other NGOs established the Loire Vivante (Living Loire) network in 1988 to oppose the Serre de la Fare dam scheme and arranged an initial meeting with the French Minister of the Environment. The French government initially rejected the conservation concerns and in 1989 gave the dam projects the green light. This sparked public demonstrations by the WWF and conservation groups. In 1990, Loire Vivante met with the French Prime Minister and the government, this time successfully as the government later demanded that the EPALA embark upon major reforms in its approach to managing the river. Due to extensive lobbying, the proposal and the other dam proposals were eventually rejected in the 1990s and the Serre de la Fare area has since been protected as a ‘Natura 2000’ site under European Union environmental legislation.

The WWF were particularly important in changing the perception of the French authorities in support for dam building to environmental protection and sustainable management of its river basin. In 1992, they aided the ‘Loire Nature’ project, which received funds of some $US 9 million under the EU's ‘LIFE’ programme until 1999, embarking upon restoration to the river's ecosystems and wildlife. That year, the Upper Loire Valley Farmers Association was also established through a partnership between SOS Loire Vivante and a farmers’ union to promote sustainable rural tourism. The French government adopted the Natural Loire River Plan (Plan Loire Grandeur Nature) in January 1994, initiating the decommissioning of three dams on the river. The final dam was decommissioned by Électricité de France at a cost of 7 million francs in 1998. The basis of the decision was that the economic benefits of the dams did not outweigh their significant ecological impacts, so the intention was to restore the riverine ecosystems and replenish great Loire salmon stocks. The Loire is unique in this respect as the Atlantic Salmon can swim as far as 900 km (560 mi) up the river and spawn in the upper reaches of the Allier River. The French government undertook this major plan, chiefly because pollution and overfishing had reduced approximately 100,000 salmon migrating annually to their spawning grounds in the headwaters of the Loire and its tributaries to just 67 salmon in 1996 on the upper Allier.

The WWF, BirdLife International, and local conservation bodies have also made considerable efforts to improve the conservation of the Loire estuary and its surroundings, given that they are unique habitats for migrating birds. The estuary and its shoreline are also important for fishing, shellfish farming and tourism. The major commercial port at Nantes has caused severe damage to the ecosystem of the Loire estuary. In 2002, the WWF aided a second Loire Nature project and expanded its cope to the entire basin, addressing some 4,500 hectares (11,000 acres) of land under a budget of US$18 million, mainly funded by government and public bodies, such as the Établissement Publique Loire (EPL), a public institution which had formerly advocated large-scale dam projects on the river.

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